Review: “Daredevil” (First Season)

Warning: controversial statement ahead!  Marvel’s “Daredevil” owes a lot to The Dark Knight Trilogy, but it might just surpass its gritty, real-world super hero predecessor.  Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have trouble blending the filmmaker’s darker impulses with the expectations of a huge blockbuster.  As a series not even intended for network or cable TV, creator Drew Goddard’s latest is free from those constraints.  It rubs the viewer’s face in the muck of New York City, questioning the nature of vigilante justice: how far is too far?

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The first season draws on familiar tropes.  From the outset, we know that a childhood tragedy resulted in Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) losing his sight and set him on the path to become the titular hero.  Flashforward to the present and Matt is in confession.  He recalls his father, a boxer, and stories his grandmother told of the Murdock boys.  They were headstrong and relentless, they refused to go down without a fight – “there was a bit of devil in them.”  Matt asks the priest for forgiveness, “not for what I’ve done, but for what I’m about to do.”  Cox is strong in the role.  He’s a man with a smooth exterior, but there’s a lot of anger roiling under the surface.

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The violence in the show is stomach churning – decapitation by car door, anyone? – but never gratuitous.  It demonstrates why this type of vigilante justice might be warranted; yet it also acknowledges the cost.  Murdoch’s wounds need more than ice packs and band-aids.  A nurse (Rosario Dawson) is regularly stitching him up.  What kind of man would subject himself to this kind of bodily punishment?

Duality between the hero and villain: it’s not just a staple of comics but crime stories as well.  The villain here is Wilson Fisk.  In his early scenes, actor Vincent D’Onofrio commands empathy.  We meet him at an art gallery as he admires a painting.  In the next episode, we watch him squirm through a first date.  Then we see the consequences of his child-like outbursts, a notion underscored by Fisk’s own backstory and the juvenile gestures he often makes when he’s nervous.  Memorable villains have been a struggle for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they may just have found one for the small screen.

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The series has a strong visual signature.  Where most of Marvel’s big screen work is lit very flatly (high key lighting for the filmmakers among you), “Daredevil” takes the opposite approach.  Shadows are deep and plentiful, but the show doesn’t sacrifice color.  Matt starts a law firm and invites a client (Deborah Ann Woll) to his apartment after she’s been attacked.  He lives next to an electronic billboard  that floods his home with purple-pink light.  It’s the only reason he’s able to afford the apartment – no one else wants it – but it’s one of my favorite visual flourishes, creating a safe haven.

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“Daredevil” is a nice alternative to the safe albeit fun sandbox that Marvel usually offers its viewers. It even bests some of the genre’s more grounded and serious entries thanks to its moral complexity and genuine stakes.

Have you seen Marvel’s “Daredevil?” What did you think? Comment below. If you haven’t seen it, the show is available on Netflix Streaming. Check it out!

Conversations: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

As promised, my thoughts on Marvel’s latest box office juggernaut, “The Guardians of the Galaxy.”  Also as promised, I roped in my good friend, Ben DeLoose.  I’ve known Ben for over seven years.  He has worked for USA Network, NBCUniversal, and most recently, Starz Entertainment.  He and I also collaborate on 3bythree, a Youtube movie review channel.  Before we get started, a brief plot synopsis, but be warned, our discussion will contain spoilers: “Guardians of the Galaxy” tells the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), a young man abducted from earth who traverses the galaxy looking for rare artifacts (think:  a goofier Indiana Jones).  He joins a ragtag group of misfits, which includes:  Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a trained assassin; Drax (Dave Bautista), a muscular alien who takes things a little too literally; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon with a propensity for technology and weapons; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a humanoid plant and Rocket’s partner.  They will work together to try to stop Ronan (Lee Pace), a radical fundamentalist, from obtaining an ultimate weapon.

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Gar:  Hiya Ben, thanks for joining me!  I’m gonna let you start us off:  What did you think of “Guardians of the Galaxy?”

Ben:  What a fun ride!  A fantastic summer entertainment and another winner from Marvel.

Gar:  I thoroughly enjoyed myself!  Though it carries the Marvel banner, it had a bit of that new car smell.  It’s not an original property, but it’s based on a comic book that I had no familiarity with.

Ben:  Same here.  I had absolutely no knowledge going in.

Gar:  I’m reluctant to call “Guardians” a GREAT movie, though.  Marvel plays things a little too conservatively for that.  Even “Iron Man,” which is still their best, has that really standard third act (crash-bang action, monologuing villain, etc.).

