Every Generation Gets the 'Daredevil' It Deserves

Marvel's Daredevil is a reminder that our pop culture, even that which is rooted in the pulp tradition, can be vivid, vital, and powerful.

Marvel's Daredevil

Director: Steven S. DeKnight
Cast: Charlie Cox, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rosario Dawson, Vondie Curtis-Hall
Network: Netflix
Air Date: 2015-04-10

Maybe violence does solve everything.

In Marvel’s Daredevil, released last Friday on Netflix (in an entire season's form to encourage binge-viewing), there is a Fellini-esque, operatic excess not only to the story itself, but to the actual filmmaking. In “Daredevil,” the 13th episode and season finale, the “Nessun Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”) from Puccini’s Turandot provides an emotional context to a cinematic montage that can only be compared, and compared favorably, with the ending of the original Godfather. There’s scope and ambition in scenes that comprise the FBI rolling up the Kingpin’s network, right from street-level arrests of dealer/operators like Turk Barrett to the takedown of the Man Himself, Wilson Fisk, in his penthouse apartment.

Even the “Nessun Dorma” is coordinated perfectly to pick up on where the themes of Daredevil overlap with Turandot. Showrunner Steven S. DeKnight, who also writes and directs the season finale, is that good.

The montage opens with a pack of five comedically burly FBI agents launch themselves in a slo-mo pursuit of Rob Morgan’s flawless portrayal of street thug Turk Barrett. The montage begins with a scene that crackles with the ideals of European cinema, infused with the principles of filmmaking that come Neorealism directors like Roberto Rossellini (think of Open City, Europe ‘51, and Germany Year Zero) and Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine, and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), DeKnight lines up the “Nessun Dorma’s” themes perfectly. While Calaf sings that none shall sleep, DeKnight uses the Barrett character and the comedically burly FBI men to pick up on the “no rest for the wicked”: them.

When Calaf chides Turandot to “watch the stars that tremble… with hope,” we see the improbable rise of Desk Sergeant Mahoney as he oversees the arrest of Detective Hoffman. When we know we’ve won and the “Nessun Dorma” rises, when Calaf sings his heart out defying the night to vanish and the stars to fade and knows in his heart that at the dawn he will win, then we see the takedown of the corrupt lawyer and the corrupt Senator. Those stalwart FBI agents, the two in front, open the door the double doors and then burst into the world and into the clutches of a waiting ravenous press. The Senator can’t bear his shame, but still refuses to look down because of his public image consultancy’s conditioning.

Those images are True Cinema, easily the equal of Italian cinema in the ‘50s, the French New Wave cinema in the ‘60s, or the diligent and beautiful artisanal filmmaking of Francis Ford Coppola in the ‘70s on the original Godfather and its sequel a handful of years after. What a poignant, haunting counterpoint to the Marvel Cineverse we’ve seen thus far.

There was a particular moment all the way back in the original Iron Man (2008). It's one of a kind that hadn't been seen before in superhero cinema, despite there by that point having been franchises for the X-Men, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk (OK, just the one Hulk movie, but it was Ang Lee, hot off highbrow-lowbrow hit that was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Daredevil (let’s include Elektra), and, believe it or not, Ghost Rider (OK, kinda, but we did have to wait until 2011 for the sequel).

This moment in the original Iron Man of 2008 can be found in all those scenes in Tony Stark's basement-garage. He is building the Mark II armor, but not in Steve Jobs/Howard Roark kind of way; he instead builds the Mark II by tinkering at an idea that’s too good to let go of. It’s the frailty of his needing Pepper, played by a glammed-up-to-the-nines Gwyneth Paltrow, who we from the ‘90s never imagined looking like that after Shakespeare in Love and Se7en. “Don’t touch the metal, or you’ll kill” Tony Stark says with all the earnestness Robert Downey Jr. can muster, and we believe him. It’s that super-large New York-style pizza that Tony Stark glumly drags into that basement-garage of his when the real villains close in, the ones who wield politics and not armaments as weapons. It’s clawing his way back to his old electric heart, the heart he gifted Pepper when he thought he had no more use of it, after the real villain attacks in that basement-garage.

This strangely hopeful moment was echoed later that same year in Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in Chris Nolan’s magnificent The Dark Knight, the year after in Star Trek, and three years after that again in the groundbreaking 50th anniversary Bond outing, Skyfall. These moments all offer the promise that our pop culture, our temporary fictions that have their roots in the pulp tradition, can be vivid, vital, and powerful, offering worlds that are captivating and easily the equal of the "real art" that belongs to the "grown-up" world. The real promise of transmedia, in other words, is that transitioning media doesn’t only mean childhood on a larger canvas, but a kind of maturation that is marked by a great power over the world.

Is that what lay at the heart of what Will Eisner was tilting at all those many years? That we could, in some ways, do a Thor comic, that could compete artistically with Philip Kaufman’s cinema adaptation of Milan’s Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being? Maybe the extremes aren’t quite as fractured and far-flung, but the idea is clear.

The inherent pulp origins of comic book superheroes shouldn’t be a limitation, but rather an opportunity. We should be able to produce art, when we talk about producing art from comic book superheroes, that embraces the inherent complexity of what filmmakers like Ang Lee achieved in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Robert Rodriguez in Desperado and its precursor el Mariachi, or the Wachowskis in the original Matrix, or George Lucas in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In some ways, cinema maybe not should be but at its best could be a kind of documentary of imagined worlds, no matter how much suspension of disbelief is required to carry us to those worlds.

