Daredevil is the best part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
by Lena Potts
During the big release weekend for Age of Ultron I read a brilliant review in Salon Magazine, which described superhero movies as having reached a “decadent plateau”, wherein the films contribute very little to cinema or culture, but maintain their own momentum and are wholly fun. The author, Andrew O’ Hehir, explains that
…for most people there isn’t that much to talk about, after you’ve seen “Age of Ultron,” except how cool it was and which jokes maybe fell a little flat and whether giving Renner’s character all that oxygen felt more like a dutiful setup for the next chapter than anything else. The text of the film, if you’ll forgive the phrase — its story and its themes and its succession of scenes — is deliberately unsurprising and largely irrelevant. We’re a long way from the kind of Zeitgeist-engorged Hollywood spectacle that appears to distill or refract a larger cultural moment, the way that Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” or Sam Raimi’s post-9/11 “Spider-Man” or Christopher Nolan’s first and second “Dark Knight” films did.
In summary, the films have become largely useless. While I’ve enjoyed nearly all of them (other than Iron Man 2, which is just bad), I find all but the first Iron Man to be pretty irrelevant and forgettable. The Avengers is just an hour of aliens whose origins I can’t remember attacking New York on the orders of Loki, who I’m pretty sure was just pissy.
Daredevil, though, is great. Calling it “gritty” sounds unimaginative, but it is markedly darker than the other Marvel entries. Additionally, it benefits from its distance from Thor and other magical Marvel properties, and can instead exist wholly in our world, with our rules. More than any super-installment since perhaps The Dark Knight Rises, you can believe in these characters and their choices. And, despite not passing the Bechdel Test (the lady characters are so intensely and secretly separate from one another), the show is impressively progressive in its handling of race, gender, and personhood.
From the beginning of the series you’re sure, because you understand how titles work, that Matt Murdock, aka the Daredevil, is the protagonist. Yet, until the end of the season, you’re still not sure why. Matt’s motivations are something vague about “saving the city”, which are the same as the major antagonist, Wilson Fisk. With both men fighting for the same thing, it comes down to their means, and tbh, neither is great. Matt is wildly hypocritical- he professes “Justice is Blind” all day long, but uses his secret super senses to kick ass all night, taking justice into his own hands. He decides he’s above killing, because that’s apparently the way of evil, but lies to everyone all the time about his night time people-punching sprees.
Fisk, super-name “Kingpin”, is the known villain, but isn’t seen to do anything horrible for quite some time. He’s running drugs and other criminal enterprises throughout Hell’s Kitchen, ostensibly worthy of a bad-guy title, but does it to “make a better city”. Since he never outlines how he plans to get from heroin and smuggling children to his better tomorrow, it’d be easy to write him off as either 1) full of it, or 2) following some sort of AI, world takeover, save-humanity-by-purging-it logic. But instead, he comes off as incredibly sincere. I’m not sure how, but I think he really wants to create his better city, and who knows, he seems like a smart guy, maybe he’s got a plan. And so, until he does some clear-cut, obviously bad stuff later on in the season, the entire battle for the fate of Hell’s Kitchen is being fought by two grey characters, both of whom are highly skilled, extremely intelligent, of tragic pasts, and deeply motivated toward a possibly similar goal.
The supporting characters, too, are complex and believable. While Foggy is great, there really isn’t much to be said about him. He’s both loyal and shallow, brave and weak. But, at the end of the day, he still feels like a really good sidekick for Matt. Ben Urich is a wise and just Black man trope in the best possible way, and is there mostly to build more of the ethos around the other characters. Karen Page, Claire Temple, Vanessa Marianna, and Madame Gao, on the other hand, are ladies who 1) aren’t just foils or love interests for the men, 2) advance the plot, and 3) do awesome shit.
Karen is sort of an idiot for about 80% of the show. She’s an idealist for sure, and doesn’t follow common sense or reality very well. I worried, when the show began, that she’d just be someone for Matt to keep saving until he inexplicably fell in love with her. She has her moments of brilliance, however, and man are they strong. LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD. Early in the season, when Fisk’s people come to murder the crap out of her, she turns what could have been her victimization into motivation- she’s out to avenge her friend and take down the town villains. She’s easily one of the most driven characters on the show, even if it frequently conflicts with any form of pragmatism. And, when she’s faced with a crisis, like, ya know, being kidnapped, she HANDLES it in a way that we rarely see any characters, nonetheless female characters manage to.
