terça-feira, 22 de março de 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot, DAREDEVIL, Season 2

Este post foi escrito para a série Hit Me With Your Best Shot do blogue The Film Experience de Nathaniel Rogers, sendo que é aqui apresentado em inglês, ao invés do que é usual neste blogue. 

SPOILER WARNING: Be warned that there are many spoilers in the introduction and, obviously, each of the individual best shot texts of episodes you haven’t watched should be avoided if you wish to remain spoiler free.

Daredevil’s second season was, for a lack of a better term, overambitious.
The first season was, in many ways, an origin story, introducing us to our hero and letting us watch him deal with his past, his father’s legacy, his catholic guilt and his desire to see justice in the world, and then watch as he emerges fully formed, as the brutal and heroic Daredevil. It was both simple and curiously streamlined for a comic book narrative, bringing a certain modesty and street level drama to a genre that usually seems to be constantly enraptured in tales of cosmic battles and apocalyptic conflicts.

This second season, on the other hand, is increasingly bigger in scope, as well as much more interested in challenging its hero’s beliefs in his own legitimacy and heroism as well as the legitimacy of his violent methods. For this, the show brings in, two very different characters to act as reflections of Matt’s darker sides, Frank Castle and Elektra.

We are first introduced to Frank, and spend the first four episodes focused solely on his storyline, only to put it in the background, as Elektra’s presence dominates de following four episodes. By the ninth episode, the season has introduced a mountain of new plotlines, and the show starts to show severe marks of stress under the weight of all that information. I would even say that, despite several great episodes, by the end of the season, the entirety of it seems strangely overstuffed with plotlines it really didn’t know how to fully explore. It’s not that any of them are particularly bad, but the fact is that putting them all together in this single season of television was a catastrophic idea.

This is never more evident than in the last three episodes where the entire show seems to go off the rails, while the showrunners desperately attempt to force some sort of conclusion upon the season’s numerous narrative threads. Also, despite my praise of the show’s willingness to actively question its central character's beliefs regarding his morality, heroism and use of violence as a tool of justice, by the last episode the showrunners seem to have forgotten the thematic backbone of most of the season they have conceived until then.

While this season is infinitely more ambitious, both structurally, narratively and thematically than season 1, it also is incredibly less elegant and streamlined. The visuals, which are the main focus of this article, are still of amazing quality, but I couldn’t write this article without mentioning the way in which this season was, in many ways, a great disappointment to me.

Anyway, I propose we forget those narrative fragilities and examine each of my best shots for each separate episode. By the way. If you’re more interested in knowing which shot is the one I would consider the best of the entire season, that’s the one from episode 9, while the runner-up is the best shot from episode 5.


Episode 1, Bang

The first episode of the season opens with a terrific (and terrifying) action sequence where our hero seems to be more of a specter born out of Hell’s Kitchen’s shadows than a palpable human being. The director makes sure we only catch quick glimpses of Daredevil until the climax of the sequence, appropriately set in a small church. Still, none of that features in my choice for best shot, an image near the end of said opening where, after the masked avenger has left, we see the young girl one of the criminals had held at gunpoint, traumatized and crying over her assailant’s unconscious body. Daredevil is expert at showing the bloodiness of such fights and the emotional toll it has on the hero and his closest friends, but it rarely portrays in such an impactful manner the way in which everyone is affected by such moments of explosive violence, even the victims our hero supposedly saved with his righteous vigilantism. Also, the way in which her face is lit up by the red police lights while the stained glass figures loom over her as powerless onlookers is fascinatingly striking, especially when one considers the way the body laid at her feet almost seems to resemble a sacrificial lamb left at an altar of catholic worship.

Episode 2, Dogs to a Gunfight

After countless fight sequences of increasing bloodiness and terror, Daredevil runs the danger of anesthetizing its audience to the violence it so carefully portrays in all of its physicality and brutal consequences. Thankfully, the show is blessed with a great supporting cast of characters, namely Foggy Nelson, Matt’s best friend, business partner and who, in a certain way, functions as one of the show’s emotional anchors. This particular shot comes after a heartbreaking scene where Foggy finds Matt’s desperate figure on a rooftop after his friend had been shot by the Punisher at the end of the previous episode. The sudden cut of a sort of fraternal pieta to the Daredevil uniform lying on the floor is a masterstroke of image association, both suggesting the broken dead body Foggy is terrorized of one day finding, and the duality of Matt’s persona as an avenging demon and an idealistic young lawyer. While Matt may often seem invincible or unpreoccupied with his own suffering, such images and character beats as Foggy’s hostility towards his friend’s recklessness give the show the emotional and dramatic weight it sometimes seems in danger of lacking.