This is exactly what makes 2014 such a fraught year for the Marvel Cineverse. The year 2014 was the most explicit about the central tension of the Marvel Cineverse, caught as it was between the Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

I’ll get right back to that, but first, a little full disclosure. I’m diffident at the term “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” even though I know it’s the official terminology for whatever it is Kevin Feige has been developing consistently since 2008. First off, it’s the “official” term, and finding a term handed down to me in a comic book setting (even pseudo-comic book setting like the films) feels like it contravenes the idea that comics and superheroes work best when fans and creators share a symbiotic relationship. I don’t like the idea of creators being handed the Marvel Universe (or any other like construction, for that matter), like so many toys with which to play, any more than I can get behind the idea of fans seeing creators as “contractors” there to simply give the fans what they want. What everybody wants is to be surprised, to be led from the familiar into the unexpected.

Second, a "Cineverse" feels like it should be in some way related to the history of film, to the grand postwar traditions of Russian Formalism, Neorealism, New Wave, Exploitation, and the Canto-operatic of Hong Kong cinema. In many ways, the Marvel Cinematic Universe openly rejects such formulation around inscribing itself into the history of film. I’m not making an argument for the inherent superiority of the canonization of “cinema”, but sometimes, you just want a little more than light entertainment. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has thus far made itself unavailable to that -- but we’ll loop back round to that in a bit.

The year 2014 was fraught for the Marvel Cineverse. On the one hand, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo gave in to the all-out spectacle of what a Captain America story can be in The Winter Soldier. The film's genre of "the government-can’t-be-trusted-because-it’s-been-infiltrated" dates all the way back to the ‘70s in the original comics, when writer Steve Englehart and artist Gil Kane undertook producing a fictive response to Watergate. But your heart has got to sink a little -- just a little mind you -- when that first Hellicarrier crashes, because The Winter Soldier is a thrill ride of an experience and a bargain at twice the price. That’s the final, irrevocable moment when audiences have to realize that whatever ambitions they have about the Marvel Cineverse being a matured, high concept of the Marvel comic book Universe, just got washed away.

That Hellicarrier crash in Winter Soldier is the moment we're forced to realize that this is what it’s going to be like now, the spectacle of it all; individual superhero movies with a giant team-up mega-event movie at the end of one cycle, and the aesthetics of the Marvel comics writ large, but still somehow ghettoized.

In contrast to this, you’ve got in 2014 a year that also premiered Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which immediately slots itself into the same cinematic tradition as every John Hughes and Kevin Smith movie ever made, a movie that actively engages film history and enters into a dialog with it, in the same way that Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Jon Favreau’s original Iron Man, and later Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 do.

But what Steven DeKnight’s Daredevil gives us is something even closer in spirit to the cinematic art of Lee, Lucas, or the Wachowskis. This something is the equal of their various artistic projects, where the highbrow and the lowbrow intermingle seamlessly.

Take, for example, the scene that concludes Daredevil's second episode, “Cut Man”. The Russian mob has occupied an entire floor in a dilapidated apartment building. Right at the far end of the hallway is the apartment where a little boy is being held captive. The other four apartments are where the Russians have a chill-out room and run a bookmaking operation. There’s about a minute of gorgeous cinema where the Russians walk from the far-end apartment to the chill-out room to the bookie room, describing visually the layout of the hallway and the apartment block’s entire floor. There's no Daredevil, not yet, but the tension mounts and mounts and will not abate. It's simply enough just to know that the Russians are headquartered here, to know the child is in danger here, to know that Daredevil has been sewn back up by Rosario Dawson’s psychologically vivid Claire Temple (the Night Nurse), to know that he must come here for the final showdown. All of these things are just enough -- no grand spectacle needed.

Daredevil strides in, and in the beginning we pan with him. He kicks down the first door, the room with the bookmaking. He beats the Russians down like dogs. But as Daredevil goes to work, so does the cinematographer. The camera steadies into a fixed position. Daredevil’s fight with the Russians the beatdown after merciless beatdown that begins to mimic the best kinds of superhero games, becomes nothing but an interruption of our unflinching view of the apartment where that little child is being held hostage.

But it’s not all artsy. Vincent D’Onofrio’s beautifully crafted Wilson Fisk, who is far more vulnerable than any other version of the character, is genuinely villainous, layered, and complex. He’s the victim of abuse, and the victim of his own action taken to end a cycle of abuse. Vondie Curtis-Hall’s Ben Urich is genuinely world-wearied, bowed, and even buckled -- but unbroken. Dawson’s Claire Temple is genuinely torn between wanting safety and wanting better, the kind of character we saw her play in Seven Pounds.

Daredevil succeeds not because it brings the comic book to life in the way we’ve come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it isn’t akin to "Best-Hulk-Ever!" or "Best-Captain America-Ever!" or "Best-Thor-Ever!" It is something genuinely viable that can go toe-to-toe with the best the Golden Age of Television has to offer, standing on its own with Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black. What’s more, Daredevil succeeds not because it gets comic book fans into the giant airport waiting terminal lounge that is the world of television, but because it brings audiences of television into a sophisticated and matured vision of the world through the lens of the comic book superhero.

This is almost too much. This is the promise fulfilled, the promise we lost hope in seeing fulfilled these many years gone since Iron Man and The Dark Knight premiered in the same year.

All images from Marvel's Daredevil by Steven S. DeKnight and Drew Goddard (Netflix, 2015).


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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