Tag Archives: Foggy Nelson

“The … Stalking Dead?” (A review of “Daredevil” S2E1)

[THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ONE SPOILER.]  So the fantastic John Bernthal is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Punisher,” debuting (however briefly) in the first episode of Netflix’ “Daredevil” Season 2.  I just know that there is a great “Walking Dead” joke hiding around here somewhere; but I can’t seem to put my finger on it …  (Something about … Blind Grimes?  Disabled Rick?  Daredevil can’t see “stuff?”  Or “thangs?”)  You people work that out for me.

Bernthal’s arrival is dream casting, every bit as perfect as bagging the inimitable Robert Downey, Jr. as the MCU’s Iron Man.  Even though the actor speaks only a single word, it’s goddam beautiful.

That’s one of the better things about Season 2’s first outing, which, for me, fell into the category of “good, but not great.”  (I’d still give it an 8 out of 10, and I feel certain the season will get better.)  What we see in S2E1 is mostly setup.  The episode clearly tried to introduce tension by grooming the Punisher as a frightening antagonist, with limited success.  Even casual Marvel fans know that Frank Castle is a good guy, and nothing close to a Big Bad.  Yes, he’s an anti-hero who fatally shoots villains, and will be a foil for Matt Murdock’s Boy Scout restraint (as he was in the comics, back in the day).

But I doubt that the Punisher can be made scary or truly tension-inducing.  (Are we afraid of Wolverine?)  We know that his shoot-em-up tactics won’t leave Daredevil dead.  (This isn’t “Game of Thrones” or TWD.)  And I’d guess that most viewers, like me, aren’t too emotionally invested in this show’s minor characters.  (The only exception would be the quite interesting and three-dimensional Karen Page, still wonderfully portrayed by Deborah Ann Woll.)  Hell, I think the show would be better if the painfully annoying Foggy Nelson were made an early casualty.  Finally, if the show stays true to the original comics, then the Punisher has that most sympathetic of “origin stories” — a murdered nuclear family.

Both the Punisher and Bernthal have such devoted fanbases that a lot of viewers will probably root for him against Matt.  (Our very own Blog Correspondent Len Ornstein, for example, was known for firmly being on “Team Shane” for TWD.)  Looking back at my fervent comic-collecting days in the 1990’s, I seem to recall the Punisher having a far bigger fan following.  He was a mercenary and Vietnam veteran who simply shot up whatever corner of the Marvel Comics universe to which his quarry had tried in vain to escape.  Fans compared him to DC Comics’ iconic cash cow, Batman.  Matt Murdock, on the other hand, had niche appeal.  He was a liberal superhero if there ever was one — a Columbia-educated defense attorney who employed nonfatal force, and who fought for the “everyday man on the street.”  He was like a grownup, thoughtful, socially conscious Spider-Man.  If ever there was a comic book hero who would join the American Civil Liberties Union, it was Daredevil.

Moving forward, I think that Netflix will need an altogether different adversary than Castle to raise the stakes emotionally, and bring suspense to its second season.  Maybe the show will accomplish that with Elektra, who we know will also appear.  (And fans of the comics know that this integral character has far greater implications for our hero.)

The new season’s inaugural episode might have been slightly better if it had been tweaked elsewhere, as well.  Much ominous language is devoted to characterizing the Punisher as a killer with military proficiency.  We kinda don’t see that.  The largest action set piece shows no precision or professionalism, just a room full of gangsters being hosed down by gunfire from an offscreen shooter.  And while the sequence itself was dramatic, it seemed like something that could have been perpetrated by a (very well armed) street gang in a drive-by shooting.

We also see some of the dialogue problems that were so evident in the first season — as superb as the screenwriters are, they don’t do casual conversation among friends very well.  There’s the same forced banter and an embarrassing lack of chemistry among the three lead protagonists, this time on display during an awkwardly staged after-work barroom pool game.  (It’s particularly puzzling because Woll and Charlie Cox are both very good actors.)  This show scripts its villains, petty crooks and adversaries with such flair — why does it seem to fail so often with friendly conversation?  And why bother with these strange attempts at Scooby-Gang camaraderie in the first place?  I think it’s a weird creative choice.  These are serious characters leading serious lives.  It seems implausible to me that they should be so frequently upbeat anyway.

