comics, comics criticism, marvel, TV, writing

You Gotta Make Your Own Stuff Work Out: Reflecting on Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye #6

You gotta make your own stuff work out. 

Writing is hard, even when you’re writing about things you love for nothing but yourself. It’s hard because writing requires something of you, from you. It doesn’t matter what. The act of writing is the act of self expression and vulnerability and frustration. 

Writing about things you love is not any easier because inevitably the things we love are busted and a mess and half- taped together. But you have to make it work. You gotta make your own stuff work out. 

Comics are broken and busted and exploitive and a mess. One of the most highly regarded superhero comics of the 21st century (Shelfdust’s 100 Greatest Comics of All Time list has fourissues appearing), Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and his primary artistic partner David Aja, is, at last, being adapted into a new massive Disney+ series with Jeremy Renner’s version of the character. The show isn’t shy about the inspiration, wholesale lifting Aja’s cover design and major set pieces. And it’s no criticism, the source material is rich and exciting. It’s a testament to the defining work these creators did that they are inextricable from the character. 

But comics and film, they’re busted. Fraction and Aja get little more than a thank you, no compensation for the work, no royalties on the tv show… it’s hard to love these things.

But we try, because to give up on it all,what do we close ourselves off from? We celebrate what is good in hopes that by so doing  these works of art and commerce can enrich and enliven us and others.

Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye is about a broken man who does his best but can’t put the pieces together to be the hero in his personal life that he presents to the world as an Avenger. A blond carnie with an Errol Flynn obsession, Clint Barton is a mere mortal among superpowered beings. Throughout the series he is beat up, bandaged or otherwise in over his head. The series’ sixth issue, “Six Days in the Life Of,” is perhaps Fraction and Aja’s most important issue thematically, a thesis statement for Clint’s journey of self destruction and listlessness. No matter what he tries to do, he can’t stop hurting himself or others. His life is splintered around him and the weight of the mess of all his baggage—all his stuff—contorts around him and the page itself. 

At its most basic, the issue follows a week in Clint’s life between Avengers missions as he tries to make his normal life work in the apartment building he purchased at the start of the run, and tries to keep its residents safe from the Eastern European thugs that want to develop the land. The issue is presented nonlinearly, days flashing back and forth. Aja transitions the scenes expertly, finding points of visual similarity to connect disparate moments into a cohesive whole. 

The issue opens with a collection of tiny square panels, of colored wires tangled together as Clint and Tony Stark tensely stare them down. Clint cuts a wire to avoid having to untangle them. We’re led to believe it’s a classic bomb disarmament scene, instead it’s a gag about Clint’s disastrous technology situation. He can’t face the mess of his VCR’s knotted up wires and cuts them away.

Aja’s layouts throughout the issue are a contrasting array of meticulously designed pages and details  and a chaotic interconnecting patchwork of tiny square panels. The classic grid structure  is mostly non-existent and instead Aja embraces the white space of the page, leaving tiny moments hanging in the air as the events of these six days in Clint Barton’s busted up life sweeps him away.

At the start of the week, the tracksuit mafia, as Clint calls the Eastern European thugs, threatens the building and get the better of Clint in a brawl. His first instinct to help the residents is to run away, feeling no one would miss him and their problems would vanish along with him. He places no value on his own life, beat up and lonesome as it is.

It’s only after sending his young protege Kate Bishop his bow as a farewell present that the selfishness of his decision is made clear to him. By running away and assuming his life leaves nothing for others to miss, he discounts those around him. When Kate confronts him he is forced to reckon with the harder truth of his own fear that has isolated him. Ultimately, he decides to confront the tracksuits in a dramatic full page splash that shows no action but conveys the full story.

The issue’s preceding pages are important to understand why this penultimate moment lands and is as dramatically effective as it is. As noted, up until this point the pages have been cobbled together by small disjointed moments. The complex and crowded panelling, the jumping around out of order, all inform us of Clint’s emotional state. There is something deeply wrong with him that leaves him unable to embrace those around him, to piece together his daily life or even recall it properly. It is a morass of moments and experience that he can’t quite bring into a cohesive whole until the issue’s end.

Writer Matt Fraction, when he was active online before smartly disappearing, has been remarkably open with his struggles with mental health, depression, and alcoholism and it is all but impossible  to read Clint Barton’s passive self destruction as anything but a deeply personal catharsis. Even superheroes can be damaged. The trick is to keep fighting.

The time jumps and dizzying Tetris layouts are rarely confusing thanks to Aja’s meticulous design, but they reward a close reading and rereading. The shifts are not random, instead focused on events or items that overlap and relate. Clint’s neighbor’s busted tv is because of his first skirmish with the tracksuits. Kate’s lecture is a direct response to his wrapping up the bow and handing it off to a bike courier in his apartment. The opening scene where he is setting up his home theater is a direct result of both of these events. 

Reading this issue, knowing how Clint gets to the point that he has asked Tony to help him set up the tv, having been challenged by Kate to stay and fight for the life he wants to have, in order to help his neighbors watch their Christmas specials, makes his brief speech to Tony about making due with what you’ve got even more powerful. On first blush it reads as a single outburst, a frustration with an out of touch billionaire. 

But it’s something more–a man trying for the first time to make an effort to make his messed up little life and all the busted parts of it just work for once. Because you gotta make your own stuff work. It’s the only way through the damn week.

Which takes us back to the splash page at issue’s end. The only glimpse of that Sunday is him stepping out in front of the apartment building in the snow, an arrow nocked. The apartment rises above him, the windows of the building echoing the traditional comics grid structure, tenwindows and a door echoing a twelve panel grid, the bank of snow separating the page into three distinct horizontal moments in time. 

It is a classic heroic moment. The dramatic catharsis of Clint’s nonlinear journey to stand up and put some effort into his life for once. It echoes a classic comic layout, but instead of big bombastic action, the apartment looms over Clint. It is the only thing that matters to him in that moment. The windows and their rectangular resemblance to comic panels guide our eyes across and down the page, forcing us to sit with the time and weight of Clint’s action. After a full issue of small panels representing rapid individual moments, the empty window panels expand the pause into different moments of dramatic tension.

But the emotional end is what follows, as he hosts his neighbors to watch Christmas specials. He’s decided to make this place with all its problems–all his problems– home. No more running.

