Monday, April 20, 2015

Rise Of The Kingpin, Rise Of The Vigilante: Daredevil Season 1!

The Good: Strong season-long arc, Interesting characters, Some decent surprises for fans of the books, Moments of performance
The Bad: Some weaker episodes, Some troubling loose ends/thematic issues
The Basics: A generally strong season-long arc establishes Daredevil as an engaging tangent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Wilson Fisk uses corrupt measures to rebuild Hell's Kitchen following the Chitauri invasion.

It is hard to believe how long it has been since there was a real addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the eve of the release of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the burden of keeping enthusiasm up for the Marvel Cinematic Universe was taken off Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as Netflix released the thirteen episode first season of Daredevil. Daredevil is an intriguing tangent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has become a sprawling, fantastic place filled with billionaires, super soldiers, Norse gods, and overpowered victims of scientific experiments. Taking an entirely different tact than even the placeholding spy show, Daredevil is insular and focuses on a single borough of New York City: Hell's Kitchen.

In its first season, Daredevil is a crime drama even more than a vigilante crime fighting story. Daredevil Season One is a gestational story and it follows the rise of the two essential characters from the comic book Daredevil: Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. Divorced entirely from the 2003 film Daredevil (reviewed here!), Daredevil is a seasonlong origin story that slowly transforms Matt Murdock from a simple, Masked Man vigilante randomly fighting street crime at night to Daredevil, the Man Without Fear and Guardian of Hell's Kitchen! At the same time, the corrupt elements of the business underworld in Hell's Kitchen consolidate their power over the borough.

Linked to the Marvel Cinematic Universe primarily by allusions to the destruction wrought throughout New York City at the climax of The Avengers (reviewed here!) and easter eggs reminding viewers that The Incredible Hulk (reviewed here!) existed, Daredevil is much more a gangland crime drama than a legal thriller, superhero story or crime fighting saga. This is a Marvel Cinematic Universe show without cameos or Stan Lee sightings.

Twenty years after he was blinded by an accident that was the result of saving a stranger from getting hit by a truck carrying hazardous waste, Matt Murdock opens a law firm with his best friend in Hell's Kitchen (New York City). At night, Murdock puts on a simple black outfit and a mask and beats up local criminals, like those who are kidnapping women and selling them into sexual servitude. Murdock's blossoming law practice gets a lead when a desk sergeant Foggy Nelson bribed clues Nelson & Murdock into their first case; a woman who woke up next to the dead body of one of her coworkers.

The woman is Karen Page and she works for Union Allied, a business that has won a number of contracts to rebuild New York City following the Chitauri invasion. Recognizing that Page is telling the truth, Murdock insists on taking the case. What follows is a sequence of events that results from one thread of the tapestry being pulled; Page accidentally found herself in possession of records of monetary fraud from Union Allied and the attempts on her life end only when the Masked vigilante makes those records public. Cleaning up that mess forces the architects of the embezzlement and fraud to adapt and they begin to consolidate their power.

Behind the scenes, businessman and Hell's Kitchen native Wilson Fisk is using the Russian mob, Yakuza, a Chinese heroin smuggler, and a corrupt accountant to manipulate Hell's Kitchen's residents and politicians so they might work together to tear down the old and rebuild the borough in their image and by their designs. To that end, Fisk uses a network of corrupt cops, assassins, and an especially loyal right-hand man to consolidate his control and eliminate his business partners. Chasing the Union Allied clue, Matt Murdock soon learns of the existence of Wilson Fisk and becomes determined to expose his corruption. While he works the streets as the masked vigilante, Page approaches a tenacious reporter from the New York Bulletin, Ben Urich and sets him on the same story. As the small law firm and the reporter get closer to exposing the machinations of Wilson Fisk, Fisk redirects his attention to destroying them!

In its first season, Daredevil works to introduce the essential, core characters familiar to those who read the comic book. Perhaps what is so impressive about Daredevil Season 1 is how the characters are not clung to to maintain fidelity to the source material, so the show has some surprising moments to it that are bound to shock the die-hard Daredevil fans. In the first season of Daredevil, the primary characters are:

Matt Murdock - A blind lawyer who graduated summa cum laude from Columbia, he has developed his skills to essentially "see" the world around him. Uninhibited by fear, he prowls the night at night whenever he hears injustice going on. He rescues women, children, and is able to tell when people he is interrogating by listening to their heartbeats. When Nelson and Murdock takes a pretty clear murder case, he starts to learn about how the reconstruction of Hell's Kitchen is actually being done. He feels protective of both Page and Hell's Kitchen and begins to relentlessly pursue Wilson Fisk in order to stop him from restructuring or redesigning Hell's Kitchen for himself,

