22 March 2016

Daredevil vs. Flash - The Effects of TV Getting More Comic Book-y

I didn't really care for the first season of Netflix's Daredevil at all. Besides the lackluster production values and shoddy acting, it seemed to never pace itself well and the episodes felt like they took forever to complete. I'd literally be depressed when I saw that the next installment was an hour long. I'll refine these criticisms later, but despite all this, I was looking forward to Season 2, which dropped last week, mostly due to the introduction of The Punisher, which has been a favourite hero of mine since the time I realized that guns are cool. What followed was what should have been expected - I loved every single Punisher scene but the rest of the show drags itself through shit.

I want to compare this to CW's The Flash because even though the shows are tonally 180° from each other, they both followed this general idea of becoming more and more like their comic book counterparts after establishing audience buy-in. Both shows tried really hard to ground themselves in reality and then go totally out of control with insane comic book plotlines that make no sense in a rational universe. This is a tough line to walk, and granted both Daredevil and The Flash walk that line very well, without ever losing suspension of disbelief. So, let's talk a bit about both shows.
"M'ask you somethin..."

Daredevil is intriguing because of its subtle use of magic through the nefarious secret ninja association, The Hand in the latter half of Season 2. I recall how worried pundits were about the Marvel Cinematic Universe incorporating the magic of Thor's world into the "grounded" world of Iron Man, although the conceit should rather be that it takes exactly as much suspension to believe a man can build an advanced metal suit as it is to believe in a magic hammer. That is to say, all of the periphery isn't really what grounds the universe - it's consistent tone, aesthetics, and characterization which completes the universe. The coming introduction of Doctor Strange (2016), which I believe everyone hopes will be off-the-wall bonkers has a similar fear, that magic will disrupt a Universe based in logic, but that's a fallacy. It will neither be disruptive, nor is there actually anything to disrupt. What Daredevil and The Flash have proved, as soon as the audience is on board, you can push just about anything.

The Hand in Daredevil is really a show of comic book insanity, and demonstrates how modern adaptations aren't afraid to stay pretty close to their source material. Recalling the Ben Affleck Daredevil (2003) (which I'll still defend), the film stuck to a lot of action film conventions, and while it dropped subtle comic book hints, more or less stuck with a realistic, if stylized plot, at least in the sense of favoring convention over weirdness. Comic book plots are inherently serialized, but also tend to be convoluted, intricate, steeped in jargon, inter-connected with other simultaneous stories (a 1960s Stan Lee innovation born out of a need to keep track of everybody), and bathe in a nerdiness born out of deep world-building, establishing iconography, and fostering cultural obsession. Daredevil and The Flash as they lean more into these sorts of stories more than earlier superhero films did. Notably, this is also a feature of more recent successful comic book films. It's amazing that true comic book film success was emulating their originating medium rather than applying the conventions of their new medium.

In my diatribe against Daredevil last year I made some cogent arguments, but with a whole other season to refine my thoughts I think I've figured some stuff out a little better. I made a passing reference that if the show was 42-minutes on FX it'd be a lot better, and after seeing this on other Netflix show, I'll contend that throwing away the length requirement is a huge detriment to these shows. Showrunners are now allowed to indulge themselves, ignore the positive effects of tight editing, and pass it all off as a "slow burn" show. There's nothing wrong with slow burns, but Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul still actually have stuff happen each episode. There's a sense of looser reigns, which seems great for artists, but that contention also makes it seem like successful producers and network executives have always stood in the way of great television. That idea would purport that there has been no great TV ever. That's sort of an insane assessment, and some sort of system of checks should be implemented for streaming shows that suddenly find themselves without restriction or inhibition.

Daredevil Season 2 still has a lot more tell than show, which is partly why the generally silent Punisher is such a welcome addition. Like his role of Shane on The Walking Dead, Jon Bernthal's character quickly establishes himself as the most interesting dude on the screen, through a combination of his barely-suppressed rage, high level of perceived righteousness, and the general showiness of the role. It's pitch-perfect casting, even though I'm also a fan of the Tom Jane interpretation, particularly "Dirty Laundry."
King Shart!

Let's steer back towards The Flash for a second, which I actually had compared last time. It's interesting that these shows have become parallels for each other, perhaps because they both feature dudes in red suits kicking ass with their friends. The Flash keeps spinning into supreme nerdiness, though, often wearing its goofiness on its sleeve, yet so covered in heart and charm that it's instantly forgivable.

After a string of semi-plausible heroes and villains, The Flash started pouring on what would seem impossible for mainstream superhero viewing. Gorilla Grodd. King Shark. Earth-2. These are the kind of pulp villains and scenarios no one should take seriously, but it works in part because comic fans have been taking Grodd seriously for decades, and because the relationships between the characters is so solid that despite all the zaniness going on around them, you always believe their struggle.

It'a a strong caveat that every Flash episode is actually the exact same. Barry's going fast...a new metahuman shows up and finds a way to beat him...in order to beat the metahuman Barry must go...EVEN FASTER. I'm not sure how speed is the answer to literally every problem they face, but thank goodness it is! Again, though, all these flaws are pushed to the background because of how well the show relishes its own tone which is equal parts sincere and doofy. There's a reason why Barry Allen was conscripted into the Blue Lantern Corps (now who's nerdy...) - it's all about hope.

As both these shows lean into their source material, the better they get. It's as if they have thrown off the shackles of shame that we perceived pulpy comic stories to have all these years and they're fully embracing their intricate, obscure, and convoluted weirdness. The Flash actually does it with enough surface level junk to render paying close attention less meaningful while Daredevil fosters enough buy-in through traditional action scenes to bypass possible clashes in world-building.

What do you think of these shows? Which one succeeds more?

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