There is a scene at the end of the fourth episode of “Daredevil” in which Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), the kingpin of crime in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, flies into a fit of rage and slams an underling’s head in a car door 22 times. On slam number 19, audiences see the underling’s brains fall out. On the final slam, his head falls off.
And, with every slam, it’s as if the show is desperately crying out, “Please! Take! Me! Seriously!”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s third TV show and its first foray into Mature Audiences territory, “Daredevil” is the spiritual successor to so many superhero comics from the early 2000s, or at least the first half of it is. Ashamed of their trappings, their origin stories squarely in the world of colorful children’s entertainment, the “grim and gritty” comics of the millennium’s turn sought to prove that they were adult fare by resorting to graphic violence, sexual danger and angst – or, in “Daredevil’s” case, lots and lots of head trauma.
And make no mistake: the car-door bashing is only the most eye-grabbing of the head trauma on display in the Netflix-first series about blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), whose enhanced other senses allow him to fight crime (rather than his trademark red suit, Matt fights crime in a lean black outfit with a scarf tied over the top half of his face, like a pirate cosplayer whose bandanna fell too low on his head). Throats are cut, brains are blown out, and a knife is slowly jabbed into a man’s skull near his eye. One episode opens with a man beating another man to death with a bowling ball and ends with the same man killing himself by slamming his face into a sharp piece of rebar. The latter scene is meant to be deathly serious, but it comes off as comically over-the-top; why couldn’t he just walk home and slit his wrists in the tub like a normal person?
I’m not queasy about this level of violence. Shows like “The Americans,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” have regularly resorted to gruesome violence to adjudicate their various plots and themes, and they’ve done so to excellent effect. The difference is that those shows usually offer up their violence as a commentary, a critique, or an integral part of the elaborate tale they’re telling. In “Daredevil,” the blood and guts are more like set dressing, an attempt to convince the viewer that the show is more meaningful viewing than its silver screen comic book cousins.
It’s not. In addition to Murdock and his archrival Fisk, “Daredevil” also follows the exploits of Matt’s legal partner, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), as well as an independent organized crime investigation from Matt and Foggy’s secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and local reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall). Their investigation ultimately dovetails with Matt’s crimefighting crusade to take down Fisk, but never let it be said that there’s a plot so simple that “Daredevil” couldn’t screw it up.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the overcompensating broodiness of “Daredevil,” but what makes it even weirder is that the plot takes a sharp left turn in episode seven, the show’s middle and worst hour. In that episode, Matt is paid a visit by Stick (Scott Glen), a magical old blind man who trained him after his parents died. In his only episode on the show, Stick hints to supernatural occurrences down the road (a good thing for the show’s future) and behaves like an insufferable tool, kicking Daredevil’s butt and verbally abusing young Matt in flashbacks. His last scene is a cliffhanger that is never directly referenced again, but it’s as if the strange energy of his coming jerks the plot of “Daredevil” onto a different track, one that’s more – well, “fun” is a strong word for a show with a flashback of a boy beating his dad to death with a hammer, but let’s say it’s a track more suited to the big dumb show “Daredevil” is pretending not to be. At least when Matt starts fighting ninjas, magical old women and a crime lord whose endless resources basically become a superpower, the show feels closer to its comic book roots.
And ultimately, that’s what “Daredevil” is: a big dumb superhero show, like a hyper-violent version of “Agents of SHIELD.” Though it looks really nice (the long, loving shots of fistfights are a highlight) and has performances from D’Onofrio and others that sometimes elevate bad material, it is an utter mess. The dialogue is riddled with obvious exposition and the hoariest clichés, characters enter and exit scenes without logic, and the plot of Fisk’s ascendancy to the kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen is littered with loose ends and narrative non sequiturs (there’s a moment of visual storytelling in episode 12 so inept that I wondered if Netflix had skipped a scene).
Worst of all, the show pretends to be grounded in a heightened reality while never caring a whit about the reality in which it’s supposedly based. “Daredevil” likes to think that it has serious takes on journalism, on New York City, on the tyranny of the upper class, but it plays fast and loose with the details whenever it suits the plot. Its portrayal of Urich’s newspaper is laughable in both its inconsistency and its inaccuracy, and characters are frequently unable to do something until they are suddenly able to, for no reason other than narrative convenience.
For all that, “Daredevil” ends in a position that might bode well for a season two (or for the “Iron Fist” show coming next year), with plots that seem headed for a more supernatural take and Fisk in a place that seems like a good base of operations. If season one is a teenager who smokes and swears to seem more adult, perhaps the best thing season two could do is find some mood-altering materials and just relax.
Have you liked Matinee Culture on Facebook yet?