Episode 3, New York’s Finest

New York’s Finest is an episode that spends great part of its duration on a protracted dialogue between the Daredevil and the Punisher, where they argue about the legitimacy and efficacy of each other’s approach to vigilantism. Most of this text feels like empty platitudes with no real complexity, but thankfully this is also one of the most visually stimulating episodes, starting with its dreamy opening, where a nun washes the blood of a body (probably Matt’s). In this shot of blood unstoppably contaminating a bowl of water with its sanguine color, the show manages to offer a more challenging and interesting view of the episode’s themes without recurring to clichéd philosophy. The water may be used to clean a righteous hero’s body of the marks of his fighting, but it can’t avoid being itself transformed by the exposure to such aggression, turning from clear and pure into a cloud of watery blood. The show may not be always completely comfortable in directly confronting Matt’s bloodlust and sense of justice, but images like this can at least suggest more complicated perspectives on this issue than the ones the screenplay provides.

Episode 4, Penny and Dime

Despite it being an episode full of compelling images like the Punisher’s old house, an unsettling mausoleum of a forgotten life, and the entirety of the episode’s last ten minutes, my choice for the best shot of Penny and Dime befell on the above image of Daredevil quickly defeating a series of goons of the Irish mob. Sometimes, all you need is a dramatic location with beautifully lighting, and you have an enticing tableaux ready to be disturbed by a sudden silhouetted flash of movement and quick, intense violence. While Daredevil is a show rich in action sequences captured through energetic camera movements, there’s something wonderful about shots like this one, where the relative stillness of the frame is as dramatic as any brusque acrobatics.

Episode 5, Kinbaku

After four joyless episodes full of unmitigated bleakness (if you ignore that kiss in the rain), the show wildly changes its tone with the introduction of Elektra, whose presence in these first episodes is something like that of an electric jolt, springing Daredevil back to life with startling intensity. Her presence, it must be said, is used in great contrast to Karen’s, allowing the showrunners to create an hour mostly about the duality of Matt’s personality by using each woman as a catalyzer for a different aspect of the show’s protagonist.

And it’s not just the narrative that suffers a great change, for the visuals get shaken up as well, with Matt’s date with Karen introducing the show to a sort of pop urban romanticism it had never approached before, and his scenes with Elektra strongly emulating the style we’ve come to associate with the series and its vigilante hero.

For my pick for best shot I decided upon a frame that showed why Elektra, despite her obvious dark influence over Matt’s soul, is such an appealing character in these first episodes, allowing us to see a more relaxed side of Matt. Look at the two shots I posted for comparison, in the one with Karen, the couple is dominated by the space that surrounds them and Matt looks tense and uncomfortable, while in the one with Elektra there is no need for him to hide his abilities, or his darker side, and he is comfortable, relaxed and they both dominate the space, despite the striking similarity between the two compositions. It’s elegant and efficient visual storytelling, and much less blatant than the screenplay.

Episode 6, Regrets Only

After the beautiful dual date episode, Daredevil throws us back into the Punisher’s narrative (Elektra is present as well with glamorous spy missions, it must be said). My pick for best shot is the first time we really see Frank Castle in the episode, strapped to his bed in an empty hospital room. Sometimes, I think overhead shots are quite overused to add an easy dramatic flavoring to a scene that would have little of it without that particular visual flourish, but in this case the technique is employed with amazing efficiency. In this episode, we start to realize the ways in which Frank Castle, as well as being a murderous vigilante is also a victim of the legal system and its desperate attempts to cover up past errors. Accordingly, in our first full glimpse of our antagonist, he’s presented as if his bed is both a prison and a casket, the red tape around it giving the entire image the look of a strange and sterile funeral or burial, with Matt’s feet seeming to almost indicate someone looking down at this bedded figure as he is lowered to the ground and forever buried by the powerful institutions that want him to disappear. Maybe I’m reading way too much into this single image, but there’s something so strangely fragile about it, and also rigidly formal with its severe composition and the bareness of the set. Either way, it’s one of this season’s most memorable images, or a t least it is to me.

