Marvel’s Daredevil “World On Fire” Review (Episode 5) – Love is in the Air… Also, Semtex

Four Splosions Daredevil

Things heat up in the fifth episode of Marvel’s Daredevil. Were this a network show, we’d be getting close to the mid-season finale point, and this certainly feels like it. Relationships evolve, plots are sprung, things go boom, and we finally get to see the world through Matt’s eyes.

Let’s begin with that.

The episode opens with Claire having spent the night at Matt’s after her harrowing ordeal with the Russians. As Matt bustles around the apartment getting ready for work, the two fall into an easy banter, during which Claire finally asks what she’s wanted to ask since first meeting him: How does he DO what he DOES? Matt gives her the clinical explanation — he’s already told her how a heartbeat can tell him if someone is lying, and how the taste of copper in the air lets him know one of her wounds has reopened; now he breaks it down even further. “Micro-changes in air density, vibrations, blankets of temperature variations. Mix all that with what I hear, subtle smells. All of the fragments form a sort of… impressionistic painting.”

Cool! But that’s not enough for Claire. She wants to know what the painting looks like; what does he see?

Matt considers his answer for a moment, and in that moment I wondered if the show would go to a truly dark place, having him simply reply, “Nothing.” Instead, we’re given one of the most beautiful images the show has offered up yet, as well as the title of the episode.

Other Ways To See

WaysToSee Daredevil

There have always been two schools of thought when it comes to Daredevil’s abilities in the comics. The most common school prefers to visualize his powers as variations on a radar motif; concentric circles revealing the silhouettes of objects around him. It’s the classic visual, and one the 2003 movie made a valiant effort of translating to the screen, treating the world like a pool of darkness, with each sound or smell creating ripples in the “water” that lights up the world around it. Despite the quality of the CGI being somewhat dated now, it’s still a striking visual and one of the few things that movie got right.

The second school chooses not to visualize his powers at all, and instead lets each sense speak for itself. For them, Matt isn’t special because he can “see” sounds and smells — of course he can’t — he’s blind. What makes him special is that he’s trained himself to rely on his other senses the same way sighted people rely on their vision. And in doing so, he’s discovered that those senses combined are actually better than sight; that sight was just a distraction.

The second school is basically the Frank Miller School, and as Miller and John Romita Jr’s Man Without Fear is the prime source material the Netflix series is working off of, it didn’t surprise me when the show took that approach early on. Rather than computer imagery, it employed tilt-shift photography and fluctuating soundscapes to communicate to the audience how Matt perceives his world. Maybe it was a budgetary move, but the artfulness with which it’s executed made it feel like a step up from 2003’s CGI.

Most notably, my (other) favorite moment from the Episode 1 has Matt listening to Karen’s heartbeat to see if she’s lying to him. They’re in his apartment, where Matt has invited Karen to stay after her harrowing ordeal at the jail (…I think I just figured out Matt’s pick-up technique). It’s night time, the lights are out, and the room is lit solely by the bright, neon animated billboard outside his window. It lends the whole sequence a sort of surreal, dreamlike atmosphere; the fluctuations of color and light feel incongruous with the subdued music and quiet conversation.

The way the scene plays out, with tight, blurry camera angles boxing in both Matt and Karen as we hear her outer voice echoing its own reverberations in her chest; her rapid heartbeat speeding up while she tries to stay outwardly calm… it makes the moment feel hypnotic, and weirdly unsettling.

It’s always been fun seeing different artists’ interpretations of Daredevil’s powers, but never have they felt as intimate as they do here. There’s something almost invasive about his ability to hear the workings of your body without you knowing. The fact that the show was willing to take it there rather than play it from a safe distance was impressive. It’s not often an adaptation can offer a legitimately new perspective on a character; this moment does.

But, in episode 5, the show decides to have its cake and eat it too by showing us Matt’s “world on fire.” I might have been disappointed that they were choosing to go down the CGI path, had the revelation not been such a pleasant surprise and so well-realized. Unlike the “ripples in water” world of the movie, Netflix went with the opposite element, with every sound, scent, and sensation in the air appearing to Matt as a constantly shifting haze of flames. It’s, again, a fresh perspective on something I thought I understood nearly 20 years ago.

The scene concludes with Matt finally acting on the subtle sexual tension that’s been building between him and Claire since the beginning — the same sexual tension that everyone on the planet with eyes and a brain cell could see forming, except for me, because Daredevil doesn’t kiss Night Nurse in the comics and they couldn’t possibly be deviating from the source material, could they?

Yes, they could. Matt and Claire kiss. It’s a good kiss. And it’s only the first (and least) surprising romantic turn this episode puts its characters through. Waiting in the wings are Wilson and Vanessa’s second date, Karen and Foggy’s first date (you read that right), and a surprising postscript to Matt and Claire’s first kiss.

