Friday, April 1, 2016

Glorifying Violence

[AKA That's A Lot of F'ing Ninjas]

After 13+ hours of watching, you're a little haggard.
It's nearly 4am but I can't sleep so, F it, why not blog. I have a lot of other stuff to write about, even started a post earlier today, but the wife is out-o-town (left less than 24 hours after we got IN to town), and so I spent most of the day (and much of the night) polishing off the second season of Daredevil on Netflix. And because I am such a damn insomniac, I even went with the Netflix suggestion AFTER finishing the final episode and watched the 2003 Daredevil film starring Ben Affleck...a film I haven't watched for several years, but have probably seen at least twice in the past, due to my love of DD.

RE the film: viewed thirteen years after release, the thing looks incredibly dated. Worse, it looks incredibly derivative, ripping off everything from The Crow (fight sequences set to loud music) to the first Tim Burton Batman (overall tone and cinematics) to The Matrix (fight sequences, CGI, and leather pants), to the comics it tries desperately to emulate, often to poor effect. However, Affleck is quite good, as is his chemistry with Garner (though this interpretation of Electra is terrible), Favreau is the prototypical Foggy, and Michael Clarke Duncan makes an excellent Kingpin, only breaking down a bit at the end (though I blame that on the director). Even Collin Farrell's interpretation of Bullseye, while over-the-top, is interesting. What's uninteresting, ranging from dull to outright terrible, is the writing, pacing, and overall story (here's a Daredevil who gleefully murders a rapist by throwing him under a subway train, then grows a code of honor five minutes before then end of film...WTF?)...and that can be laid squarely at the feet of writer-director Mark Steven Johnson. The guy's resume speaks for itself...a couple of surprise box office hits (Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men) based on Hall of Fame casting, followed by a string of critical failures and (more often than not) box office bombs. You can check out Johnson's filmography itself...I did, only because I wanted to know what the hell made people think he could do Daredevil. Turns out, DD was a high-water mark for the guy...though, again, mainly due to the material and some decent casting.

[by the way, I get that filmmaking is a tough biz, and anyone who can make it through the grind and pull together ANYthing that makes it to the big screen probably has a lot bigger artistic balls than myself. But I'm not judging against myself or the average shmoe...I'm judging against other big-balled filmmakers. Okay?]

[also, films should never ever use voiceover narrative. Maybe it worked once (for Road Warrior) because of the "reveal" at the end. But that was 30+ years ago]

Going into the second season of Daredevil, especially based on my recent love-love-love-fest with Jessica Jones, I was pretty curious to see if the show's creators could sustain the quality of the first season, and wondered how they could possibly top JJ. Well, after watching the season, the short version goes like this: the quality remains excellent; in many ways, the second season tops the first season of DD for me. And with regard to Jessica Jones, the two shows are apples and oranges...there's no competition here because you're talking about very different themes and styles, that just happen to operate in the same cinematic universe.

SO...if you liked the first DD series, chances are you should check out the second. What follows are my more extensive, specific thoughts. Some spoilers are present:

Glorious Violence: this is a superhero series, not a noir thriller like Jessica Jones that just happens to star a superhero. If you want to see fisticuffs, than Daredevil's your cup-o-tea. There are fights throughout the series (when your favorite tool is a hammer...), and the show creators really seem to be striving to keep the violence interesting, mainly through the use of different locales and methods of shooting ( shooting, that is). There's a great staircase fight in the second episode that really signals the viewer, "hey, we're upping the ante this season." Another episode has a nice "silhouettes-behind-the-walls" sequences. Lots of guns, lots of ninjas, lots of "doubles" fighting (i.e. fighting with in partnership with a teammate). If you're a connoisseur of the slugfest, you'll get a lot of mileage. Personally, I can get bored with cinematic violence-for-the-sake-of-violence. I can only recall being bored once or twice in this series.

[later on, there's some brutality that borders on the shock/gratuitous scale, but it's still pretty well done]

Two-For-One (Part A): however, what makes Daredevil such a great series (for me) is that at least half the show concerns the normal (non-costumed) lives of the characters. For most of the series, it's almost like you're watching two separate, parallel story-lines...and I suppose you are. But unlike most superhero films (or even TV shows) where the action in the protagonist's daily (unmasked) life is there to (mainly) set-up the costumed fight sequences, in Daredevil the stuff outside the costume is its own bag, important for its own sake, interesting for its own sake. All the lawyer stuff and courtroom drama was fun to watch...I wasn't just sitting there saying 'get to the action already!' I was engaged in the human drama outside of the comic book heroics...and I was glad for it, and wanted more of it. Towards the end of the series (the last couple-three episodes) there is a lot more of the comic bookish stuff and the "normal drama" takes a backseat, a bit to the show's detriment, but you have so much buy-in by that point that you're mostly ready for the outrageous hero stuff. But the first nine-to-eleven episodes are masterful at balancing these side-by-side shows. And most of that is just good writing and good acting.