Episode 7, Semper Fidelis

As the season advances, one of its most fascinating and heartbreaking narrative threads is the growing distance between Matt and his friends, a process that is immensely helped by Elektra’s presence and the temptation of a life completely lived in nighttime heroic adventures. That alienation from his friends starts to bleed not just into their interactions but also into the way they are shot as a group. Often in the show’s run, when these three appear together they are presented as a united front, the three of them facing the same direction and blocked in such a way that all of them have equal relevance in the shot’s composition. However, as I previously mentioned, that united front starts to become little more than an empty façade or a willful lie they are telling themselves and, with images like this, it’s clear that not all is right in their relationship, professional and personal. Karen and Foggy are consumed by their work defending Frank Castle, while Matt, despite being the one that suggested such a course of action, is becoming increasingly unreliable and detached from the firm and his coworkers and companions. Therefore, when we see them in a wide shot of their office, Karen and Foggy are visibly working, with the rest of the shot being occupied by the mountains of files they have to process. Matt, on the other hand, is almost absent from the shot, only the top of his head marking his presence, and through a window that further obstructs our view of him. He may still be there on this particular occasion but, has this shot ominously indicates, Matt’s presence in this office and his friend’s lives is swiftly starting to fade away.

Episode 8, Guilty as Sin

“Stop acting like these things just happen to you”

In the way it starts to portray Matt’s actions, Daredevil ostensibly moves from being a show about a morally righteous hero to a show about a vigilante that thinks himself an island of moral fortitude against a world of all consuming darkness. That insular perspective never manifests itself in more obvious manner than in shots like this one, where Matt is framed in close-up, his face submersed in a pool of shadows, with only an amber outline defining his features. Behind him there’s some faint light, but our protagonist can’t face it, as he only seems to feel like himself when he is facing the darkness of the world head on, rarely stopping to think what that very same light might show him about his own approach to justice and the way in which he is affecting other people’s lives along the way. After all, despite what he may think, and what this shot may represent, Matt’s not an isolated island in a sea of darkness and the way in which he is treating everyone else in his life starts to have deeply hurtful consequences as the season advances. Also, this shot is beautiful and so is Charlie Cox’s face. (you may call me shallow, but it’s true)

Episode 9, Seven Minutes in Heaven

In season one of Daredevil we were treated to countless shots of Wilson Fisk overlooking the city’s nocturnal landscape (very much like our hero), but now, here he is, looking at the suffocating blankness of a white prison wall. In a horrifying way, he’s like an artist of moral perversion looking at a blank page ready to birth his newest creation, a brand new empire of corruption and violent crime. I must confess I wasn’t particularly happy with Fisk being reintroduced so quickly into the show’s narrative, but even I must concede that it worked by injecting a new sort of energy into the plot, at the same time it strongly contributed to the way in which this season takes an ideological dive into something very akin to nihilism. In other circumstances, I might have objected to such philosophical choices, were it not for the fact that it seems to be a morbidly fascinating approach to a superhero narrative in what is a mainstream TV show.

Anyway, the actual reason for my choice of this shot of Fisk looking at a blank wall as my best of episode 9 and the entire second season of Daredevil, has less to do with plot than with the show’s characteristic aesthetics, specifically its use of color.

Daredevil is a show with a very specific look, one of deep black shadows punctured by yellow light, pops of red in the form of a horned costume or blood, bleak daylight that never seems completely white, and conspicuously populated by people who only seem to possess dark colored clothing.

When the show starts portraying the prison life of Frank Castle and Wilson Fisk, that visual style is completely absent. Instead of it, we have a series of well-lit spaces with white walls, a conspicuous absence of deep shadows, and a cast mostly dressed in pristine white or bright orange. It’s strangely unsettling to be thrown into this world where the visual language is so distant from the one we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s only when Frank meets Wilson and the plot starts to take a downturn towards violence and corruption that this peculiar sense of light, color and order starts to return to the show’s familiar aesthetics.

The perverse thing is that, by the time the jail’s images have been contaminated by red blood, the black of the intervention forces’ uniforms, the amber light and dark walls of isolation and the badly lit shadowy infirmary, balance seems to have been restored in the show’s visual discourse. It’s unsettling how an environment of darkness, constant violence and suffocating corruption is, in a twisted way, so much more comforting and familiar than light, clean environments and bright colored clothing. Like Matt, after becoming invested in the world of this show, we, the audience, can only really feel comfortable in the shadows.