Foggy Nelson - Matt Murdock's best friend and law partner. He abandoned the Manhattan law firm Landman & Zack with Murdock, leaving behind his soulless ex-girlfriend. He deplores the way Murdock is willing to take cases that make the pair money (as opposed to "fighting the good fight") and the methods used by the masked vigilante. He is obviously infatuated with Karen,

Karen Page - Shocked when she wakes up next to a coworker who is dead, with blood on her hands, and barely surviving an attempt on her life while in police custody, she reluctantly allows Nelson & Murdock to help her. When the lawyers protect her and expose the secret she was menaced for, she takes a job as the paralegal secretary at Nelson & Murdock. Fearful of living in Hell's Kitchen following the attacks on her, she turns to reporter Ben Urich to try to expose those responsible and pulling the strings behind the scenes,

Ben Urich - A New York Bulletin reporter, who is trying to remain relevant in a world where print media no longer dominates, his wife is gravely ill and he is trying to balance working and getting her the best care possible. He is chasing a mob story - the ceding of local Italian mobs to the Russians - when Karen Page seeks him out and tells him her story. He begins putting together the story of the various mob interests and is soon the target of Fisk's assassins,

Claire Temple - A nurse who finds the masked vigilante in a dumpster and is drawn into his world. For a brief time, she acts as a moral compass to Matt Murdock and patches him up so he can fight another day. She is captured by the Russians and tortured in their attempt to find Matt,

Leland Owlsley - Fisk's accountant, he is constantly moving around the mob's money in order to hide Fisk's assets, worth and even his name. He is being extorted by Fisk and is much more cautious than the mobsters whose money he moves. He becomes very wary when Fisk starts seeing Vanessa and he believes Fisk's focus in compromised,

Wesley - Working for Fisk, he represents Confederated Global when bringing Healy to Nelson & Murdock for representation. He acts as the middleman between Fisk and all but the highest members of Fisk's budding syndicate. He is beyond loyal and is the only real friend Fisk has in the world. He manages Fisk's day to day operations,

and Wilson Fisk - A native of Hell's Kitchen, whose father was an abusive drunk who once ran for City Council, he is surprisingly vulnerable with Vanessa, an art dealer who sells him a painting that speaks to him (and his dark childhood). He has the goal of rebuilding Hell's Kitchen through any means necessary and ruthlessly pursues his goals. When the Masked Vigilante begins to put pressure on his operation, he lashes out and also exposes himself to the public in a way he never anticipated, becoming the public savior of Hell's Kitchen. Usually withdrawn and buffered thanks to Wesley, when confronted, he has explosive rage issues.

Daredevil succeeds, as much as it does, in its first season because of the dark reality it portrays. Wilson Fisk seems like a real guy with understandable motives and an uncommonly long reach. But he is hardly monolithic. Played by Vincent D'Onofrio, Wilson Fisk is complicated and presented with nervous ticks, a powerful physical presence and moments where D'Onofrio softens all of his face muscles to appear entirely childish, exposed and vulnerable. He is not the only complicated character in the cast.

Charlie Cox does fine as Matt Murdock and Deborah Ann Woll is allowed to present an incredible range as Karen Page. The real surprise of the cast is Elden Henson. Henson plays Foggy Nelson and he manages to make the sidekick character anything but a goofy sidekick. Henson has funny lines from the outset, but Nelson has one of the few legitimate character (not plot-based) arcs of the season and in "Nelson V. Murdock," Henson truly comes into his own and makes Nelson into a vital, realistic character with depth.

Also incredible is Toby Leonard Moore. Moore plays Wesley and he steals almost every scene he is in, which is pretty impressive for an understated character who is given no backstory. Wesley could be a generic, pointless buffer character, but Moore makes him seem vital, important and brings him presence for every one of his scenes.

Ultimately, Daredevil Season One is a long origin story and it works to create a very different part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is it a viable franchise of its own? It seems so, but the first season of Daredevil all but demands a completely different direction for its subsequent seasons. It appears Marvel bet big on the first season and while it pays off for the most part, it is a tough act to follow!

For more information on this season, check out the reviews of each episode in it at:
"Into The Ring"
"Cut Man"
"Rabbit In A Snow Storm"
"In The Blood"
"World On Fire"
"Shadows In The Glass"
"Speak Of The Devil"
"Nelson V. Murdock"
"The Path Of The Righteous"
"The Ones We Leave Behind"

For other works from the 2014 – 2015 television season, please check out my reviews of:
The Newsroom - Season 3
House Of Cards - Season 2
Doctor Who - Season 8
True Blood - Season 7
”Now Is Not The End” - Agent Carter
”Melinda” - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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