But first, criminals gotta do criminal stuff.

The Rising Tide

Vladdy Boy Daredevil

This episode isn’t so much a singular, consistent narrative, as it is a series of disparate narratives slowly cascading toward convergence. I’ve already spent a lot of time waxing rhapsodic about Matt’s funky senses, so I’ll try to make the rest of this fast (no promises).

The underscoring plotline throughout the episode is Vladimir’s reaction to his brother’s death, which Fisk and Wesley have pinned on the Masked Man. Vlad wants revenge, and he’s willing to pull out all the stops to make it happen.

His quest for revenge is typical villain plot stuff, but the tenderness with which he treats his brother’s corpse, washing it and preparing it for burial, is not. His softness in matters of family has a humanizing effect that keeps us from thinking of Vladimir purely as an obstacle for Fisk or Daredevil. He’s a person with a psychology; far from the hot-headed thug archetype he appeared to be at the beginning.

On the other side of the divide, we have Wilson breaking the news to his business partners that the Russians have been voted off the island without their consent. Wilson is surprisingly forthcoming with his cohorts, seeming almost apologetic for the emotional outburst that ended last episode. Especially with Madame Gao, his demeanor is more like that of a scolded child than a ruthless crime boss — again confirming that this is not your daddy’s Kingpin. I don’t rightly know what to think of him at this point, but I can’t deny that it’s an effective and intriguing portrayal.

You know what it reminds me of?

Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns.

Penguin’s another character who, in the comics, was little more than a standard crime boss with a taste for the finer things and an umbrella gimmick. But when Tim Burton brought him into the first Batman sequel, he transformed the character into something completely different. Instead of an erudite blowhard with a swollen vocabulary, DeVito’s Penguin was a murderous, sewer-lurking, circus freak.

Obviously, this is not a one-one comparison, but the way Burton kept the semblance of physical traits while completely changing the personality of the character seems the only real comparison to what DeKnight & co. are doing with Kingpin.

And that’s not a bad thing! I love Batman Returns. And I love D’onofrio’s Kingpin! I’m just sayin’.

Señor Foggy Law

Mrs Cardenas Daredevil

Meanwhile, in the harsh light of day, Matt, Foggy, and Karen have a new friend. Mrs. Cardenas is a sweet old lady whose scummy landlord is using shady tactics to drive her and her neighbors out of their tenement building so he can turn it into high priced condos. A mother of a friend referred her to “Señor Foggy Law” and so she is now Nelson & Murdock’s second official client.

The Mrs. Cardena plotline doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the primary Daredevil/Fisk plot, but it does set us up for some fun Foggy and Karen hijinx as they pay a visit to the prestigious law firm Matt and Foggy quit to start their own business. There, Foggy runs into his college ex, Marci, now a ruthless corporate lawyer for the sleazy landlord who tries to bully them into dropping the case. Here we get to see Foggy rise to the occasion, putting on his “Damn Good Lawyer” hat and letting Marci know in no uncertain terms that he is ready, willing, and able to destroy the landlord’s flimsy case in court.

It’s a rare badass moment for a character usually relegated to the role of dopey sidekick/comic relief. What’s cool is… it’s only the first such revelation about Foggy that we’ll get this episode. Later on, Foggy and Karen swing by Mrs. Cardenas’s apartment to see the extent of the damage done by faux repairmen hired by her landlord, and again Foggy steps up to call in some favors and get the place fixed up, going so far as to dig his hands in and fix her kitchen sink.

By the time their visit to Mrs. Cardenas turns into an impromptu candlelight dinner, you get the sense that this entire plotline is about making it okay for us to see Foggy and Karen as an item. Up to this point, the narrative has been “Foggy has a crush on Karen,” and that’s all, but here, the show makes it possible for us, the audience, to see a logical extension of that narrative being, “…and Karen likes him back.” This episode makes it “okay” for the female lead to end up with the sidekick instead of the male lead, which is super interesting! Especially when things with Matt go… the way they go.

You Really Shouldn’t Have Said His Name

Slen Daredevil Man

Matt’s journey this episode kicks off with the first truly imaginative and visually interesting action sequence the show has given us since the mind-blowing hallway fight in episode 2. Though, here, it’s all about the lead-up rather than the fight itself.

We are treated to a 360 degree panning shot from inside a parked car (similar to the one used during the insane chase sequences from Children of Men) as one of Madame Gao’s blind drug mules sings softly to himself, oblivious to the silent Daredevil who looms, Slenderman-like, in the shadows outside. The fight scene that follows is brief and brutal, with the blind Chinese man taking friendly fire from his Russian chauffeurs as they try to take out Daredevil (and it’s sad, too, because you really start to like the little lullaby he’s singing).

