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 DaredevilDirector: Steven S. DeKnight
Cast: Charlie Cox, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rosario Dawson, Vondie Curtis-Hall
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).