I read “Hawkeye” for the first time when I was fresh out of college, in Los Angeles far from home and constantly feeling like I had made a monumental error, that I was in over my head and unqualified for what I was doing, and doing it poorly. I was in month four of  a new relationship that was now long distance for a full year, none of my friends or family around to lean on. I didn’t know where I would be in a year or two years or five. At the time, Clint’s speech felt familiar because my life felt a shambles, a broken patchwork of things I couldn’t connect after four years in safety as a student.

Now life is much different, married to that woman whom I left behind for a year, a new father in a home of my own, but I feel the pain in Clint’s attempt to make his broken stuff work no less. 

How often am I reminded that my body, with its inflamed intestines and scarred torso, is a broken thing itself? How often do the anxiety and depression that llurk within the confines of my mind threaten to overtake the things I have accomplished, whisper that I am worthless and i’d be better off hiding away forever where I could never bother anyone again? 

No, I’ve gotta make my own stuff work out. 

What Hawkeye reminds us, this issue particularly, remind us, is that life requires the courage to fight for the things we have that are important to us, even if they’re busted. Even if we have no idea how to do it, even if we can’t really see why they matter or why we matter to anyone else. We make the effort to reach out to a friend to help fix our TV set up, we help a neighbor with their Christmas decorations, or just sit with our dog for a moment at home.

It’s bittersweet to be a comics fan. Because like our own personal lives the business is a mess. I’m excited to watch the new show, to see how it spins the source material with a much different Clint Barton. But it is hard and disheartening to consume these books and shows, even deeply personal ones like Hawkeye issue 4, and know the unfair business practices behind it. But I guess that’s why I keep writing, to try and make these broken things mean something. Because comics, they’re ours, and we gotta make our stuff work.

comics, marvel, Perspectives, TV, writing

The Simple Beauty of WandaVision

You would be forgiven for thinking WandaVision was a complex narrative full of redirects, misleads and hidden clues in every frame. An entire ecosystem of takes, theories, and explainers sprang up around the series over the course of its eight week run. I found myself caught up in it, firmly convinced the arrival of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver was a sign of multiverse shenanigans, fueled by speculation of Wanda’s forthcoming appearance in Dr. Strange 2, subtitled In the Multiverse of Madness.

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comics, comics criticism, TV, writing

The Urbane Turtle Year in Review

2020 has been a hard year for everyone, there’s no way to say it that doesn’t sound trite. So let’s get it out of the way.  

All things considered, I’ve been fortunate. But there have been times that living through one more unprecedented event after another has been too much to bear, and there isn’t another dish I can wash. That is where escaping into entertainment has been a saving grace, and luckily there has been a lot to enjoy in pop culture, if nothing else, while we’ve been cooped up.

This list isn’t a Top 10, and it’s not a “Best Of,” I can’t claim to have read or played or watched enough of a cross section of things that came out this year that I can say with confidence they are the best in their given medium. But they are some of the highlights of these dark times for me, ten-ish things that brought me joy or made me think. If you’ve not checked any of these out yet, it’s worth doing so.

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comics, dc comics, TV, writing

Your Holiday Guide to the DCAU

I pulled this out of the archives of my old tumblr, Tim Likes Comics, dusted it off, and made some minor edits to present to you this helpful guide to celebrating Christmas with the heroes of the DC Universe.

Find yourself having trouble getting into the holiday spirit? Something missing in your life this Christmas season? This looks like a job for Superman. And Batman. And the Martian Manhunter. Because nobody demanded it, I’m going to run down for you fine folks the antidote to this year’s Scrooge Blues and give you the lowdown on what the DC Animated Universe has to offer your eyeballs and cold, cold hearts. Like Batman throwing a cup of scalding hot chicken soup at your face, this cup of DC Holiday cheer is the cure for all ills.

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Christmas with the Joker (Batman: The Animated Series DVD Volume 1 Disc 1)

I’m going to be honest, I’ve never particularly cared for this episode. The animation is some of the show’s worst, it is the first of many Joker stories about Joker hijacking a television feed, and Mark Hamill’s first outing as the Clown Prince of Crime finds him still grappling with how to portray the character. My original write-up of the story here reflects my  long time bias against it. It didn’t help that when my younger brother was just a toddler he would watch this episode on repeat.

Removed a few years from any previous watching, I have to admit… it’s pretty charming. What makes it work is that it’s played straight. The Joker hamming it up is perfectly in character and the use of the canned laughter is pitch perfect.  It’s over the top in a wonderful way and there is a lot of great subtle humor. From Batman having to be coerced into a night off, to his reason for never having seen “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and the general juxtaposition of Batman and Robin at Christmastime, there is something pleasantly absurd and humorous about the entire proceeding. I just can’t help but love Batman refusing to get into the spirit. 

Joker utilizing the Christmas variety show and twisting it to his criminal ways is the kind of thing he would do, and the way he balances the mayhem with his jokes is a fine example of who this show’s Joker is: equal parts clown and criminal. 

Of course, this episode has what every episode of Batman: The Animated Series does, even the worst ones: gorgeous music and lavish background artwork. Even when the animation or writing itself is lackluster the design work and atmosphere are gorgeous. And I’ve got to admit, it’s one of the first classic, memorable episodes of the series. It doesn’t quite have the holiday charm of some of the other episodes of this series, but if you’re looking to combine Batman and Christmas, then how can you ignore this pleasant romp through Gotham City? I also can’t deny the pure nostalgia that goes along with this classic.

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Heart of Ice (Batman: The Animated Series DVD Vol. 1 Disc 2)

This isn’t technically a holiday episode…or at all, really. It explicitly takes place during August. But do we need an excuse to watch one of the best episodes from Batman: The Animated Series? Listen, the snow, Batman having a cold… To me, it all feels like the holiday season. And something about it gives me that cold December evening feeling—so I’m just gonna go ahead and put it in this holiday bunch.

It’s a beautiful, haunting story propelled by the tragic and brilliant acting provided by Michael Ansara. The animation is stunning and seamless—the frost effects on Freeze’s helmet make him look better than he does in any subsequent appearance. It also digs into an interesting character component about Batman. Mainly, that his goal is more than just stopping criminals: it’s about redemption and second chances. He saves Freeze from himself, prevents him from committing murder. But it’s too late—Freeze has already lost the piece of who he is that makes him care about real justice. 

