This was a big week for television enthusiasts. Last Sunday saw the return of Mad Men, Monday brought us the finale of Better Call Saul and tonight sees the premiere of season five of Game of Thrones. Sandwiched between those blockbuster, monster shows, Netflix also released the first fruits of their partnership with Marvel Entertainment; Daredevil. By making all thirteen episodes public in the same week as the Better Call Saul finale, Netflix has managed a smooth transition from one popular show to another, keeping its subscribers hooked for another few weeks. Or at least a couple of days.
The story of Marvel’s Daredevil, in case you’ve blocked the Ben Affleck adaptation from memory, focuses on Matt Murdoch, a small time lawyer operating out of Hell’s Kitchen who was blinded by radioactive materials as a child. Borrowing from the popular myth, instead of blinding the kid, the loss of his sight elevates his other senses to the point where he can hear a person’s heartbeat just by standing nearby. His enhanced balance also allows him to execute martial arts techniques flawlessly. Murdoch, following the death of his boxer dad who refused to throw a fight, uses these newly developed abilities to fight crime and clean up Hell’s Kitchen.
So, Daredevil plays into a lot of the superhero tropes that we’re all familiar with by now; powers caused by exposure to an outside source, dead parent. But the Netflix series is very aware of that. While the show opens with a scene depicting Murdoch as a child having his sight destroyed, when we catch up to Charlie Cox as the adult superhero, he’s already fighting criminals and stopping human trafficking deals. It’s clear he has only just started but this isn’t his first outing in the costume. Which is nice. By now, viewers are getting bored with origin stories. It’s in the best interest of superhero media to show the origin in as succinct and concise as fashion as possible, which Daredevil does.
Later episodes do develop Murdoch’s relationship with his father but in some senses this show was made for fans of the character. It doesn’t dwell much on the origin and comic book readers will recognise some of Daredevil most anti-heroic actions from Frank Miller’s run. But then it baffles me why Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin is treated as a secret for three episodes. Fans of the comics, especially those reading post-Miller, will recognise Kingpin as Daredevil’s biggest and most notorious foe. And Marvel already announced that he would be in the show. Therefore the only reason to hide his face is to make Vincent D’Onofrio’s appearance a surprise. But it’s just not. We’ve already seen D’Onofrio bald as Private Leonard Lawrence in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. And Wilson Fisk just looks like Gomer Pyle stole a few too many donuts.
Along with the lack of focus on audience, there is also a lack of focus on character. While the show is predominantly about Matt Murdoch and his adventures as Daredevil, he also has to share screen time with Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Debrorah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Fisk’s romantic storyline with Ayelet Zurer as Vanessa Marianna. It’s good to develop supporting characters, and I actually like Foggy because he manages to be Murdoch’s partner without playing a wholly comic relief role, but at 50+ minutes, the episodes could benefit from being trimmed back slightly.
It’s not that I want the characters to be two dimensional or every scene to include Charlie Cox. However, I am sitting down to watch a show titled Daredevil so I do expect the character to be at the centre of the show. Instead I’m watching Fisk court his future wife. Yes it gives him a human side so that he’s not just evil for the sake of evil but it still detracts from the main character. Daredevil suffers from this in the same way that Fox’s Gotham devotes a lot of screen time to The Penguin and Fish Mooney as well as Jim Gordon. Gotham at least has the advantage of being about an entire city rather than just one man, but the problem is the same. I don’t want to see what the bad guys are doing. I want to see the good guy figure it out.
Daredevil also suffers from a second structural issue but it’s one that seems to plague other Netflix original programming too. Daredevil, like House of Cards, and other shows that have all of their episodes released at once, episodes tend to lack a hook to entice the viewer to watch the next one. It doesn’t seem like a big deal if the viewer doesn’t watch another episode right away when all of the episodes will be available for months. But they’re looking at it wrong. Not watching the next episodes reflects a lack of interest. I can tell you now, if HBO released all of Game of Thrones at once tonight, I’d have the entire season watched by sunrise.
With Daredevil, I’m just not that eager and I don’t feel that the show is demanding to be watched in the same way other shows do. Even if the episode itself isn’t exciting a hook can still entice the viewer. Person of Interest does it all the time. A particular case might be dull but often the episode will end with a revelation or twist that will make me desperate to tune in next week. On demand shows are relegating this device, treating it as a remnant of weekly televised shows but its not. It’s a tool to draw the viewer into the next episode. Remember, there’s only a few seconds between episodes. The hook only has to stall them for that long and then the next episode can do the rest.
Most of the problems are structural. The acting is good, with Charlie Cox as the clear standout, and the choreography is great. It’s a joy to see a fight scene where the camera doesn’t move with every punch. I can actually see what’s happening. I like the neo-noir theme too; it fits the moral quandaries of the character. I’m hoping that the problems are due to producers or writers, as the series is created by Drew Goddard, the man who will direct the next solo Spider-Man. Otherwise I’m expecting good fight scenes but I’m a little worried that Aunt May might end up with as much screen time as our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.