Ben:  They are, by no means, making revolutionary films.  Consistent entertainment?  I’d say so.  Non-stupid blockbusters?  Absolutely.  But they do regress back to their comic book roots.  There’s some clunky dialogue in all their films, including this one.  Flat exposition dumps, characters blandly stating their inner intentions and feelings.

Gar:  An instance that stands out to me was Thanos, this intergalactic warlord, revealing that Gamora (pictured below, left) was his favorite daughter in front of his other daughter Nebula (pictured below, right).

Gamora Nebula

Ben:  Absolutely

Gar:  Maybe there’s something to be said for Thanos’s arrogance and dismissiveness, but you just knew they were setting up a betrayal.

Ben:  In general, Thanos is a problem for this film.  Will casual viewers realize he was part of the invasion in the “The Avengers?”  Will they remember his stinger scene during the closing credits?  Probably not.

Thanos

Hell, the characters in the film don’t even mention the invasion to Peter Quill, despite a clear setup.  I think a character tells him, “You don’t even care about your own world,” and leaves it at that.  Why not mention the attack?  Why not use that as extra motivation for Peter to put a stop to Ronan?

Gar:  Exactly.  Marvel seems to have a villain problem.  Lee Pace is a good actor, but I just didn’t find Ronan compelling.  Some people have compared “Guardians” to Star Wars, which I think sets up a troubling level of anticipation.  Influenced by?  Absolutely.  As good as?  C’mon now.  But the #1 reason Star Wars is better than “Guardians?”  Its villain.

Ben:  Absolutely.

Gar:  Let’s talk about some of the things we liked.

Ben:  The soundtrack really stood out.  The song selection was impeccable!  It created plenty of opportunities for incongruity with the visuals, and it was diegetic.

Gar:  It also gave the film an identity, which the marketing campaign wisely tapped into.  (We should stress we’re talking about the unoriginal music used in the film — ’80s songs.  The original score was pretty forgettable, which seems to be par for the course for Marvel.)  I really enjoyed the songs too.  They added a nice layer to Peter.  You can’t help but be reminded of his mother, which of course pays off hugely at the end of the film.  While we’re on Chris Pratt, let’s go ahead and talk about the cast.

Ben:  Perfect casting.

Gar:  So good!  I am a fan of Pratt from “Parks and Recreation,” and it was great to see him carry a film of this size.

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Ben:  It was also fun to see Karen Gillan as a bad guy (and she’ll be back)!  Though Peter Serafinowicz and John C. Reilly could have had more to do.

Gar:  Yeah, I was surprised by how little screen time Reilly had, ditto Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close.  Those are big name performers!

Ben:  I think they could have gone with character actors for those parts.

Gar:  But ya know who gave the best performance?

Ben:  Bradley Cooper.

Gar:  Yep.

Ben:  You really felt Rocket’s vulnerability under all that bravado.  Yes, the CGI was excellent, but the pain in his voice drove it home for me.

Gar:  He’s got that scene where he unloads this emotional baggage, talking about how he was poked, prodded and sliced while they were experimenting on him.  I really liked his relationship with Groot as well.  One of the moments that made me laugh was Rocket’s conversation with his “house plant,” where they discussed their next move.

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Ben:  It’s basically an internal monologue for Rocket.

Gar:  Absolutely.  Let’s talk a bit about writer-director James Gunn’s work.  I thought the action scenes were great.  They were well structured, and characters were using the environment.  I’m thinking about the first one, this “Raiders”-inspired set piece where Peter steals an important artifact.  A hole gets blown in the wall of this temple, and a couple beats later, our hero uses it as his escape route.

Ben:  Gunn nailed the action scenes.  Clear sense of geography, cause-and-effect, scale — all things lacking from a lot of loud, dumb blockbusters.

Gar:  The smaller ships pushing Ronan’s much larger vessel was a great visual.

Ben:  The will of many against one fanatic.  Fancy that, a visual metaphor in a popcorn flick!

Gar:  You don’t say!  The other thing I really appreciated about Gunn’s work was the way he managed the tonal shifts, from laugh-out-loud comedy to real pathos.  You’ve got Rocket’s monologue or Peter reading the letter from his mother. Ben:  The moment that absolutely got to me:  “We are Groot.”  As he was saying it, I expected “We are friends,” but what they went with was much stronger.

Gar:  So much stronger!  It would have been corny and out-of-character if he had said “We are friends.”  Anything else you wanna talk about, Ben?

Ben:  Can’t wait for the sequel!

Gar:  Me too.  Thanks for doing this!  We’ll have to do it again.

Dancing Groot