obnoxiousness without ever trying to stick your head in the oven.
Daredevil follows the spy shows Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter as the third Marvel Studios TV show that takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is the first in a bunch of interconnected Netflix original shows that will culminate in Marvel Studios' introduction of a superteam called the Defenders to the MCU. I've never read the Daredevil comics, even though I'm a lapsed Catholic like blind lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock, whose issues with his faith fuel much of the drama of the comics and have turned Daredevil into the most intriguing crime show about Catholic guilt since Wiseguy. I never watched either of 20th Century Fox's two pre-MCU movies featuring the Daredevil characters because the negative reviews drove me away from wasting my time with them (but I did see as a kid the not-so-good 1989 TV-movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, starring Rex Smith as Matt and John Rhys-Davies as Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin). One of those negative reviews included one of my favorite putdowns from Bay Area film critic Richard von Busack, a fan of the Frank Miller-era Daredevil comics. He wrote, "Playing blind was perfect for [Ben] Affleck, as it allowed for his customary inability to express feeling through his eyes."
Despite never seeing a single minute of Affleck's version of Daredevil, I knew early on that British actor Charlie Cox is far more nuanced and expressive than previous portrayers of Matt in this MCU version of Daredevil. There's a scene in one of the earlier Daredevil episodes where Matt, his business partner Foggy (Elden Henson) and their secretary Karen (Deborah Ann Woll, who, together with Henson, helps keep this dark show from becoming a relentlessly humorless slog) have a meeting at their struggling law firm with mob consigliere Wesley Owen Welch (Toby Leonard Moore). Cox remarkably expresses Matt's distrust of Wesley, even though his eyes are shrouded in Matt's trademark red-tinted glasses, he doesn't have any dialogue and the conversation doesn't contain any of the elaborate sound FX the show frequently relies on the rest of the time to depict Matt's heightened senses. He conveys Matt's distrust in just the way he breathes, a great early example of how genuinely mature--as opposed to Zack Snyder's idea of mature--and nuanced Daredevil is as a street-level and more grounded MCU show, as well as how surprisingly compelling Daredevil is as a legal drama, in addition to being a solid introduction to a comic book character I've never warmed up to.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has often suffered from being generic-looking-as-fuck, but that's been starting to change in its second and current season, due to the increasing involvement of Kevin Tancharoen, showrunner of the not-so-generic-looking webseries Mortal Kombat: Legacy and younger brother of S.H.I.E.L.D. co-showrunner Maurissa Tancharoen, as episode director. He directed the standout S.H.I.E.L.D. episode where Agent May and an imposter posing as May fight each other. That May-vs.-May fight remains the show's best fight scene. But even the May-vs.-May showdown and the surprisingly impressive Batroc-vs.-Steve fight in Captain America: The Winter Soldier are conventional in comparison to what Cabin in the Woods director/co-writer Drew Goddard (Daredevil's showrunner for just the first couple of episodes, before Spartacus veteran Steven S. DeKnight took over), director Phil Abraham, a Sopranos cinematographer who's directed several Mad Men episodes, and stunt coordinator Philip J. Silvera pulled off for three minutes at the end of Daredevil's second episode, "Cut Man."
The single-take fight scene has been done before, but the novelty value of the single-take fight scene at the end of "Cut Man" stems from seeing it within the context of a superhero genre piece. The strengths of the MCU movies have never really been the action sequences or the fight choreography. Their strengths have always been the character writing, the snappy dialogue and the charismatic, "this is why I'm a movie star" performances from the likes of Robert Downey Jr. However, Marvel Studios seems to be starting to respond to criticisms that MCU action filmmaking is too generic and assembly-line, as exemplified by the creative freedom they gave to Shane Black for Iron Man Three (before they Britta'd things up with Edgar Wright)--Black's involvement in the MCU resulted in my favorite MCU action sequence that doesn't involve any combat, the Air Force One passenger rescue sequence--and the aforementioned Kevin Tancharoen episodes of S.H.I.E.L.D. And now along comes Daredevil, which proves in the one-shot fight scene--a moment I don't think will be up on YouTube in its entirety for too long--that it won't be another superhero genre piece where the filmmakers purposely avoid clarity during the fight scenes and let the editors and CGI FX technicians do all the work. That's the same exact complaint DVD Savant author Glenn Erickson had about the fights in The Bourne Ultimatum, which he said are "the equivalent of the dances in Chicago (2002), where every musical number is splintered into so many shots, we can't really tell if the performers can dance."