Claire and Vanessa, serving as love interests and bad bitches for the main protagonist and antagonist, respectively, manage to be so much more. Claire is perhaps the least developed, but in Rosario Dawson’s hands, you get what you need. She’s unwilling to let Matt make excuses for his behavior, and has spent all of her episodes simultaneously helping him, calling him out, and making you wonder how Rosario Dawson has stayed so hot. Vanessa, meanwhile, seems like someone whose mother, shortly before dying in an unfair way, gave her a pep talk about how women hold the true power in the world, and how men can be quickly bent to their will with some good lipstick and confidence. Her entire existence feels like a power play (even if you know from canon that it isn’t), and there is no one on the show more calmly powerful.
And finally, we have Madame Gao, who leads us into a discussion of both gender and race. Madame Gao is, on some level, a straight-up stereotype of wise, old Chinese matriarch whose core values are respect and honor. She’s even pretty funny; given a lighter tone, you’d think she could be replaced by the grandma from Mulan, or any other old Chinese woman you’ve seen in a mainstream American film. But the amazing thing about Madame Gao is that you could not replace her with anyone, because she is absolutely singular. She is ruthless, honest, calm, focused, and running her game. From the beginning, her unwillingness to speak English was a brilliant marker of her persona, because you knew she could, but she just didn’t need to. The people could bend to her will, because she was the real boss in the situation, no matter what everyone wanted to let Fisk think. Her product, her way.
This careful avoidance of stereotypes is also evident with Nobu, one of the Yakuza enforcers for Fisk’s large-scale heroin operation. I didn’t think of Nobu as a ninja at any point. To me, he was a crooked Japanese businessman with really cool hair and confusing goals throughout most of the series. AGAIN WITH THE LIGHT SPOILERS. When Nobu shows up in episode nine, however, in a really cool red ninja outfit, and is later referred to as a ninja by Foggy, I realized how clever the show had been. They had a Japanese, fighting villain with known connections to mythical martial arts-related drama, and yet Nobu was still seen principally as a businessman. This tone is set from the beginning, as the crime organization’s older white accountant is swiftly corrected for assuming that Gao and Nobu spoke the same language. The show doesn’t seem to be including characters to fulfill some sort of diversity quota, either, and instead treats the diversity of its characters as natural and necessary to the plot and setting. There are Black cops, and Chinese heroin smugglers, and old Guatemalan ladies being forced out of their apartments, and a couple of White lawyers at the center of it all because of course there are, this is America.
I previously mentioned Nobu’s ninja skills, because really, fighting is key to the success of the show. The action and fighting sequences are superb, and the fight choreographer and stunt men deserve serious kudos here. Pay special attention to the long take hallway fight scene at the end of episode two, as it’s exemplary of what makes the show’s action so special- Matt is tired, because he’s just a dude, and fighting is hard, even if you have weird sense powers and have been training for a secret war for two decades. Not just that wonderful scene, but the entire show is shot beautifully and skillfully, and the directors, cinematographers, and editors have managed to avoid making scenes of exciting heightened senses cheesy- instead they’re breathtaking and tense.
Like anything, this isn’t a perfect show- I have my gripes. Fisk doesn’t bring all of the foreboding power you want, and his backstory is more compelling than his present. Vincent D’Onofrio (the actor playing Wilson Fisk) has aged into looking just like an anthropomorphized moon. Additionally, I’m pretty consistently annoyed that they keep acting like Hell’s Kitchen is its own city and not just a neighborhood in Manhattan. Every fifth sentence in the show contains one of the phrase “save this city” or “a better city”, but no one ever says New York- just Hell’s Kitchen. The City of Hell’s Kitchen, which exists and has an infrastructure apparently very separate from that of NYC, for story reasons. The structure of the crime organizations could be illuminated; it would go a long way toward understanding people’s motivations and making the villain take-downs really rewarding. And man, the final costume’s mask could have been way cooler.
But still, I watched it all, captivated. Almost all of this discussion has taken place without mention of the actual Daredevil, Matt Murdock, and that’s because he honestly isn’t one of the more impressive or interesting parts of the show. Charlie Cox does a great job with the character, and I anticipate we’ll get a lot clearer picture of what Matt hopes to do as the Daredevil next season (the first is a lot of origin). He’s pretty hot though, so there’s that.
So yes, this is the best entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, partially because it’s just great TV, on par with what we’ve come to expect from Netflix and the Golden Age, and partially just because it is, more than anything else Marvel is doing, contributing something to film and television, to culture. It feels like going back to the first Iron Man film, when you saw something and felt sincere excitement in talking about how awesome it was, because it was new and bold, rather than the sort of tempered, ephemeral pleasure you get from each new big-budget destruction of a major city. Because wow, how many cities are we going to rebuild?
Note: before someone freaks out and tells me that Daredevil is a television show and therefore not a part of the MCU- it is. The MCU centers around the films but includes television series, tie-in comics, and short films. Cool it.