Maybe it isn’t a feel-good story, and it doesn’t really have much thematically to do with the joy of giving, and peace and such that we should look for during this time of year, but it’s…got something that feels kind of sweet, doesn’t it? Batman’s generosity of spirit is as important in August as it is on Christmas Eve.

Oh well, whatever—just watch it. There’s snow. And chicken soup.

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A Bullet for Bullock (B:TAS DVD Vol. 3 Disc 2)

Set in the week between Christmas and New Years Eve, A Bullet for Bullock is a hidden gem from Batman: The Animated Series. With an Emmy-winning score, great animation, and a story that focuses on a supporting character, it’s a superb, noir-inspired hardboiled detective story. The snowy, holiday backdrop perfectly compliments the moody jazz that plays through the episode and makes it feel straight out of a different era. If you are one of those “Die Hard is a Christmas movie!” types, this story should be right up your alley.

Batman The Animated Series’ Bullock is a great, complex character, brought to life with fantastic voice work—as most characters in these cartoons are. His team-up with Batman is handled perfectly, with neither man really liking the other very much. Later episodes focus more on superheroics, so the time spent with a supporting character benefits the world of Gotham as a whole.

While this episode isn’t explicitly holiday related it definitely benefits from its setting. The contrast of the deadly mystery and the jazzy Christmas twist to the score keep the episode off balance.

The somewhat twist ending gives Bullock an almost Scrooge-like lesson to think about. If you’re looking for reasons to watch Batman and want it to coincide with the season—look no further. 

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Holiday Knights (B:TAS DVD Vol. 4 Disc 1)

This is the DCAU Christmas episode that really fills me with nostalgic holiday spirit. It so far outshines Christmas with The Joker as a holiday special. It perfectly combines the holiday spirit with Batman. Written with wit and heart by Paul Dini, it is chock full of humor, action, and emotion. The mix of Animated Series score and classic Christmas tunes is part of what really makes this episode so delightful. From Harley and Ivy’s shopping spree, to Harvey Bullock as the Worst Santa in History, to the subtle playful animation of the new, younger, Robin, there is plenty to love.

With playful and sharp animation, Holiday Knights serves as an excellent introduction to the new look and feel of the final season of the series, now known as The New Batman Adventures.

What I love most about this episode is how much it emphasizes just how hectic Batman’s life is—over the course of just a few days all of these outrageous plots take place, and over the holidays no less! For Batman, there are no days off. Which is exactly what makes the final vignette all the more rewarding. A quiet moment between Jim Gordon and Batman relaxing as old friends and toasting to the new year and hope for better days to come. If that doesn’t capture the essence of this time of year, I don’t know what does.  It is a touching character moment made all the more poignant by how uncharacteristic it is to get in a 20 minute action cartoon.

This is probably THE holiday special to watch this season, if you have time for only one holiday cartoon. Frankly, I can’t understand why it’s not on TV somewhere every year.

BONUS: Holiday Knights was adapted from the BATMAN ADVENTURES HOLIDAY SPECIAL, and while the episode largely improved upon the source material, with a bit more room for the stories to breathe, the voice acting, and the music, there is one tragic piece missing from that book. The Adventures Holiday Special includes a wonderful and moving story featuring Mr. Freeze. Thanks to the release of the movie Sub Zero, Mr. Freeze’s wife Nora was brought back to life,and so the story wouldn’t work anymore. Nonetheless, it is an excellent short story that captures the best parts of the DCAU version of the character. If you can find it, and with some internet sleuthing you may be able to, it’s worth reading for that story alone. 

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BATMAN ADVENTURES HOLIDAY SPECIAL, art by Glen Murukami

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Comfort & Joy (Justice League Season 2 Disc 4)

While I don’t have the nostalgic affection for this that I do for Holiday Knights, since I didn’t grow up with it, this episode is an excellent holiday treat. It’s also a nice breather from the intensity of the Justice League series, especially before the epic finale, STARCROSSED blows everything up.

Taking a break from saving the world  (and the surrounding ones, as they do in the beginning of this episode) the League splits up for a holiday respite. Green Lantern and Hawkgirl spend some quality time together, Superman takes J’onn (Martian Manhunter) home to the Kent farm so he won’t be alone, while Flash takes it upon himself to get the local orphanage the most-wanted toy of the season. All of the stories are charming in their own way, but my favorite is the Clark and J’onn story. Seeing Superman as Clark in this series is simply wonderful, and it is the Kent’s welcoming of the lonely, alien J’onn that is the most heartwarming aspect of this show. And just watching Clark get so excited about Christmas is fun.

The Flash teams up with a super villain to bring some Christmas cheer to the children, and thus brings out the best in him. Meanwhile, GL and Hawkgirl have fun with their superpowers and flirt—thus taking part in one of the most extreme snowball fights in history. 

Justice League spends so much time chasing plots and action set pieces that to spend 20 minutes with these characters is a refreshing examination of who they are as individuals, helping making the subsequent stories even more heartbreaking.

It’s perfectly charming, superbly executed and 100% Christmas Cheer. What a fun way to spend 20 minutes.

That’s all, folks. Hopefully with this trip through the DCAU you’ll be in the spirit of the season and ready for a visit from Ol’ St. Nick.

Perspectives, Star Wars, TV, writing

The Mandalorian and Identity in Exile

The Mandalorian appears to be doing something fascinating in its second season as its threads begin to unravel themselves: Exploring the question of what it means to be “Mandalorian.”

The set up for this exploration seems to have been established near the end of season 1, where Cara Dune explains to Greef Karga that the Mandalorians aren’t a “race,” but rather “a creed.” To be a Mandalorian, as our laconic lead Din Djarin understands it, is to follow this creed to the letter, live in “The Way.” It is a Way of tradition, ritual, and visual signifiers. The helmet becomes the true face, providing a visual identity that binds a disparate people together into one community, regardless of what features might lie beneath the helmet.

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comics, marvel, TV, writing

Marvel’s Daredevil: Daredevil

Daredevil Triumphant

The final episode of Daredevil opens with a funeral and the first ten minutes finds all of the show’s characters defeated. Fisk’s murder of Ben Urich has brought no relief from his anger, and the double punch of Vanessa’s poisoning and his mother being found has left him even more paranoid of his partners. With Gao skipping town and some financial oddities on his accounts, Fisk has figured out that she and Owsley were responsible. He goes to take care of Owsley, who reveals he’s got an ace up his sleeve: Detective Hoffman, who has insider information on Fisk’s misdeeds.

