Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Daredevil Series: Final Thoughts

Yes, I finished it. Made it to the end, with good things to say about it, even. Here's a list of those things:

• Kingpin.

That's it. I know. I'm as shocked as you are. One blog post ago I couldn't abide him, and now here I am declaring him to be the best character on the show. Granted, the show set a low bar with its flat lead, but Vincent D'Onofrio pulled it off. I believed him as Wilson Fisk by the final episodes. He had levels, (layers if you insist) and a much more complete arc than the protagonist who went from kicking ass and taking names to kicking ass and taking names in an ugly costume. Fisk has a personality--a weird one that you kinda have to squint at and tilt your head and then just say "Screw it!", but at least it exists and the actor is trying to do something with it. I am more invested in his evolution than the hero's. Which would be fine by me if the show was called Kingpin.

There were an appreciable amount of times where the writing and execution really shined--episode 2, Karen's standoff, Claire, Leland, Madam Gao, the dragnet takedown set to the tune of Nessun Dorma, to name a few--but then it all came out as a wash by the end, because for every moment I liked, there were just as many, if not more, I did not like.

The show was not bad or very good, not intolerable or very enjoyable. It was hokey and grimdark, unconventional and safe. A paradox.

A good example of this is the flashbacks. They were all formulaic and predictable, but I also thought they were better cast, better acted, easier to follow, and just plain more entertaining. Who couldn't guess a traumatic childhood--complete with an abusive father wanting his son to man up--would be partially to blame for creating the monster that is Kingpin? Taken by itself, as a slice of a life, it was compelling enough for what it wanted to present: a boy so traumatized by violence he turns to murder to make it stop. Chilling stuff. Taken as the villain's backstory, it is uninspired. I had precisely the same reaction to Matt's flashbacks with his dad.

And let's go ahead take our protagonist, another paradox. When he's Daredevil, obscured by a mask and barely visible in all black, he is way more riveting than when he's one half of Nelson and Murdock, attorneys at law. And yet, I also think part of the reason Cox's Murdock is so flat is that half of his expression--his eyes--are obscured. Yes, the shades are iconic, but in his best scenes with Claire, or when Matt is confronted by Foggy, he's not wearing his glasses. Nor was he wearing them in their second back and forth at the gym, and both times I thought the actor was at his most evocative and empathetic. He's just not one of those actors that can show a wide range of emotions with just his voice, which is fairly inflectionless, or with the twitch of a facial muscle, though he tried a lot of jaw shifting.

I rooted for the vigilante and felt very little empathy for the guy in a suit and tie who seemed less and less invested in his day job. I got it. I really did. It's hard to punch badguys at night and punch in at work on time every day. But there was no struggle presented beyond the physical toll. There was no struggle to balance his two lives, no struggle to keep his identity secret, no struggle to reconcile his affinity for the law with his lawbreaking escapades.  The struggle is the meat, the bridge between the two personas. Yes, he sought counsel with his priest. Besides the fact that each meeting belabored the point unto spoiling the outcome, when the central conflict is whether or not to murder a man, you know the bridge is burning and the show's compass is firmly calibrated to Daredevil's way. Consequently, the endeavors of his public "friendly" persona stagnated throughout, until the very last episodes when suddenly attorneys at law meant something again.

It's a paradox. I am sympathetic to the fact that the show had to get to the point due to the nature of such a short season, but Marvel's Agent Carter also leaned towards pat storytelling and still managed to flesh out its lead. Much of what got snipped here is what makes shows like this likeable/relatable. Take Foggy, the levity of the show. Not much is required of his role and he delivers his quips and punch lines fairly well. It's clear he and Matt have a strong friendship but when it came time to show the basis for it, they crammed their history into a couple flashbacks. Here they are hitting it off as new roomies in college. Here they are at a big law firm. We don't know what happened in between those two points but apparently Matt can't take the soullessness of the firm and Foggy is happy to follow Matt out the door. It's the in between, the case after case after case of soul-crushing work, the inescapable injustice on the street and in the courtroom that gives weight to the history and evolution of these characters. These things get snipped in favor of two Russian brothers using bone-shivs to escape the gulags and pursue their American dream, or one Russian brother getting his head bashed off because he embarrassed Fisk in front of his lady. What we're left with is cliff notes and paradoxes.

My last impression isn't very different from my first. The show has all the trappings of the other comic book superhero shows, and character arcs from any other show in general, but it tries to distinguish itself in violence and villainy and loses some of its appeal in the process.

Season 2 will be a hard sell for me.