Friday, April 10, 2015

A Strong Start When Daredevil Comes "Into The Ring!"

The Good: Decent direction, Good characters, Wonderful wisecracks, Good acting
The Bad: Minutia, Missed cameo opportunity
The Basics: "Into The Ring" opens Daredevil Season 1 with introducing the essential characters in Matt Murdock's world and setting up the dichotomy between do-good lawyer Matt Murdock and greedy businessman Wilson Fisk.

A few years ago, I had a Daredevil Year, where I made a point of reading all the Daredevil books I could find. I admit to being one of the few people who openly enjoyed the cinematic rendition of Daredevil (reviewed here!) when it was released more than a decade ago. So, with the production of Daredevil for Netflix with the intent that it would be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I was psyched. After all, it has been a while since the last Phase 2 movie and Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. holding down the fort has been problematic in a number of ways.

The first episode of Daredevil is "Into The Ring" and the irony of it is that as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. moves more and more into the fantastical (the current story arc involves the rise of the Inhumans as characters who are trained to, essentially, use mutant powers), Daredevil takes a much more real-world approach. Daredevil is, as Netflix promised in its promotional materials, a police procedural drama and a law thriller as opposed to a classic superhero story. For those unfamiliar with it, Daredevil is the Marvel Universe's character who is most analogous to Batman; they are both crime fighters who work to bring justice to the streets of their cities. "Into The Ring" is an origin story that hits the ground running.

Opening with Jack Murdock advancing upon an accident where he discovers his son, Matt, laying on the street, at the site of an accident. Matt is blinded in the accident by toxic waste. Years later, Matt Murdock sits in a confessional, talking to the priest about his father. Matt asks for forgiveness for what he plans to do next. That night, costumed with a simple black outfit, Matt manages to stop a sex trafficking ring that has captured three women.

The next morning, Foggy Nelson wakes Murdock up so they can look at office space in Hell's Kitchen. After opting to rent the property, the pair gets a call from a desk sergeant that Foggy bribed with their first potential case. The police have arrested Karen Page for the muder of Danny Fisher, a man she had one drink with and woke up with him bloody in her apartment. Though she cannot pay, Matt knows she is innocent because he can hear her heartbeat. After Page is attacked in her cell by a guard who is being extorted, Murdock and Nelson manage to get Page released. Interrogating Page again, they discover she was a secretary for Union Allied - the company who is rebuilding New York City after The Incident. Page accidentally opened the wrong file at Union Allied and that made her a target by the big business that is part of the local crime ring. Matt takes Karen Page home to his apartment to protect her, where he interrogates Karen Page and realizes she is lying about why she was kept alive by her employer.

"Into The Ring" very cleverly works to start Daredevil as a fairly independent work within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Incident is a clever allusion to The Avengers (reviewed here!) and the attack on New York City in that. The oblique reference to the destruction in New York City two years prior clearly ties Daredevil to that universe without making it feel mired in the whole mythology of it. Those waiting for Samuel L. Jackson to pop up and offer Matt Murdock a chance to join the Avengers Initiative at the end of "Into The Ring" will be sorely disappointed. And, smartly, for a series working to establish itself, such a tie-in to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe would not at all fit within this more tightly-focused story.

One of the smart elements to "Into The Ring" is how the episode teases the villain long before he is ever heard. Wesley, the intermediary for the Kingpin, is seen several times before Wilson Fisk is introduced. This makes a great deal of sense as Wesley is used as a buffer between Fisk and the overt criminals in Hell's Kitchen. This is characterization in abstention and it makes for a compelling tease of things to come. Wilson Fisk is careful, well-insulated and powerful enough that Wesley acting in his name is enough to keep the various crime families in check.

As for the protagonist, Matt Murdock is presented without belaboring his super powers. Murdock has the clear ability to move about without his sight, but in "Into The Ring," Daredevil's "radar sense" is not visually rendered the way it was in the film Daredevil. Even Daredevil's iconic outfit sits out the series premiere. Daredevil is a man clad in black, eyes covered, fighting with some pretty kick-ass martial arts and streetfighting moves.

What director Phil Abraham does well is seed the explanations for Murdock's radar sense. Abraham focuses on the surroundings in the key fight scenes, implying strongly how Murdock is using sound to envision his surroundings. As well, Abraham uses sound editing to very clearly illustrate how Matt Murdock can tell when Karen Page is telling him the truth and when she is lying. It's an interesting "show not tell" that is presented in "Into The Ring" and it is refreshing for viewers to be treated like they have some intelligence and savvy.

The characters in "Into The Ring" are instantly likable and engaging. Drew Goddard packed "Into The Ring" with banter at the top of the episode to make it accessible to new viewers. The tone shifts as the episode goes on, though the interplay between Murdock and Foggy Nelson is fun to watch.

Actor Charlie Cox delivers a solid performance as Matt Murdock and Deborah Ann Woll is good at playing Karen Page as shocked and uncertain. The real winners in "Into The Ring" are Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson and Toby Leonard Moore as Wesley. Henson is articulate and funny in "Into The Ring." Henson characterizes Nelson as smart and pragmatic in the pilot episode, while still having a wit to him that is enjoyable to watch. Henson nails the balance. At the other end of the spectrum is Moore. Moore is saddled with the monolithic role of Wesley and he presents Fisk's lackey with a sense of strength and resolve that comes entirely from his performance. The lines Toby Leonard Moore is given are unextraordinary; but Moore is magnetic on screen and he has a presence that is enough to make one believe he would be the essential asset to the Kingpin that he is.

It's a rare thing for me to see a pilot episode that does so much so well. There are only minutia that stand out as remotely problematic (a beat missed here, etc.). When the only negative thing I found myself saying during the episode came in the teaser - "They should have used Stan Lee as the guy Matt rescued!" - it makes for a pretty wonderful opener.

A stronger-than-most pilot episode, "Into The Ring" sets the players and tone for Daredevil in a way that makes it seem like more than just another superhero show or procedural thriller. And, there is enough seeded in the episode's final minutes to make one want to return to it for the next episode.

For other episodes of super-hero television that made their debut this season, be sure to check out my reviews of:
"Shadows" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"City Of Heroes" - The Flash
"Now Is Not The End" - Agent Carter

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Daredevil - The Complete First Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the debut season of the Man Without Fear here!


For other television episode and movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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