When Owsley informs Fisk that he wasn’t the target of the poison, the animal is unchained and he throws Owsley down an elevator shaft. This action proves to be the Kingpin’s own undoing as the search for Hoffman is what leads Matt to find the crooked cop and get him to confess. The testimony and accusations against Fisk topples his empire and leaves most of the people under his employ arrested or under suspicion. In a triumphant victory march that comes at the halfway point of the episode and lasts for around five minutes, we see Fisk lose and the law firm of Nelson and Murdock celebrate. Matt finally found a way to bring his vigilante life and his career as a lawyer into accord.

Leading up to this victory is a slow reconciliation between Matt and Foggy as Foggy comes back to him with new information and evidence taken from Landman and Zack, with his ex-girlfriend Marcie’s help. Foggy is still mistrustful of Murdock’s extracurricular activities, but gradually begins to see that there is only so far the law can go, and that maybe Matt has become a little less unchained.

For Matt’s part, his attitude begins to shift, with less focus on beating the crap out of people to a more methodical and less reckless way of doing things. He still feels torn over what to do about Fisk, but also much more willing to listen to Foggy’s concerns and pleas. The scene at the boxing ring is a subtle, but significant shift in conversation from Matt’s early debates with Claire Temple about what he is doing.

Fisk’s apprehension is not the end of the story. Like most victories in the series, it’s shortlived. He gives a very on the nose monologue about one of the least critically analyzed, misunderstood, and most overused biblical stories, the Good Samaritan. Like most people in the world, Fisk tried to imagine himself as the Samaritan, without any thought he could be anyone else in the story. Of course he’s the guy who would help his fellow man! That’s what he’s been trying to do for Hell’s Kitchen all this time. Raise it up. Who doesn’t want to think that about themselves?

Of note in the Good Samaritan story is that the Samaritans were a very hated group of people in Ancient Israel. Like, super hated. If he was the one lying in the ditch no one would have helped him, because, hey, he’s a Samaritan and that’s where they belong. So that makes the Samaritan’s selflessness even greater. As Fisk talks about the Samaritan character in the story who selflessly helps others, the camera shows Karen, Matt and Foggy celebrating in their office. Just one portion of this speech that’s very lacking in subtlety. (Not that I need subtlety from this show! I don’t. I like the eager spirit with which its metaphors are projected.)

Fisk, though he’s not a religious man, was intrigued by this story and that act of selflessness. But in his current predicament he realizes that he’s been lying to himself about his true nature. He’s not a good person, or a selfless person. He is the “ill intent,” a phrase he derives from the men of ill intent that descended upon the traveler to Jericho. Suddenly, in the wake of everything that has happened, he realizes that his true nature is a man of violence, who seeks power over others.

He breaks out of the police motorcade with the help of some people loyal to him that are still free. Matt goes after him, taking a detour for the new suit that Melvin Potter has made for him. Feeling the  horns on the helmet of the suit, Matt smiles. His symbol is ready.

The two fight in an alley, Fisk releasing all of his fury upon Daredevil. Blaming him (somehow?) for all that has befallen his corporation. It might be a misplaced anger, but he’s going to make Daredevil pay.

Ultimately, in a good story, a character’s external conflict must in someway be an extension of the inner conflict. When these two forces finally meet as equals for the first time, their converging stories crash. Fisk, torn between his desire to turn himself into a good, powerful man, and Murdock, who fears he may become one of ill intent, lash out at one another. Finally, they see their distorted reflections up close and face their demons head on.

Though the Kingpin is not the martial artist Daredevil is, the pure rage and physical ferocity that D’Onforio so terrifyingly embodies makes him a physical match. The fight is not the down and dirty exhaustive fight of the earlier episodes. The show’s fight choreography has gone through a subtle transformation, going from a more martial arts, street level, physical brawl to a more stylized, fantastical approach. It makes sense, thematically, with the show’s interest in portraying Murdock’s journey toward this new superhero.

Ultimately, Matt takes down Fisk, and gets to savor the victory of standing over his enemy’s unconscious body and seeing him put in handcuffs. He escapes into the night. Fisk is sent to prison to await his trial, where he sits down on his cot and stares at the wall…and thinks of the man he wants to be.

And finally, there’s a happy ending for our good guys, who have been through so much. The losses are acute, but the victory is emotionally significant nonetheless for both the characters and the viewer. At last, the Law Office of Nelson and Murdock is christened with its plaque, and the team is back together. At the same time, the paper gives their mysterious new horned hero a name: Daredevil. A frightening reminder in the dark that reminds the city’s evil doers that there are consequences for their actions.

A final conversation between Karen and Matt hints that not all wounds are healed. Matt assures Karen, as he did Foggy earlier in the episode, that though you can’t return to the way things were or undo the things that have happened, they can move forward to heal their wounds. Together.

Heroes always get back up off the mat.

Stray Thoughts

  • I was so excited to see Daredevil’s collapsible billy clubs in action!
  • I really dig the Daredevil costume in this show. Utilitarian but still true to the comics. You never quite get a good look because of the lighting, but it fits the world of the show very well.
  • Melvin Potter makes a point of asking Murdock that Betsy will be alright. Matt assures him he’ll keep his promise. It feels like an unnecessary exchange if that’s not followed up on in the future. Perhaps we’ll see the Gladiator in action?
  • Sad to see Owlsley go. Such a lovable villain.
  • Have I shared with you this amazing fan video yet, set to Chumbawumba? If so, oh well. If not, watch it in all its glory here.

Marvel Facts

  • Speaking of Owsley…there’s a character in the comics with the same name who becomes a super villain called the Owl. Obviously our Leland never takes on that identity, but there’s been a son mentioned a few times, so if it’s Leland Jr. there’s a slight chance he’ll show up. But who knows?
  • Since starting up these recaps (and thanks for sticking around if you did, I know the show’s been out for a while) we’ve gotten a lot of news about the future of the series. Let’s recap:
    • Season 2 is happening. Yay!
    • The Punisher has been confirmed to appear and will be portrayed by John Bernthal. This is cool, because I’m not a big Punisher fan and would much rather see him in a supporting, antagonistic role to a character I do enjoy. The difference in method and ideology should make for some great drama and action scenes.
    • Elektra has also been confirmed! She will be portrayed by Elodie Young. Everyone knew this was going to happen if we were going to get a season 2. But nice to see it official. I hope the creators don’t go as off the rails with her as Frank Miller eventually did.

