Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Good Guy

The Devil is All Around - Shovels & Rope (YouTube)

Netflix's "Daredevil" is without question the biggest surprise of the television year. The only question is whether its so good as to be bigger than that.

For all the comparisons to the Christopher Nolan take on Batman, and for all the talk of how "gritty" it is -- and I dare someone to review this show without using the word "gritty" -- what surprises me is how it aims to get at the core question that seems to be haunting so many of our television creatives of late:

What makes good people do ugly things?

And the second question: When good people do ugly things, can they still be good people?

Most of the great television in this golden age attacks these questions in one way or another. "Mad Men," "The Walking Dead," "Justified," "Breaking Bad," "The Shield." The list goes on and on. One could argue that the topic has been overplayed, but those people don't read books, don't like Shakespeare, and don't think too much when playing Call of Duty or Mortal Kombat.

"Justified" just completed its six-year run, but I only finally realized during the last few episodes that what was at the core of the show was not whether Raylan Givens was justified in the actions he takes (because the answer is NO), but rather how he goes about justifying his actions to himself. The lines he crosses, the rules he ignores, the people he hurts.

For "Justified," however, this question wasn't really the crux of the show. It was just a sort of staging ground for the writers to have fun, to see what kind of madness and oddity they could create. The show, like many of Elmore Leonard's books, revel in the tragicomic chemistry between brilliance and stupidity, between loyalty and selfishness. Raylan wrestling with his own justifications was only the engine that got the tour bus running.

In "Daredevil," the question is the guiding principle of the show, and it finds its way, often unsubtly, into every episode. Kingpin (er… uninitiated viewers will know him as Wilson Fisk) spends the season convinced that he is not a bad person, but rather a good person who must resort to some unseemly things on the course to a greater good, the rebirth of his New York district of Hell's Kitchen.

What makes “Daredevil” such a surprise is that Marvel doesn’t treat this character or the show like a cast-off.

Matthew Murdock, the vigilante at the heart of the show, must also answer to friends and foes alike about whether his violent activities are heroic or twisted, whether he's any better than the people he bloodies and who bloody him back. The show makes no bones about it: Daredevil hurts people, often more than he probably has to, and he enjoys it. His nurse, his best friend, his priest, all of them struggle to give him the answer he wants, the permission he wants to believe he needs… even though the uglier truth is that he doesn’t need their support or approval, because like Fisk, he is convinced of his own moral direction and barrels down that course regardless).

The cinematography is carefully arranged to match the subject matter of comic book colliding with real-life evil. Most of the show is set in nighttime, in shadows, but always with stunning comic book-quality colors of lighting striking half a character's face or the action in play. The fights are as well-choreographed as almost any American film in the last few years (excepting perhaps “John Wick” and a few others). You get to actually enjoy the art of the fight, three and four punches from a single angle rather than watching the director hide bad fight-acting behind shaky cams and jump cuts.

Simply put, “Daredevil” is everything “Gotham” promised to be and more. I’m positive Donal Logue watched one episode and lost his $hit knowing that Foggy Nelson is such a better character than the goober he plays on Gotham. Instead, relative unknown Elden Henson takes the part (confession: Foggy Nelson is one of my least favorite Muggles in comic book history) and comes away as someone who’s only a handful of stellar supporting roles away from being the next Philip Seymour Hoffman. Vincent D’Onofrio is deliciously over the top, as is Scott Glenn. Deborah Ann Woll, Rosario Dawson and the mesmerizing Ayelet Zurer make you hope they’ll give even more space for women to thrive in what is traditionally a testosterone-dominated fanboy landscape.

Daredevil will never save the world from Ultron. Hell, he has difficulty beating up more than a handful of thugs at a time. Because Murdock’s “powers” are decidedly limited, this show is the most human superhero venture Marvel has offered. Everyone bleeds. Everyone hurts. Everyone can die. Happy endings aren’t all that happy.

It is also the show that comes closest to trying to address what could possibly motivate an almost-normal person to go outside the law to uphold justice. Is it religion? Is it the ghosts of loved ones? Or is it something much closer to insanity?

“Daredevil” had its flaws, to be sure. A few moments of hamfisted dialogue. A few predictable or disappointing plot twists. But these don’t remotely ruin the experience.

The final episode wasn’t close to the best one, but it had one of my favorite moments: a monologue by D’Onofrio that takes his character to the heart of the question about what we think of ourselves, and how we justify our actions, and how liberating it must be to finally realize what you are at your core, for better or worse.

Most of us don’t ever fully get there. We never truly know who we are at our core. We rely on faith or routine, people or substances, hobbies or occupations to spell out what we can’t quite put a finger on. Mostly we hope we’re good people. And we hope the bad things we’ve done, or the good things we haven’t done enough of, don’t make us something less than good.

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