Matt learns that he’s been framed for Anatoly’s murder, but sirens chase him off before he can learn more. The cops arrest the Russians, which leads to one of the series’ more surprising and well-executed plot twists. In the police station, the Russian shooter is being interrogated by the same two detectives who handled Karen’s case in episode 1. In a moment of desperation, he offers to give up Wilson Fisk in exchange for a deal. The detectives are stunned for a moment, then play it daddy cool as they unlock the Russian’s handcuffs, banter about whose turn it is this time, then punch each other in the face and shoot the Russian for “trying to escape.”

Fisk, it appears, has influence everywhere.

Matt, visiting the station at the time, hears everything and jumps one of the dirty detectives later that night, beating on him until he tells what he knows about Fisk. Matt steals the detective’s burner phone, which contains four key addresses. With Claire’s help, Matt figures out that these are the addresses of the Russian mob’s hideouts.

It’s here, as Matt is preparing to head out to a confrontation with Vladimir, that the other shoe drops between him and Claire. She’s disturbed by the amount of violence he’s stirred up in just one day, attacking a police officer and now heading off to maybe get himself killed trying to stop the Russians. We again touch on the scene in episode 2 when Matt told the captive Semyon he enjoyed inflicting pain. As the show has gone forward, we’ve seen Matt grow increasingly violent and relentless in his methods, turning to torture again and again as a means of extracting information. It’s enough to make even the audience question whether Matt is really a hero or an antihero.

This is an aspect of Matt’s character that’s been present at least as far back as the early-80s. In the Foreward for the Man Without Fear trade collection, Frank Miller famously writes, “He should have been a villain.” Daredevil’s difficult past, his dubious role models, his relationships to women and to violence… it’s a wonder that he manages to land on the side of angels time and time again. It’s admirable. Sort of. But it’s also the portrait of a damaged human being.

Claire recognizes this in him, and realizes that she can’t let herself fall for someone who comes so close to crossing that line every night. Matt, in true Matt fashion, doesn’t dispute it, doesn’t try to defend himself. He just puts his mask on, and heads out to the final confrontation.

I’d Like A Reason To Stay

Reason To Stay Daredevil

At last we come to Wilson and Vanessa’s second date, easily the most interesting interaction of the episode. It’s almost its own kind of fight sequence, with both of these people clashing head on, each struggling to get what they want. Of course, here their battle is waged with words instead of fists; their attacks are questions and answers; and they both want the same thing: each other.

We really get a sense of Vanessa throughout this scene. We already know she’s a charming dinner date, she’s playful, and she has enough social grace to make any awkward encounter land with a feather’s touch. But those were all surface details; first date stuff. Here, with both her and Wilson laying all their cards on the table, we get to see what kind of person she really is.

Vanessa is a woman who owns her own sexuality and isn’t shy about it. She’s a woman who will walk into a situation in which she feels the need to carry a gun, but won’t even bat an eyelash when she’s called on it. She’s a woman who enjoys danger, is perhaps unafraid of it. But most importantly, she is a woman who, like Ben Urich, like Matt Murdock, is willing to engage with the gray areas, to hear them out, to see what fruits they bear, before shutting them down.

This why she can sit across from Wilson as he tells her he’s hurt people, that he will continue to hurt people, that he will tear down the city to build it brighter and better than it was, no matter the cost. She can hear him say these things and still search for a reason to stay. Because she likes him. Because how she feels about him, and how he feels about her, are really the only things that matter.

It’s interesting — in the earlier scene, Claire tells Matt she can’t let herself fall in love with a man who is so close to becoming what he hates.

As she watches Hell’s Kitchen burn, tacitly approving Wilson’s actions as justified by the ends, it would seem, Vanessa can.

Costume Watch:

Pad Suit Daredevil

This episode debuts DD’s newly upgraded combat suit. He’s added knee and elbow pads, forearm guards, thicker gloves with — are those plastic finger guards? And it looks like he has a new shirt with that nifty hexagonal stitch pattern most often found in athletic wear and Spider-Man costumes. Matt is definitely starting to dress for the part… but come on. That’s not real armor. He’s still squishy. You’re still squishy, Matt!

But Matt’s not the only character whose comic uniform gets hinted at this time around! During their dinner date, Vanessa recounts a story of how she was once hit on by a prince dressed in “a white suit and ascot.” This is a direct reference to the clothes Kingpin wears in the comics. According to the show’s Wilson, the ascot seems a bit much, but when Vanessa admits to sleeping with the prince, we get the sense that Fisk might not be above a little change in fashion with the proper motivation.

No Easter Eggs this episode — at least, not that I could spot; if I missed any, I trust someone will let me know in the comments. At this point, the show seems content to build on its own mythology, which is a good thing. One can not survive on easter eggs alone.

And we have our first cliffhanger ending! It’s no wonder this was the last episode released to the press before the show went live. Lots of anticipation built up for the “finale” of the first half of the season. So, please come back in two days when we delve into the depths of episode 6, “Condemned.”

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