And that’s all she wrote, folks. Excelsior!

comics, marvel, TV, writing

Marvel’s Daredevil: The Ones We Leave Behind

Vondie Curtis-Hall, absolutely killing it throughout the show as Ben Urich

In the penultimate episode of a show, the creators have to make a lot of moves to set up the season’s conclusion. In the case of “The Ones We Leave Behind,” the Daredevil writers have to begin paying off very methodically paced story developments and character arcs. The thematic crescendo of the closing can’t take place, but there has to be something dramatically powerful or impactful that thrusts the viewer into the final chapter. Characters that are separated begin to find their ways back to one another. Pieces are being moved across the chessboard.

This episode manages to pull off everything an episode of this nature has to. All the characters begin to circle one another to converge toward the conclusion. If the centerpiece of the season was Matt Murdock’s abject failure against the Russians and Kingpin’s destruction of the city, everything that followed tumbled downward from that point. Our heroes need to rally. Our villain needs to make his final move.

Fisk has been pushed into a corner. He has nearly lost the woman he loves in an attempted assassination attempt. His closest (perhaps only) friend and confidante has been killed. Someone has violated his sacred privacy and spoken to his mother. The title of the episodee, “The Ones We Leave Behind,” relates to those people that are left in the wake of our actions when we become consumed by an idea or a goal. It is our selfishness, our foolishness, the human nature to forget that our actions have consequences. Fisk is so self-consumed for his need for power that he considers all others expendable. All but two others. But he has never considered how dangerous a man he is to be around because of his own machinations. Yes, he warned Vanessa of the danger, but that was from outside forces, not because of his own poor choices.

For Matt, this has been a major point of pain for him, and one Karen confronts him over. What man is he choosing to be? If nothing else, this season has shown Matt that he does not want to be alone, and that the way he operates has to change if he is going to continue his life as a vigilante. And he is realizing it, here, in a sort of redemptive arc. The emotional torture of his predicament seems to have become replaced with a more relaxed acceptance and a regret for past actions. He is starting to realize that he does not want to kill—even if he had to learn it the hard way through a failed attempt. He is starting to realize he cannot do everything alone, and regrets his feud with Foggy. He realizes that there is space for Matt Murdock to show himself from behind the mask.

This was seen a little in the last episode, but also in his relaxed conversation with Ben Urich. A new ally and what seems to be a budding relationship. Matt even admits, “I can’t do this alone.” A far cry from the martyr complex that raged within him previously. His confidence, despite his losses, have led him to be more sure of himself, calmer, more precise. The battle raging within him is quelling itself as he begins to realize who he is at his core. Matt even takes a new approach with the police, attempting to place his trust in one particular officer he knows. It’s a tense conversation, but it’s the beginning of a dialogue.

In the meantime, Foggy continues to go at Fisk through legal channels and hard work. Different paths, same trajectory. Foggy is very much the conscience of the group, and may have the clearest morality of anyone on the show. Though the two are on the outs, they represent parts of a whole. Karen, on the other hand, seems to be coming apart as Matt tries to put himself back together, pushing Ben to get the story published, heedless or uncaring for any consequences.

Ben, for his part, is acutely aware of the responsibilities he has. He is not willing to leave those behind because he’s reckless—but Karen’s insistence sparks something inside him that he is unable to let go of. A heart to heart with his wife convinces him. The attempt goes sour, and after a public argument with his editor, he’s canned.

I said it before, but Vondie Curtis-Hall is perfect casting as Ben Urich. He has the perfect ability to provide the perspective of the every man in the world of Hell’s Kitchen and the larger Marvel Universe. He is a great entry point for the audience to understand the dangers that Fisk poses and the living situation of so many people that Matt Murdock cares about. He is lovable, despite his edges. He is funny but wise. Passionate and eager for a story, but reasonable.

And so it is only natural that he is murdered at the end of this episode. The reckless action Karen’s taken, the little guy against the larger-than-life corporate evil that Fisk represents, comes home to roost. Actions have their consequences, and there’s no room for heroes in Hell’s Kitchen. Not when those heroes threaten the Kingpin’s goals. Not when they affect him personally. As Murdock begins to regain his humanity, Fisk lets loose the animal raging inside him.

The appearance of Fisk in Karen’s dream in the beginning of the episode both foreshadows the ending of the episode, and makes the event more surprising and much more concrete. We were already faked out once, so this is the real dilemma. It’s a legitimate threat. And then it happens. It’s a heartbreaking loss.

One of the strengths of this first season of Daredevil as a whole is the way in which its characters and its worlds have to deal with the consequences of their actions and how those consequences ripple beyond the individual. As this episode’s final moments emphasizes, reckless action takes its toll. Ben has to pay for what is, ultimately, Karen’s failures and sloppiness, and his own stubbornness and desire to get another great story that blinded him enough to rush it into production.

But what makes a hero is the ability to overcome these kinds of great tragedies and persevere. Fisk is not able to persevere, and flies into a murderous rage.

Stray Thoughts

  • Madame Gao is definitely a floating plot point. We get a street name for the heroin that affirms its connection to Iron Fist beyond just the decal: Steel Serpent. So, is she setting up Defenders, or Iron Fist, or both?
  • Speculation she is a character known as “Crane Mother,” an Iron Fist villain. From the mystical city of K’Un L’un, which is connected to Iron Fist’s origins. When she refers to returning home a “considerable distance farther” than China, it certainly hints at something mysterious. Not to mention she laid out Murdock with the palm of her hand.
  • I’m a sucker for super heroes doing their thing in their civies. This episode was no exception. Also cool to see some of our first glimpses of Murdock’s rooftop acrobatics which I don’t think has really shown up yet.

Marvel Facts

  • Karen makes a joke about going from alcohol to the hard stuff…which might be a dark comic jab at her story arc in the comics where she gets super strung out on drugs, goes into porn, and sells Daredevil’s secret identity for a fix.
Daredevil holding a baloon with a monkey on it
comics, marvel, TV, writing

Marvel’s Daredevil: The Path of the Righteous

It’s got a monkey on it.