Hey — if I’m nitpicking a lot here, it’s only because I love the show, and consequently hold it to a very high standard.  It really is the best superhero adaptation on television.  My review of last season was absolutely glowing, and I honestly think that Season 2 will be just as good.  If you haven’t checked out “Daredevil” yet, you ought to.

 

 

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Season 1 of Netflix’ “Daredevil” was downright superb!

Throughout the entire first season of Netflix’ “Daredevil,” the obsessive comic book nerd in me kept scanning outdoor scenes for The Avengers Tower.  I don’t think I saw it once.  But that didn’t affect my enjoyment of a serial crime thriller that was so often fantastic.

And I think that sums up the program nicely.  This is only a putative part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  References to the fantastical larger universe of Marvel’s comic book movies are perfunctory and vague.  The intergalactic invasion of the Chitauri lizard-men, engineered by the Norse God Loki, is referred to only as “the event” — even though the destruction in New York is part of this season’s plot setup.  Characters like Iron Man and Thor are referred to dryly by a secondary bad guy who doesn’t even mention their names.  And other “comic book connections” tend to be minor, obscure, and sparing for a 13-episode season.  I actually gained the suspicion here that the screenwriters for this brutal crime drama were unconsciously embarrassed that their show was part of the MCU.  Yes, I do know that Netflix will soon launch other related shows, for less iconic comic book characters such as Luke Cage and Iron Fist, and that this incarnation of Daredevil seems fated to join something called “The Defenders.”  (Ugh.)  But that thankfully hasn’t happened yet.

Even the comic book elements of the Daredevil mythos seemed to me to be underplayed here.  His unusual powers (they don’t even feel like “superpowers”) rarely take center stage.  His villains aren’t garish. He’s only nicknamed “Daredevil” via a news article in the final episode; nor does he don anything approaching his trademark costume until then.  Wilson Fisk, our Big Bad, is never once referred to by his comic book appellation, “The Kingpin.”

And you know what?  All of that works just fine.  The Hell’s Kitchen we see in “Daredevil” might seem like a universe unto itself.  But, given this show’s quality, even a diehard comic book fan like me can concede, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

It ain’t broke.  I’d rate Season 1 at a 9 out of 10.  In many ways, “Daredevil” is far superior to anything else in the MCU.  This show’s distinguishing characteristic isn’t that it’s dark.  It’s that it’s a well written, well directed, and usually quite well performed crime-thriller.

It has surprisingly three-dimensional, truly interesting characters who are rendered in depth and detail.  This includes a few bad guys, by the way, who might have a knack for winning over viewer loyalty just by being so good at being bad.  (Most people would point to Fisk, but for me, Wesley was the guy you hate to love.)  Many characters are so well written and played by their actors that they seem 100 percent “real” — particularly Ben Urich and Karen Page.  This is the single MCU property with the most compelling characterization and, yes, I am including the “Iron Man” films in this comparison.

Yes, everything you’ve heard about this being Marvels darkest onscreen outing is correct … and THEN some.  The story is not just thematically dark; the story is itself brutal.  This seems to be a corner of the MCU in which the harshest consequences result for characters at every level.  Daredevil doesn’t just “take a hit” here; he gets cut up, bloodied and scarred — so much at several points that he requires the services of a (regrettably plot convenient) off-duty emergency room nurse.

Far worse is what happens to ordinary people who are heroic themselves.  No good deed goes unpunished in this nasty niche of Marvel’s world.  Defenseless people are shown no mercy by the story’s stronger protagonists.  The murder of one beloved character is all the more chilling because we witness their fruitless attempts to defend themselves despite a complete absence of special powers or training.  It’s … actually a bit worse than what we saw in that paragon of gritty superhero films, Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy.

