Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Daredevil: Bringing It Home

Five days ago I settled into the TV room of friends-of-the-blog Alison Walker and Kevin Eustice for a screening of the third season of Daredevil. We only got a few episodes in, since we'd all had a long week and we had a lot of gaming to rest up for in the weekend to come (Starfinder Saturdays! 5e Sundays!), but I finished it up last night and this was 13 hours of great television. So let's talk about it.

Fan Service

Let's get this out of the way first. There was so much delightful fan service in this series, and you can hate on me or call it pandering, but I will not even apologize for loving the crap out of it. We finally got "Kingpin" used on screen, and we got that character's traditional white suit. We got a fistfight with Gladiator (which was completely unexpected after the way Melvin has been used in the first two seasons), and he's wearing a recognizable homage to his classic outfit and wielding buzzsaws! And just to show that the series is not at all apologetic or shy about its fan service, Matt Murdock describes himself as a "Man without Fear" in the big final speech. I'm telling you, I was in tears.

What's the point of all this? My point is: this is a show which is not afraid to acknowledge it comes from a comic book. Do you remember Bryan Singer's first X-Men film? It is a movie which transformed how superhero movies were made, and it is filled with snarky cuts from Logan about how stupid all this comic book shit is. I realize that movie was, like, a million years ago, but just look at how far we have come. Singer's X-Men is a good movie, but it cannot hide the fact that it's a little embarrassed by its source material. That embarrassment is still around, in all kinds of superhero films and TV shows these days, but not in this third season of Daredevil. And that turned me on.


The Marvel Netflix shows have a thing they do that really pisses me off. It's the second season deconstruction. I get why they do this, but it's lazy, and it goes like this: We spent the whole first season establishing our character, getting their priorities straight, building positive relationships with secondary characters, and just generally succeeding in the face of incredible odds. So, logically, in the second season we tear down all that stuff. I mean, we put so much effort into setting them up, those relationships and those values are clearly what is at stake for the protagonist, so the temptation to ruin it is irresistible.

And so, in their second season, Luke and Clair break up. In Iron Fist's second season, not only do Danny and Colleen break up, but he gives her his super powers (we will talk about the ignominious end of Iron Fist another time). And in Daredevil's second season, well, it was not pretty. I basically shouted "Run, Matt! Get away from her!" every time Elektra was on the screen. Maybe we just have a generation of writers whose go-to move for the second part of something is Empire Strikes Back, I don't know. And I'm not saying there aren't episodes in there that are good, because there's a lot of good in those shows. But they are all kind of doing the same thing, and I'm tired of it.

It was thus to my great relief and honest surprise that Daredevil's third season is about putting all the broken shit back together. From the opening credits, my secret hope was that this series would end with Foggy and Matt practicing law together again and Matt and Karen reunited. And... oh my god... I got that. Like, I unapologetically got that. And I am so stoked.

Look, everyone who watches Daredevil knows that Foggy Nelson and Karen Page are the ingredients that make the show soar. Matt is great; please do not misunderstand. Charlie does a fantastic job with the character. The action is still incredible. He totally sells every bit of that character. But Matt is still a superhero and he is bound up in all of these superhero tropes that really restrict what the character can do. A superhero in a movie or TV show must always deny they are a hero; literally, they must say, "I'm no hero," when anyone dares to call them one. They are forced to repeat things like the training montage, the suiting-up montage, or the Hero's Choice—when the hero is forced to decide between doing something good for society or something good for himself. Matt's version of this comes when he's in Fisk's bedroom and he can either stay and take Fisk by surprise and "take my one shot" at him, or flee to the church to save Karen from Bullseye. Of course, this is actually a false Hero's Choice, as so many of them are these days, because Matt at that point in the story does not simply want to defeat Fisk, he wants to kill Fisk, and so choosing to stay and fight Fisk is not, actually, pro-social, but anti-social, and so by choosing to rescue Karen and defend the church he is actually doing both something good for him and something good for society. But I digress.

My point was that Matt's screen time is restricted by all of these invisible borders, these superhero tropes which many screenwriters seem to feel are mandatory for the genre. But Foggy and Karen are so much more free, and because they don't have to jump through those hoops and perform tropes we all recognize, they seem just so much more spontaneous and real. They're more human. And we laugh with them and love them, and holy crap Foggy is getting some action on the couch. And because the show has done such a good job at making me love these characters, I want to see them all together, even if they are under duress. Breaking up their friendship and their love is just painful and awful, and we have enough of that in the world right now. I want to see the protagonists taking comfort in each other when things go to hell, not making things worse with dysfunctional accusations. I'm not asking for everything to be sweetness and light. Conflict is necessary for a good story and victory without a cost is boring. But busting up Matt/Foggy/Karen was like taking your dog out back and shooting it. It serves no good purpose and just pisses me off.