The episode’s title, Path of the Righteous, sets up Matt’s journey in the final few episodes. After a disastrous attempt to kill Fisk, and another chat with his priest (which is handled less deftly than their last conversation) Matt realizes he can’t go on like he has. The fallout with his eruptive fight with Foggy leaves him confused and broken—beyond just the physical stitches that Claire Temple continues to patch up in this episode. The two have a brief conversation, with Claire coming around a little more to Matt’s way of thinking. Matt may not be just a man the city needs, but a man the city created. His internal struggles—the straddling of righteousness and passion against anger and violence—are very much a product of the situation in which he grew up and was surrounded by. The dialogue in this episode is not the series best, with Claire warning Matt that the only thing she really “remembers from Sunday school” were the stories of the saints, the martyrs and saviors. All of whom ended up bloody and alone.

The isolation Matt has created for himself is highlighted in the image of Matt sitting alone in his dark room holding the balloon Karen gave him. “It’s got a monkey on it,” she says meekly, when it’s clear that Matt is not going to share anything about his life or what’s going on with him. Isolation seems to be the name of the game this time around, as Karen is boxed out from both Foggy and Matt, while Foggy and Matt have cut themselves off. As Claire temple leaves the city, Matt finds himself with no support left—just the situation Stick said was inevitable. Foggy found himself drunkenly back in the arms of his ex “soulless” corporate lawyer. Fisk similarly finds himself isolated as Vanessa fights for her life. He is not sure he can trust his criminal partners, and at the same time Wesley leaves to handle Karen—who he just learned has gone to see Fisk’s mother.

Matt is forced to ask himself, when you are abandoned how do your continue on? What keeps you going? When there’s no one left around you, all a person has left is their conviction. For Foggy, it is the friendship he feels is so important, as well as the quest for justice that drives his career. For Karen, it is the passion to make things right, by any means necessary. For Fisk, it is rage and vengeance. As Vanessa lays dying, he tells her he cannot pray for her. He is not a religious man. He can only promise he will act definitively to seek retribution. Matt has his conviction that the city can be changed for the better, and that he can help make that happen.

Father Lantom and Matt chat more about the devil in the church. Matt wonders why God put the devil inside of him, why he has so much rage and violence as a part of who he is. Fr. Lantom opines that perhaps the devil was created, and allowed to fall from grace to become a symbol, a warning to “tread the path of the righteous.”

Matt’s faith, his desire to find a meaning for his accident and unique gifts, to make a difference, is set in stark contrast to Fisk’s actions. Matt struggles with his more violent urges, whereas Fisk has made it a part of who he is. When Matt fails to kill Fisk, he begins to realize that perhaps that is not his path.  To deal with what he has lost, he seeks to take a more righteous path.  This change in attitude is apparent in his dealings with Melvin Potter, who he seeks out to create a new costume, a “symbol,” for him, using the same lightweight armor technology he discovered on Fisk. He speaks to Melvin with compassion, a far cry from the growling night prowler persona he has used exclusively while in costume. This is the closing act on the origin story of Daredevil, and I imagine that the man we saw in the first two thirds of this series is not the man that will be returning in season 2. There’s darkness in Matt Murdock, no doubt, but more deeply there is a passionate man who cares deeply about serving others. It’s the man who wants to defend the little guy in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s the man who comforts Melvin Potter and assures him that he will help.

And while Matt begins to discover the righteous man inside of him, we learn that there is a much darker side to Karen Page than we have known. As she sits opposite of Wesley and points a gun at him, she asks, “What makes you think this is the first time I’ve fired a gun?” Ben Urich hinted at a secret in her past. What brought her to New York?

Ben continues being a quiet but stalwart supporting player in the series. I haven’t talked about him nearly as much as I want, but Vondie Curtis-Hall’s performance is so well executed and brings such tired authority, especially to the paternal relationship with Karen, that it is hard to talk about. He is the perfect every man window into this world.

Stray thoughts

  • This episode is good overall, but contains one of the poorer scripts. Dialogue is at times painful.
  • We still don’t know who tried to kill Vanessa. I know this story is pretty much taken from the comics, but the fact that every otherwise strong woman in this show is victimized at least once in this series is frustrating. Hope they knock that off in season 2.
  • Leland Owsley is such a fun character. He is just completely unintimidated by all these scary people.
  • RIP Wesley, you were a good friend, but also kind of creepy.
  • Matt asks Melvin to create a “symbol” for him. Perhaps Father Lantom’s description of the devil as a sign  or warning for others to tread the path of the righteous stuck out in Matt’s mind. He’s also stated on a number of occasions that he has a bit of the devil inside him. The Daredevil costume then becomes an outward sign of his internal struggle turned toward a symbol of justice and hope for others that justice can be served.

Marvel Facts

  • Melvin Potter’s workshop and fight with Matt is full of fun easter eggs. From the legs of notorious villain Stilt Man, to blueprints for the Gladiator costume and Melvin throwing a buzzsaw at Matt.
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Marvel’s Daredevil: Nelson v Murdock

Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock and Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson

The triumph of last episode’s reveal of the Nelson and Murdock, Attorney at Law sign is undercut as Foggy, disgusted, tosses the plaque in the trash.

Nelson v Murdock” is propelled by astounding performances from Elden Hensley and Charlie Cox. With the majority of the episode’s run time taking place in scenes of the two of them in conversation, the casting and performance of these best friends were more important than ever, especially because they had to portray the characters in vastly different circumstances at different times. The chemistry between the two and the way they pull off the pain that Matt’s secrets has caused creates a deeply moving episode that is uncomfortable and painful to watch. With the argument cut between scenes of the two meeting and becoming friends in college, the depth of their friendship—their brotherhood—becomes clear. Smart writing and editing makes the fight all the more heartbreaking with quick cuts from happier times to furious and sullen stares from Foggy.

The episode comes late in the run time, and it’s moments like this that make all the time spent on building the characters and revealing who they are and what they care about  early on so worth it. The emotional payoff is significant and meaningful as the two best friends are at such extreme odds.  The episode only works because character has been such a focus on the show.