Great Performances ("the list"): Let's talk about those actors, yeah?

Deborah Ann Woll reprises her role as Karen Page and is a real stand-out. Whereas in the first season, she was (to me) a little too reminiscent of her True Blood character, in the second season she has really matured and grown with the role. Part of this is the direction the writers have taken with the character, but Woll is really doing something here, reinterpreting the Page character to the point of embodying and redefining what the hell she is and who she is within the Daredevil mythos. The whole romance subplot (her main "defining trait" in the comics) is so secondary to what she's doing here. In some ways she's replacing the Ben Urich character from the first season but she's not a carbon copy...where Urich was driven by curiosity and the search for the truth, her drive is based on her compassion and humanity. Which is so interesting when contrasted with her pull towards "the end justifies the means" side of the spectrum. I'm very interested to see what direction her character takes in the future...of all the characters in the series, Woll's Page is the one that evolves and changes the most, while still retaining her heart (not simply being whimsical or mercurial).

Elden Henson as Foggy continues to be fantastic. Whereas Favreau looked and acted the part of the comic character, Henson (like Woll) is reinterpreting and redefining the character in a whole new way, bringing real depth to the roll as well as humor and charisma. Through all of my reading of DD in comic form, Foggy was a clueless law-partner, a punchline or someone to be he is not only Murdock's friend first, but also his confidant and well as pretty solid and capable. I realize a lot of this is the writing but it doesn't work if Henson can't embody these traits and make them believable. His work, especially his scenes with Woll and Charlie Cox are excellent.

Charlie Cox in the title role continues to be excellent, by the way. I don't know...Daredevil's such an interesting character with the Catholic thing and the tragic childhood and the dichotomy between being part of the justice system and a vigilante and...well, you get it. It's hard for me to not be biased, but I think Cox does a great job. I will say that the red suit, which is worn throughout the second season, has been upgraded visually and works better (for me) than it did in the final episode of season one. And I like Cox equally in both his masked and unmasked personas.

Other recurring characters that are worth noting is Vincent D'Onofrio (what a range that guy has), Rosario Dawson (in a much expanded role this season), Geoffrey Cantor (I just want a show about him running his newspaper), and Royce Johnson (also in an expanded role). Oh, and there's a guest appearance of Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho)...I love Madame Gao. Scott Glenn is still Scott Glenn and Stick was the role he was born to play...just the right combo of his characters from Urban Cowboy, Vertical Limit, and Silence of the Lambs; such a great choice.

Then there's the new guys (and gals): McCaleb Burnett is Grotto (can't have Turk without Grotto) and makes the guy particularly unlikable for a few episodes, and likewise Michelle Hurd as the oh-so-slimy District Attorney Reyes character you love to hate. Oh, and Clancy Brown (though I like him better in The Flash). But the real gems are Elektra and Frank Castle.

"You talking' to me?"
First, Jon Bernthal as the Punisher. I actually collected quite a few Punisher comics back in the late 80's (before Marvel saturated the market with Punisher titles...War Journal, War Zone, Armory, etc.). His stories were interesting because he was a street-level anti-hero, and his "mission" often took him to random third world hotspots to deal with drug dealers and human traffickers and whatnot. A guy whose "superpower" was his guns. I suppose they were war stories (I used to read my uncles old Sgt. Rock and Unknown Soldier and whatnot, too) which was very different fare from standard hero stuff.

But none of the comics I read prepped me for Bernthal's interpretation of the character. He's as murderous, methodical, and skilled as the Punisher...but that's where the resemblance ends. His tactics are different. His persona is different. In the comics, Castle never spoke much (you read the character's thoughts or journal entries, mostly), but when he did he was fairly eloquent and gregarious. This Castle is a much more rough, salt-of-the-earth, taciturn character. A very hard man, very dangerous, very tortured. Whereas the comic book Punisher became the vigilante due to a tragedy that happened years/decades in the past, here is a character whose pain is more recent, and more immediate, who is still coming to grips with what has happened to him. It gives him an intensity and edge, making him so much more than just his formidable skills and training. His motivations, code, and philosophy are the same as the comics, but the character is otherwise new.