So I'm glad the show brought the band back together.


Common Wisdom for the Marvel Netflix shows is that 13 episodes is too long, that an 8-episode season is better, that all the longer shows hit some kind of slowdown for the middle third. There is no slowdown in Daredevil. There is no mid-season slump. Partly that is because the season avoided another common plot structure in these shows, which is "introduce a secondary villain to take up the middle 4 episodes." You can see this with Nuke in Jessica Jones's first season, and you can see it with the fake-vet storyline in Punisher. (I would have much rather watched an entire show about that plot, by the way, than the torture porn which ensued once that secondary antagonist was shuffled off.) Daredevil's third season does not do this. It introduces Agent Nadeen and Bullseye slowly, warms them up, and walks them both back and forth over the line of viewer sympathy a couple of times, before finally bringing both to rousing climaxes in the last couple episodes. And it is just phenomenal television. It is so well written, people, I cannot overstate it. The first season of Daredevil ended with the most anticlimactic fight in 13 episodes; Matt was suddenly posing in his new outfit and Fisk was underwhelming and pathetic. The final confrontation of this third season puts Matt, Bullseye, Fisk, and Vanessa in a locked room with tons of interesting terrain, and then you hit the "Go!" bell and it's 15 minutes of OMG.


A final note about the Karen episode. Now, I am on record as saying that the Fisk episode from season 1, "Rabbit in a Snowstorm," is one of the best hours of television I have ever seen. So the Karen episode, in which we finally learn her story, has got some really hard competition. The show is trying to live up to that promise, both with Karen and Poindexter, and both episodes are great. But let's talk Karen again, because if there is a theme to this blog, it is that I can always talk Karen Page.

Frank Miller's Born Again reintroduced Karen Page to Matt's life, re-established her as the love of his life, and also established a sordid past for her which includes drug use and prostitution. Now, Frank Miller is kind of insane, and he glamorizes prostitution in a way that the Netflix crew were wise to stay well clear of, but moving on. The point of Karen's sordid past, from a writing and plot perspective, is that it allows her to forgive Matt for lying to her all this time because she, too, has done wrong and needs forgiveness. And when Matt forgives her and heals her, she can forgive him and heal him, because, as Vanessa puts it so sweetly, "We're all broken," and the trick is to find someone whose broken pieces complement your own broken pieces, to make one whole thing.

In the first season, Karen's past was only hinted at. And honestly, it didn't seem all that bad. We were told her brother was dead in some kind of car accident. She was clearly trying to hide it, but from here it seemed like kind of a nothingburger. It certainly didn't look anything like a former life as a junkie. And this was important to Born Again because when Karen sells Matt's secret identity, she does it for drugs. So without the drugs, it was hard to see how Karen could ever be brought to expose Matt to Fisk, which was the whole starting point for the Born Again storyline which this season of Daredevil is adapting.

But the show does everything it needs to do. Karen's youth in a dying Vermont town is as bleak and hopeless a depiction of the opioid crisis among white Americans as I have ever seen. It brilliantly brings together the facts we already knew (dead brother, car accident) with all the things we needed from the source material (drug addict),  tailored it to the Karen we have in this series (brilliant intelligence, weakness for guys who fight on her behalf, shot Wesley), and added a feminist note in the way her father simply assumes she'll deal with all the consequences of his own actions, figuring out problems and making all the decisions, in the same way her mother did before she died of cancer, her only hope a lottery ticket. I spent five years in rural America and a lot of what I saw was different, because it was the rural South instead of Vermont, but in the long trailing howl of pain, it was exactly the same.

The third season of Daredevil is about a lot of things. But make no mistake, one of those things is our political moment. The villain is a fabulously rich guy who has bought a golden hotel which he seldom leaves. He's been charged with multiple crimes but, because the federal government answers to him, is immune from prosecution. He accuses the media of spreading lies about him when, of course, every time he opens his own mouth he is lying. He quite literally beats Agent Nadeen by canceling the man's health care. When the heroes go looking for a way to put him behind bars, they go to state law enforcement and they charge him with state crimes. When they do this, their allies are always black or immigrants. Hell, look at Wilson Fisk and Donald Trump in profile, and you'd hardly be able to tell the difference except that one of them admits he has no hair and the other can't.

  • Watch Daredevil.
  • Be a voter.
  • Save America.