One of the great things about Daredevil as a series the way it deals with consequences of actions, begging the question, “What is a hero?” That’s really what Foggy’s argument forces Matt to ask himself. Would Matt be more heroic if he was just the man Foggy thought he was? Foggy becomes Matt’s conscience personified. The arguments he has been gripping with and able to push to the back of his mind come to bite him as his best friend stands there in front of him betrayed and hurt. Everything he knew about Matt is  a lie. He has a whole second life. Foggy knows that Matt’s dad never wanted him fighting. He knows that Matt is always talking about the importance of the law.  He sees the hypocrisy of everything Matt has been doing and calls Matt out on it. Even going so far as to compare him with Fisk.

“The city needs me” argument doesn’t fly with Foggy at this moment when he is so hurt and shocked. He forces Matt to see that he doesn’t do what he does in isolation, that the consequences could hurt others.

  • “This city needs me in that mask, Foggy.”
  • “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it does. But I don’t. I only ever needed my friend.”

What is a hero? Is Matt a hero, when he is taking the law into his own hands and contemplating murder? When Foggy was out on Matt, he has to ponder all those questions.  One cannot be savior and oppressor. The question is, will Matt continue on the path he has set out on?

The scenes of the two in college provide a contrast and much needed levity in the midst of such heavy discord.  The drunken conversations and transition from awkward first encounter to heart-to-hearts on the steps and starting out as business partners gives us an even clearer glance into the bond the two have, and provide Cox and Henson a variety of scenes to play.

Meanwhile, Ben and Karen continue to play off and inform one another. They have an interesting mentor/mentee kind of relationship, with Ben the withered veteran and Karen more tireless, reckless, and sometimes manipulative. The reveal of Karen’s true motives in taking Ben to the retirement home/hospice care center is both disturbing in the way she used Ben’s situation and shocking from a story perspective. The fact that Fisk’s mother is alive is a potential game changer for the manufactured history he presented to the world when going public. Vend Curtis-Hall continues to portray the perspective of the every man with such measured charm and grit that makes Ben Urich every bit the character he was in the comics. He’s fearless, but tired, passionate, but measured. When he gives Karen the evidence he’s collected to take the editor job and pay off his wife’s medical bills, it’s clear that he does is it with regret. But he is old enough and wise enough to know that he can’t put himself first when his loved ones need help…Actions and consequences. A familiar theme.

Fisk is dealing with his own issues, as well. With the death of Nobu, both Madame Gao and Owsley no longer trust him. They see his relationship with Vanessa as a weakness. A liability. They want the man who will do whatever is necessary. Someone who has to worry about a girlfriend or a loved one? There’s no room for that. While Matt Murdock has to come to grips with the fact that his actions affect the people he cares about, Fisk is being pushed to let go of all of his attachments. Vanessa’s attempted assassination to goad Fisk into becoming his more brutal self is a plot point lifted directly from the comics. So much so that my first thought was that Wesley was responsible. As this episode ends we are not sure who did it. But everyone close to Fisk is a possible suspect.

Actions and consequences.

As things close on this episode, it becomes apparent that we are reaching a turning point in the series. Both Fisk and Murdock are at crossroads with intense circumstances that force them to reevaluate their operations. Things can only get more explosive as the third act unfolds.

Stray thoughts:

  • “Misspelling Hanukkah is a mistake! Attempted murder is something else.”
  • There’s been enough “Avocados at Law” memes since the show was released that I won’t bother quoting the scene, but it’s definitely one of the highlights of the episode.
  • “Isn’t that the plot to Kung Fu?” it’s funny because it’s true.
  • Would’ve been nice to see Claire Temple in this episode, rather than just have her mentioned. But I imagine Rosario Dawson’s paycheck is a little bigger than most of the others and they need to pay her in all the other Netflix series where she’ll be appearing.

Marvel Facts

  • Like I said, a major part of Kingpin’s story in the comics was the attempted murder of Vanessa.
  • Roxxon Industries is a long running company in the Marvel U. They are notoriously corrupt. The tradition continues.
  • The “Greek girl” Foggy mentions in the college flashback is an obvious reference to ELEKTRA! Who Matt dated in college and later returned to be an assasin. She was created by Frank Miller in his initial run.
comics, marvel, TV, writing

Marvel’s Daredevil: Speak of the Devil

Matt and Fr. Lantom

My first thoughts as this episode begins? THE HAND, SUCKER!! That is a full-on red clad ninja out to kill Daredevil. I knew Nobu was not just Yakuza. My second thought is, man I wish there was a Ninja Turtles movie like this. Mostly because the TMNT origin is based on Daredevil and every time I see or hear The Hand, I think of the Foot Clan. (The original Ninja Turtles comic was a direct parody of Daredevil’s origin, with the radioactive ooze that blinded Matt also splashing on four regular turtles and mutating them. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird were parodying what was hot in 80’s comics, which was ninjas and mutants—Daredevil and X-Men.)

Anyway. We find out a lot about Kingpin’s evil plot to gentrify Hell’s Kitchen by any means necessary. We still don’t quite know why Fisk is working with Nobu, but we do know that he and his organization (THE HAND!) was guaranteed a significant amount of space in the new city. Which explains the plot to drive people out of Elena’s apartment building. Fisk’s goals aren’t particularly evil, at least on the surface, but his methods are destructive and his desires are much less virtuous than probably even he believes. I imagine that Nobu’s “necessary evil” is man power and enforcement. Ninjas to do killing.

Nobu is very adamant about having a particular space in the city. Why is unknown, but he makes it clear that he is under pressure from his superiors. Knowing that The Hand have a mystical element to their actions, it’s likely there is something at play in that world.

At the same time, Fisk and Wesley discuss how the Mask has been less active recently. Is he scared, or just being more careful? Following the events of “Condemned” and the city turning on him, Matt’s tactics change significantly. Realizing he is at a disadvantage and always a few steps behind Fisk and co, he seems to be turning his attention to the legal system and working with Foggy and Karen. But that doesn’t stop him from pondering taking drastic measures. Which is what takes him to see Father Lantom twice in this episode. When the trailer for this series featured the snippet of dialogue, “I believe the devil walks among us, taking many forms,” I was ready to grit my teeth and struggle through another show that doesn’t know anything about Catholic faith or theology attempt to use its iconography. But, really, the series has a pretty solid take on it, and manages to make it feel authentic and believable. The devil is tricky, theologically speaking, with no real consensus and some priests rejecting the notion entirely. So the way Fr. Lantom talks about the devil is pretty refreshing, and, most importantly, from his own experience. It was especially so because they took the time to talk about the evolution of the word Satan in the biblical text, which is a nuance often missed not just by television but by the general public.