[I should mention that I automatically enjoy anyone that puts a hurting on any William Forsythe-played character. But that's just my quirk]

In an earlier post, I (briefly) mentioned Elodie Yung would be playing Elektra. Turns out she's just another excellent choice for another new, vibrant reinterpretation of an iconic character. No, she doesn't sport the red bandanna, and she doesn't pick up the sais until late in the series. But she's fantastic nevertheless. This isn't Miller's hardened, cynical assassin, nor the doe-eyed/weepy Jen Garner version. This is an Elektra totally devoid of her "tragic past" (well, the comic version anyway), instead being something more like the original Batgirl: a thrill-seeking debutante, full of joy at kicking ass. Of course, she's still an amoral anti-hero, though not quite the same as Castle. She's a perfect romantic foil for Murdock, and the way the writers develop their relationship over the course of the season is just about perfect. I'll leave my quibbles unstated, as they'd reveal some pretty huge spoilers. But Ms. Yung is a great actor, and her character provides a very nice contrast to Murdock's other love interests, Page and Temple.

Two-For-One (Part B): this leads me to my last note. TV (and film) is NOT the same visual medium as comic books, and trying to do the same kind of "comic shot" (long, lingering visuals, for example) hurts a motion picture creation more often than it helps. They're their own separate art forms, even if they're using the same material as their subject. However, there were definitely times during the second season of Daredevil that I got a real "comic book vibe," specifically in the way episodes would sometimes ape the style of the old Marvel Team-Up or Marvel Two-In-One issues. I could almost picture the cover: Daredevil and Punisher or Daredevil and Elektra. They had a feeling like those old Marvel pick-up teams, even if visually they were still cinematic, rather than literary. For me, that was an extra bit of frosting nostalgia that I enjoyed.

It was also a little comic bookish with the way it stereotyped the Irish (did they have to make the mobsters table consist of corned beef and cabbage? What, was it St. Patrick's Day?), but that's a minor quibble.

All right, this is waaaay too long as it is, so I'll stop now.


  1. I just finished this series. Overall, I was less engaged with it than I was with season 1, but I think that's because The Hand just wasn't as compelling a villain. The story arcs were great, the actors were great, the season was great...but I sat bolt-upright when Fisk showed up. The Hand just lacked cohesion.

    1. I give it a A instead of an A+. Or a 9/10 instead of a 10/10.

    2. The whole "shadow war" thing is very comic book...which I like (mainly because I think it's done fairly well), but I agree that the ninja thing is a little underwhelming. And I'm really not a fan of the Nobu character (I would have preferred a direct comic-to-TV version of Kirigi rather than a half-assed version that's supposed to be "more realistic;" I mean you're already dealing with immortals and mysticism, no?).

      That being said, I really dig Daredevil's reaction to Stick and his "war;" the indifference, the nothing sacred, the cynical scoffing. It was very Jessica Jones.
      ; )

    3. And yes...every Fisk scene is a highlight.

  2. Okay, it's way past time that I got off my ass and watched this series! I'm such a slacker! Thanks for the kick in the pants, JB!

    1. @ Anthony:

      You're welcome?

      (Hope the kick didn't hurt!)

  3. Jon Bernthal's portrayal of the punisher reminds me of Rambo. Just his mannerisms and his skill/invincibility. Also when he talks about his family it is very reminiscent of Rambo's breakdown at the end of first blood.

  4. Jon Bernthal's portrayal of the punisher reminds me of Rambo. Just his mannerisms and his skill/invincibility. Also when he talks about his family it is very reminiscent of Rambo's breakdown at the end of first blood.

    1. @ Lance:

      Huh. I didn't get that. Stallone's Rambo really appears to be suffering from PTSD caused by his time as a POW which is exacerbated by his lack of family/support structure. Bernthal reminds me of at least a couple ex-military guys I've known (one of whom was a marine scout-sniper) with an overlay of "family brutally murdered." If it wasn't for the latter character point, I think you'd see a much more "normal" guy, even one with a sense of humor despite all the shit he's seen.

      I haven't personally known individuals suffering from war-induced PTSD...I've only seen that in film and television (like Rambo). I may have been unclear in my post: I find the Frank Castle portrayal in DD to be refreshingly authentic, even given the over-the-top origin story of the Punisher comic book character.

      [not saying the First Blood Jon Rambo isn't authentic...but I'm not sure I'm willing to compare Rambo directly to Castle]