In a show full of brutal acts of violence, somehow the simple shot of a white wall can become the season’s most unnerving image. Now that’s great filmmaking!

Episode 10, The Man in the Box

Episode 9 may have featured my favorite shot of the season, but episode 10 was, by far, my favorite hour. The show might completely fall off the tracks in the last three episodes, but The Man in the Box is a small miracle of storytelling, where the showrunners managed to elegantly weave the several threads of the plot into a cohesive and rhythmically thrilling episode. Apart from its surprising structural and narrative exquisiteness, my other favorite aspect of this particular hour was the way in which the episode’s director employed horror imagery into the show, starting with the creepy opening full of starkly lit emaciated bodies, and ending with an hospital being attacked by magical ninjas, while inside, nurse Claire is living in a horror film, complete with menacing flickering lights and ominous dark empty corridors. Honestly, this shot is just so beautiful and memorable I couldn’t resist picking it. The way the ninjas move up the hospital’s façade is spellbinding, almost looking like shadows that have gained sentience and are travelling up the building in frightening silence. In a show full of visceral explosions of physical violence, there’s something seductive about an image of such elegant threat.

Episode 11, 380

Quite frankly, to me, this was the episode in which the show’s quality took a deep dive, and I confess I didn’t have much patience to ponder the visuals of this particular hour. In my pick for best shot, we see the titular character once again perched on a building while he observes a street below him where the dark underworld of crime thrives. Our hero, due to the composition and his physical stance (not to mention that costume), looks almost like a grotesque on a gothic church, looking down at the street. Only in this shot, our grotesque isn’t a sculpted demon but a masked vigilante, and, instead of a church, he is perched in yet another building of the urban jungle he inhabits. The presence of that street, brightly illuminated with so much yellow light it almost looks like some sort of fiery river, only adds to the mythological reading of such an image, and almost turns the shot into a parody or crystallization of Daredevil’s visual style, full of religious symbolism, dilapidated urban environments and a curious love of amber light in nighttime scenes.

Episode 12, The Dark at the End of the Tunnel

As the season reaches its final hours, the amount of subplots becomes too much for the show to handle and what was once a fascinating street view of superhero narratives starts to crumble under the weight of its own grandiose ambitions. Thankfully, the visuals continue to be compelling, even integrating that newfound grandiosity into the show with much more finesse and efficiency than the screenplay does, as well as providing the various character arcs with deeply emotional images that sometimes speak much louder than any words can. In my pick for best shot, Stick is saying goodbye to Elektra, his protégée, comforting her for one last time before she embarks unto another life, distant from him. Much credit must be given to the great performances of Scott Glenn and young Lily Chee, who make these convoluted and deeply expository flashback sequences into an affecting moment of human drama. I must also highlight the way in which the shot positions the stairway behind them, so that we can see the approaching figures of Elektra’s new family. As she says goodbye to one life, another one is already walking down the stairs. There’s something touching and ominous about this tableaux that fits seamlessly into the entire Elektra character arc, a narrative that had enough story in it to last two or three entire seasons instead of being forcibly crammed into less than 10 episodes.

Episode 13, A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen

In the first episode of this season, we found Matt, Foggy and Karen playing snooker in Josie’s. It was one of Daredevil’s most lighthearted moments, and it was a wonderful reintroduction to their team dynamics. The shot that opened that sequence pushed into Josie’s, going through the window in jovial energy, with the neon’s shining bright and full of the promise of happiness. In the end of the season we return to Josie’s, though this time Matt is conspicuously absent and Karen and Foggy seem to be having something of a wake in honor of their firm, and even their friendship. In this shot the camera is much more sedate as it pulls back from the scene, showing us, once more, the neon sign, which is flickering and not particularly bright. This season ends in a melancholic note, isolating Matt away from everything that once defined him as human. By the end of the day, he has almost became that which the visuals of the show have so symbolically wanted to portray him as, a demon, a devil, an avenging spirit, a personified shadow of Hell’s Kitchen itself. This is a sad image, but it fits the tone of the season’s last moments. Even so, while I appreciated the downbeat tone of the conclusion, I couldn’t stop myself from imagining what would have happened if this show had maintained the streamlined rhythms and simple storytelling of season one instead of trying to overstuff itself with countless plots and a grandiosity it didn’t need. Maybe this shot isn’t just a funereal celebration of what once was a strong friendship and an up and coming law firm, but also a mournful goodbye to that show of the past. 

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