By opting for the single-take approach, Daredevil wants to show that the performers can dance, which makes the hallway fight scene so riveting to watch. "It was always scripted that this scene was going to be a one-shot," said Silvera in a New York Observer Q&A about his fight choreography for Matt and the Russian crew of child traffickers he takes down all by himself (and with the help of an unplugged microwave at one amusing point). The scene isn't just style for style's sake. The single-take approach also advances character and perfectly reflects the intensity and single-mindedness of Matt in his mission to clean up his home turf of Hell's Kitchen, as well as the difficulty of his mission (the TV-MA-rated Daredevil--which allows its characters to curse but won't allow them to say "fuck," so it'd be perfect for FX's prime-time schedule--is the first MCU project to not shy away from showing in graphic detail the wounds and battle scars its primary hero experiences). The single-take "Cut Man" fight is the show's most clever way of establishing a mission statement, and it's far better as a mission statement than any of the standard-issue "this is my city" dialogue the writers give Matt to say in later episodes.
It's great to see an MCU project taking some cues from Asian action cinema of the past 15 years. The Daredevil hallway fight is like the love child of the single-take hallway fight from another equally dark and ultraviolent comic book adaptation, director Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, and The Protector's single-take restaurant sequence, and it might remind premium-cable drama fans of the crazy six-minute tracking shot Cary Fukunaga orchestrated for True Detective last season. Fight scenes where characters are never seen getting tired and winded often bug me. That's why almost all my favorite fight scenes--whether it's the Oldboy hallway fight, the showdown in the streets between Dan Dority and the Captain on Deadwood, the brutal brawl between Lucas Hood and an MMA rapist on Banshee or the unprecedented 1970 Darker Than Amber fight where the blood all over Rod Taylor was reportedly real--are ones that emphasize the physical exhaustion of the combatants. The Daredevil hallway fight automatically shoots itself to the top of the pantheon of MCU action sequences by showing how tired Matt, who hasn't fully recovered from the injuries he sustained earlier in "Cut Man," gets while he fights his way to rescue a kidnapped boy.
Daredevil isn't a perfect show. Some feminist Marvel geeks have found most of the show's female roles to be underwhelming, even when Rosario Dawson is portraying a modernized version of Night Nurse in an intriguing nod to that non-superhero Marvel comic, and later episodes (spoilers) aren't going to impress viewers of color who complain about how the MCU shows have a tendency to opt for the POC equivalent of "women being fridged" to increase the heroes' angst. But you can't deny how Daredevil, like Arrow and The Flash's enjoyable-so-far Eobard Thawne arc before it, proves that serialized TV, when it's done right, is a better fit than a 103- or 152-minute movie for the kind of ambitious and sophisticated storytelling Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas admires about superhero comics but has found to be lacking in superhero movies ("The movies are ultimately an oversimplification of those comic books," notes Assayas), and you can't deny the power and effectiveness of Daredevil's single-take fight. That riveting scene is an encouraging early sign of how more shades of gray are finally being introduced into the previously family-friendly and brightly lit MCU, first with the arrival of Daredevil last Friday and then with the premiere of A.K.A. Jessica Jones, the forthcoming Marvel/Netflix adaptation of Brian Michael Bendis' for-mature-readers private eye comic Alias. Now if only Daredevil had an opening title theme that's as cool and batshit--or rather, devil-may-care--as CHiPs season 1 theme composer John Parker's opening title theme for Darker Than Amber.