If you’re connected to social media in any way, odds are you’ve heard about the positive buzz received by Marvel’s television series Daredevil, exclusive to Netflix subscribers. With dialogue, choreography, chemistry and even cinematography to match the higher budget HBO productions, the series has managed to engage a large enough audience to already have a second season greenlit.
There are many potential reasons the series resonates with so many. No doubt a lot of it is built upon the tightly knit thirteen episode format, able to deliver more character development than a full-length film. The series is also not hindered by holiday seasons or film release dates, as the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was greatly handicapped by. These elements no doubt allowed the writers to more easily construct a tightly knit story from beginning to finish, paced at their own discretion rather than the needs of some network or movie tie-in.
What I believe has contributed most, however, is the ability to fully develop the series villain Wilson Fisk. The Marvel films have often emphasised developing their heroes, using the antagonist as a representative of that character’s particular internal struggle or to serve as a more or less generic threat. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has, until recently, largely focused on the cartoonishly evil Hydra. Daredevil instead delivers a villain that we can empathize and even sympathize with. Indeed, it isn’t too surprising to like Wilson Fisk not because he’s deliciously evil, but because you can understand his goals and desires as a human being.
That Fisk is also a mirror image of protagonist Matthew Murdock is also what I’d argue makes the inaugural season of Daredevil work so well. It’s not uncommon for super heroes to encounter villains that proudly exclaim “We’re the same, you and I”. In fact, the very first season of Arrow implemented the trope as well, with Malcom Merlin being a highly skilled archer whose ultimate goal was to save Starling City. On the surface, Wilson Fisk is just another common comic book trope.
Malcom Merlin may share a noble goal with Oliver Queen, and they are both driven by the loss of a loved one, but the similarities end there. The two are otherwise very different characters with very different experiences. Not quite so with Murdock and Fisk. While the show does not spell it out in big, bold letters, it is frequently drawing parallels between the two, as well as where those paths diverge.
Each man is heavily influenced by their father, and each man’s father is violently slain. These are shared experiences between the two, yet the relationships were complete contrasts. Matthew’s path to becoming a hero began with saving a life, and Fisk fell from grace as soon as he kicked a man lying on the ground. Matthew is a Catholic that seeks God and the Church for guidance, and Fisk does not believe in a God, therefore lacking a moral compass to tell him what measures are too far and too drastic.
The greatest strength of the series is perhaps that these commonalities are never made obvious. They are delivered separately and never side-by-side, never in a manner where the audience is clearly informed how similar these characters are.
There is one aspect that I wish they did build on a bit further, however. That each man has a violent streak inside of them, and each is struggling to control it. Violence is catharsis for both characters, but Matthew is the one that must maintain self control not only because he is the hero, but due to his religious beliefs. Were he to kill a man, his soul would be forfeit. Throughout the series we watch Matthew struggle to keep restrained, trying to decide whether he should kill Wilson Fisk or not, what choices he has. It is perhaps the greatest obstacle that Matthew faces.
Fisk, on the other hand, begins to show less and less restraint as the series progresses. He allows himself more reasons to unleash his fury, never stopping until a his victim lies bleeding upon the pavement. While Matt must learn to control his anger, Fisk allows himself to unleash it more frequently.
Unfortunately, the series fails to reach a proper payoff in this regard in the final episode. We get to see Fisk let loose one final time, but we don’t really get a sense that Matthew is truly struggling, or that he’s finally learned to control himself. He dons a new mask, and suddenly he’s the same kind of super hero we’ve come to expect from the Marvel films, or even from Arrow. All of his struggles throughout the series, his desire to kill Fisk, his efforts to control his temper, they seem to magically resolve in one final confrontation.
The series does not really have a truly low point, but for how well coordinated the series is as a whole, it failed to live up to its many highs towards the end. An excellent show, no doubt, but it doesn’t feel as if the character has grown rather than had a convenient change of heart and increase in prowess.
I must confess, I’m nervous about the prospects of season two. I feel that, for the reasons listed above, the first season was perhaps some of the best television delivered, if Netflix even counts as traditional “television” in any sense. Without that relationship, though, and without those goals to drive towards with the characters, the show could manage to begin moving downhill.
That’s the problem with American television, isn’t it? That it continues for so long that it becomes harder to develop the characters.
Here’s to hoping Marvel knows what they’re doing.