“I had this notion… which I was more than willing to speak about, at length, to whoever I could corner… that the Devil… was inconsequential. A minor figure in the grand scheme…In the scriptures, the Hebrew word “Satan” actually means adversary. It’s applied to any antagonist. Angels and humans, serpents and kings. Medieval theologians reinterpreted those passages to be about a single, monstrous enemy. In my youthful zeal, I was certain I knew why. Propaganda. Played up to drive people into the Church.”

Catholicism and fundamentalism are not the same, and a show claiming to be about a Catholic that went with the angle that the devil is a real evil creature walking around in the world would be a big fat red flag that the writers had no sense of what they were talking about. But Father Lantom has a more subtle understanding of the devil and evil through his missionary experience in Rwanda. The idea that the “devil” exists among people is palatable in this context, and probably as close to a general consensus of Catholic theology as is possible to get. It also works on a thematic level, in the conflict between Kingpin and Daredevil.

It’s not just the conversation at the beginning that’s handled well, but all of Matt’s interactions with the priest. Father Lantom is presented as a regular person, which is a big failing in so many shows where they make priests into characters who spout bible verses and are all-knowing wisdom speakers. I especially liked that Father Lantom doesn’t remember the particular verse he is quoting. Catholics are not the bible quoters that protestants are…My biggest pet peeve is when people who write fiction have Catholics or priests quoting chapter and verse all the time. It’s just not a part of the education or the major emphasis. It’s a lazy way of lumping all Christians together.  And even in the first episode, when Matt comes to confess before actually committing anything, Lantom is quick to point out that it doesn’t work that way.

The Proverb that Father Lantom shares with Matt (which is Proverbs 25:26, for the record) represents a major theme of the series. “Like a muddied spring or a polluted well are the righteous who give way to the wicked.” Meaning, when a righteous man falls to sin, it is as bad as if a public spring has been poisoned. The effects ripple to those around him. Matt feels himself hanging on a precipice. When put to the question of whether he is conflicted because he is “struggling with the fact that you don’t want to kill this man, but have to, or that you don’t have to kill him, but want to?” Matt is fully aware that murder is against everything he believes in. At the same time, he feels like the best option is to commit such a major sin. But is it his anger talking, or the real truth? He can’t be sure. The consequences could ripple to everyone he cares about.

In this episode Matt and Fisk come face to face for the first time, which shakes him to the core. To speak with this man who represents everything he hates is one thing, but to be in his presence another. It’s interesting that Matt refers to him as “the devil,” when it is he who takes on the Daredevil name. It’s another way the show parallels the two characters. Is he capable of taking actions that Fisk has already taken? And if he does, how much closer does that make him to becoming Fisk—reshaping the city by whatever means necessary.  It is the things that Matt Murdock clings to that makes him a good man—things Fisk does not care about or have. Yes, Fisk has Vanessa, but Matt has a set of moral scruples and beliefs that are incredibly important to him.

It is his Catholicism and faith that puts him apart from the Kingpin. That’s what makes his conversations with Fr. Lantom so interesting. The show isn’t a perfect depiction of being Catholic (although certainly there is no single way of being Catholic) but  Matt is a man guided by his beliefs. It’s ultimately what keeps him from going over the edge. When Fisk reveals that he killed Elena just to get at Matt, he explains, “I took no pleasure in her passing,” as if that is some kind of justification for the act. He’s exceptional at lying to himself in order to justify his actions. Matt, on the other hand, is riddled with the guilt of his actions because they go against so much of what he believes. It’s that guilt which drives him, because he is also unwilling to simply sit back and allow things to unfold knowing he could potentially make a difference. The central conflict of Matt Murdock is the man torn between his passion for the law and his actions as a vigilante. Similarly, there is the man of faith torn apart by his violent life. The Catholic faith is what keeps Matt from becoming Wilson Fisk, a villain. It’s what drives him to help others, rather than rule over them. He sacrifices himself every night for the sake of others, rather than paying others to do dirty work for him.

Twice, Murdock comes into contact with Fisk in this episode, first as their hidden selves, and then later as their real personas. Matt lashes out at Fisk despite being beaten and bloodied by Nobu so badly he can barely stand. Which ends poorly for him, as one might expect. Fisk tears him apart, revealing his monstrous strength and animalistic, furious violence. It is a taste of things to come for both us and for Matt. D’OnForio is not as gigantic as the Kingpin of the comics, but I don’t think anyone realistically could ever pull off that physique. But he still cuts an imposing figure, especially when in the moments when he reveals his unhinged anger. His physical strength and the way he attacks by massive charges and punches is properly intimidating and even if he isn’t a martial artist like Matt or Nobu, it’s easy to picture him being a physical match just through sheer strength.

Speaking again of Nobu, the ninja fight is a far cry from the more grounded street level action, veering a little more toward the super heroic with high flying flips and kicks. It’s another small step toward expanding the world of Daredevil to something a little more than the more street level drama season one has focused on. The frequent cuts to the super-violent battle provide jolts of action to what is otherwise an episode focused on character.

The episode ends with a shocking reveal from the aftermath of Matt’s battle, where Foggy discovers his friend’s double life. I definitely wasn’t expecting them to take that step this season.

Stray Thoughts

  • “We are going to make a difference. I know it doesn’t feel like it sometimes… a lot of the time, but we are.” Hope! The potential and desire to make a difference is central to these characters and this show. I don’t see the series as purely a dark and gritty tale, but one of hope and people fighting to make a difference. It speaks to the Murdock gift to always get up after a fall, which was so important to the first couple episodes. No matter what happens, if you keep pushing, you can come away with a win.
  • The scene with the reveal of the Nelson and Murdock Attorney at Law sign is a sweet scene with an air of victory to it..even if it is short lived.
  • Matt slices Fisk’s jacket and discovers that it’s a fancy Kevlar laced thing that keeps him from getting hurt. Important little thing.

Marvel Facts

  • The heroin packet seen is emblazoned with the symbol of the Steel Serpent, an Iron Fist villain. So, Madame Gao, who distributes the stuff may be connected to that later series.