Welcome to a new feature I’m going to be writing between now and August called “The Road to The Defenders.” The concept is pretty simple. Between now and August I am going to be watching the Netflix MCU shows a second (or third) time through in the build up to the monumental team up hitting Netflix on August 18th. I won’t be reviewing the shows per se, more just reflecting on the way the episodes feel with the full scope of the first two and a half years of the project now in view. In particular, I want to explore what feels different in retrospect from the first viewing. For those who haven’t watched these shows yet, I will give a SPOILER WARNING that I’ll be talking about the shows without concern for revealing anything that happens in the story lines. This week we start with Daredevil.
Episodes Watched: Daredevil Season 1, Episodes 1-4
One of the more surprising things for me was just how little Vincent D’Onfrio appears in the first parts of this season. His face isn’t on screen until the end of the third episode. People have called Luke Cage and Iron Fist a “slow burn” but Daredevil moves very slowly. The difference may be that the lack of Kingpin didn’t mean a lack of action, with some great fight scenes predating the big man. Still, it’s interesting to see how long they wait to reveal his character. Nowadays, Netflix is sort of trapped in the two villain season idea, with a major obstacle for six to seven episodes, and then another in the tail end. It seems that these shows can’t really sustain 13 episodes of one villain, even if it is one as well-loved as the Kingpin. Building him carefully as a threat so great he cannot be named is a good move, though it also requires a payoff like Wilson Fisk, instead of a lackluster entity like Diamondback.
Watching through again I find myself feeling that the violence can be a bit gratuitous. At the time it made some sense. By showing some extreme pain and misery the creators were talking to the larger Marvel audience. They were shouting, “This isn’t going to be another version of Iron Man.” Now that the Netflix corner of the universe is firmly planted as the “gritty” part of the universe, the violence isn’t as necessary as it was. Violence, sexuality, and language are elements I often feel are overdone by HBO, Netflix, and other outlets free of the FCC restrictions. Too often I think writers say, “We can do it now, so let’s do it!” without asking, “Does this move the story along in the best way?” For example, the henchman who impales his head on a fence was stomach turning but really unnecessary. He just revealed Fisk’s name and now thirty seconds later he regrets it? Would have made much more sense for him to take off in his car and as he drives starts realizing what he’s done. A gunshot through a window or driving the car off a cliff would still communicate Fisk’s status as a character of dread, without making the audience wince. That’s a matter of taste and preference, but I feel like less is sometimes more.
It is hard to underestimate how important episode two of Daredevil is to the entire Netflix venture. It is the episode that defines Daredevil and the whole idea of the shows in this format. The plot is delightfully simple and small scale. A boy has been kidnapped by some human traffickers and Murdock saves him while flashing back to his own childhood. That isn’t an Avengers, world-saving plot, but it’s a perfect Daredevil plot. The interweaving of Matt’s personal loss of his father with his drive to reunite this child and his father moves the emotions, without any explicit connection to the theme. It’s clear yet understated. The ethos of the Murdocks is thoroughly entrenched, both in its tragedy and heroism, that one could easily argue these 50 minutes are better than any origin story told in any MCU property. John Patrick Hayden may be the least appreciated actor in the MCU and Jack Murdock may be its greatest non-super powered hero. And just when all of those elements click into perfect place, the hallway fight scene happens. There is a reason that the other shows have mimicked and honored that scene. It defines Marvel Netflix. This is the corner of the universe where fights hurt and exhaust. This is the corner of the universe that is about humans doing the right thing, not gods saving the cosmos. The aesthetic of the universe is grounded in those few minutes. And when it’s all done the script immediately reconnects it with the humanity of Murdock as he takes off the mask, lest the boy feel fear when meeting him. The whole episode truly is spectacular.
As far as characters go, I find Foggy so lovable and enjoyable. His side plot comforting Karen Page is another stand-out part of episode two. The subtle love triangle between the three employees of Nelson & Murdock is one of my favorite on a TV show. They don’t ever make it a melodrama. It’s obvious that Foggy has a crush on her, that she finds him adorable but not a romantic partner, and that Matt will ultimately be the one to win out. Foggy handles that well because his loyalty to Matt is so strong. Their later fall out on the show is where Foggy becomes insufferable for me.
The development of the Russians is another interesting wrinkle to these early episodes. While a show like Luke Cage does develop a grander mob scene, only this first season truly fleshes out minor crime lords as characters in their own right. This first season is so aware that it is building a world, not just telling a story. Later installments tend to inhabit that world and suffer from less grand asperations. Building a web of connections and relationships and characters is part of what makes the early Daredevil episodes so fine, despite the slowly moving plot.
One more thought on pacing. Iron Fist got slammed for moving slowly and including corporate intrigue in lieu of action. I think people forget Daredevil season one, because I know I did. At one point in episode three the following scenes happen back to back to back: a long legal jargon-heavy conversation in the police station, followed by Karen spending five minutes going over a non-disclosure agreement, followed by a scene where Matt and Foggy wait for legal statutes to load over slow wifi. That’s not a joke. On this viewing, it all felt a bit tedious. It is easy to forget that the serialized storytelling that picks up later in this season and the next is less prevalent earlier. Instead, a CSI: MCU case of the week feel slows the show down.
Looking back, these episodes really hold up like many classic properties. Have you ever gone back and watched a movie you loved decades ago? Often you notice that the things that seemed charming now seem a little off. You see things you never remembered being there. But in the end, the emotional high points set off the nostalgia in you in such a powerful way you don’t really care. That’s what watching these episodes is like. It doesn’t thrill like it did the first time through, but I still walked away happy.