And the crimes and criminals themselves?  Yeesh.  An early scene in the very first episode gives us a chilling little glimpse of human trafficking, with sobbing, kidnapped women loaded into the back of a dockside shipping container.  Not long after, we witness a father being beaten in the street before his son’s eyes; the child is then snatched.  The running theme here is that ordinary human evil can be more terrifying than dimension-hopping lizard-man armies or tyrannical Norse gods.  Sure, this theme is something we’ve seen plenty of times before.  But here, it’s just done so damn WELL.

The fight choreography was frikkin’ SWEET.  It was fantastic enough to be comic book violence, but gritty and consequential enough to be real-world violence.  I kept trying to figure out where a stunt double might be filling in for Charlie Cox, who portrayed Daredevil.  I couldn’t.  He’s … not doing his own stunts, is he?

The acting was usually quite good.  Deborah Ann Woll consistently stole the show as Karen Page — the script here beautifully elevates Karen beyond her pretty pathetic comic book incarnation.  (A caveat — I was reading the “Daredevil” comics in the 1990’s, and am using those as a frame of reference here; of course they might have changed significantly since then.)  Karen often seems to emerge as much of a primary protagonist here as Daredevil himself.  She’s got far more at stake, personally, and Woll expertly gets that across to the audience.  And she’s a complex character, playing the fool for Foggy Nelson, being the the darkly driven de facto apprentice to Ben Urich, and occasionally being manipulative and ruthless in ways that our other protagonists never could.  What a great improvement on the original source material.  (Hint — comics are not a medium known for its feminist sensibilities.)  Woll, who I remember hitting it out of the park in her psychopathic role in HBO’s “True Blood” (2008) outshines every co-star.

Nearly every other cast member was perfect or near perfect.  Vondie Curtis-Hall needs special mention here for truly bringing Ben Urich to life on the big screen for the first time.  His turn as the aging, jaded newspaper reporter was flawless.  Urich, to me, will always be the greatest reporter in comics.  (F&*$ Peter Parker and those Daily Planet pretty people; Ben was the real deal.  Who cares if he was past mid-life?  He was the only character in the comic books who spoke and proceeded like a real journalist.)

There were really only a couple of forgivable weaknesses that affected my enjoyment of Season 1.

First, the narrative structure … seemed “off” somehow.  I see the basic underlying story here as ultimately being an deeply personal battle between two men: Daredevil and the Kingpin.  (This is despite the way that Karen and Ben delightfully distinguish themselves as prime movers in the plot.)  I …. never really sensed any momentum here.  For a while, Daredevil and Fisk have minimal information about each other.  We see Matt Murdoch in skirmishes with many underlings; these seem episodic and without greater consequence.  Then … Matt quite accidentally meets Fisk for the first time, when he tries to “get a sense of” his enemy by … meeting his girlfriend?  Huh?  I never really got a sense of these two primary characters moving toward each other until the last episodes.  Oh, well … the comics were kinda like that.  But I do hope that future seasons are more tightly plotted, with more consistent tension.

Second, there really seemed to be multiple problems connected with the character of Foggy Nelson.  I do think that Eldon Henson performed quite poorly in the role.  Maybe he was just miscast.  He doesn’t once come close to the performances of his co-stars.  I also think the script did absolutely nothing to make Foggy a likable character.  He’s immature, self-absorbed, and ethically rickety.  His jokes fall flat; his flat “banter” with Karen is grating (and makes her look like an idiot).  He’s … downright irritating.  Why would Matt want him as a “best friend” or business partner?  Why would anybody?

Third, I occasionally would like a more specific nod in Hell’s Kitchen to the larger Marvel universe.  Maybe a truck passes by with the Stark Industries log.  Maybe a kid passes by with a Captain America t-shirt.  Maybe a couple of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents investigate Fisk’s employees in connection with offshore partners who are alleged to have super-powered henchman.  Just something small — it wouldn’t spoil the “real” feel of our dark drama, and it would place our protagonists’ lives in a larger context.

All in all, though, “Daredevil” was surprisingly superior to what I thought it would be, even with all of its glowing press.  See it.

One final note — if you’re a fan of both superhero comics and AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” then Season 2’s casting has a wicked cool surprise, if you haven’t already heard about it.  Head on over to The Internet Movie Database to see who is playing whom.  You’ll smile.

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