March 29, 2020

Interlude: 30 Seconds Without Fear (Daredevil Season 3, Episode 6 “The Devil You Know”)

Streamed on Netflix Canada 41:00-47:05

Before I move on to my next long form break down (Atomic Blonde #30AtomicSeconds) I wanted to pop in a slightly longer post about one of the best fight scenes in superhero media, from Season 3 of the Netflix Daredevil series.

All my blog posts will carry the hashtag #30SecondsOfWick and be considered part of that series but also their own hashtags. For Daredevil it will be #30SecondsWithoutFear.

I won’t be breaking this down into thirty seconds chunks but considering it in its totality. It’s not so much about the incremental story of the fight as the way in which the physicality of the stunt performers and actors as well the environmental choices made by the production coalesce into a nearly perfect representation of what a fight involving superpowers should look like.

Obviously, this post will contain SPOILERS.

Just as an overview the two combatants of this fight are:

Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), the lawyer/hero Daredevil, who was blinded as a child but had all of his other senses boosted to super human levels as a consequence. That includes his sense of balance. He can ‘see’ after a fashion using echolocation so precise that he’s functionally not blind. He is also an accomplished boxer, stick fighter and gymnast — trained from his youth to be a warrior in a mystic battle that he at first rejected and then embraced. At the beginning of this season he is thought dead but was rescued and recuperated in the same Catholic orphanage where he was raised.

The villain is Dex Poindexter (Wilson Bethel), a modified version of the psychopathic Marvel villain Bullseye, a long time member of Daredevil’s Rogues Gallery. Bullseye has nearly (functionally) super human aim: he can throw anything hard enough, fast enough and with enough accuracy to make it a deadly weapon. Though he has a long and complex history in the comics (with multiple backstories, most of them lies), he’s streamlined here into the Platonic ideal of the character. Bethel’s performance is exquisite, combining lurking, unhinged menace with a mental and even physical fragility that makes watching Dex slowly unravel as the only things keeping him sane — rigid, immutable external rules — are deviously stripped from him painful and terrifying by turns. At this point, Dex has been given a replica Daredevil costume by Kingpin and unleashed to murder and mayhem, to discredit the hero in the eyes of the city.

In “The Devil You Know” Matt, his former law partner Foggy and their former secretary Karen are at the offices of the paper where Karen works —The New York Bulletin — as she interviews a man who can expose a large chunk of the Kingpin’s plans.

And Dex — in the Daredevil costume — shows up to kill him.

At 41:00 Matt — talking to Foggy suddenly stops, goes silent.

“What is it? Do you hear something?”


And the lights go out.

The Bulletin is a standard open floor office space, a central area converted into cubicles with offices on the walls. Karen, her editor, Foggy and the witness wind up locked in one of those offices. Dex slaughters several people in the open area, breaking necks mostly but one woman he kills with a single thrown baton to the neck that embeds itself there.

I need you to think about the physical details of that open plan office space. The room is a maze of desks with office supplies, head high shelves and the standard grey sound baffling partitions used to provide people a little privacy in that environment. Just hold that in your head.

Dex — his head literally buzzing with voices, his madness growing with every second he is cut off from his rules — smiles and throws his baton at Foggy, who’s dashed into the space looking for Karen. It would be another lethal strike.

Daredevil catches the baton just before it strikes Foggy.

The two men face off like gunslingers, like boxers, gently circling each other. Matt is cold, calm. Dex … smiles still, just a quirk of the lips. Foggy sprints away to the office with the others and the two warriors stand alone in the middle of that crowded office.

“Who are you?” Matt asks.

“I’m Daredevil,” the madman replies.

And the camera jumps to a wide shot showing them on opposite sides of the screen like characters from Mortal Combat. Matt hurls the blood covered baton he just caught at the imposter, presumably in a fit of rage, as they charge each other.

The baton misses.

The punches don’t.

The fight choreography for Daredevil has always been exceptional, making fantastic use of the precise, nearly inhuman physicality of Cox’s double Chris Brewster but also Cox’s willingness to ‘do the work’ as much as he could. Beyond that, they choreograph Matt as a boxer, with the clean, efficient strikes of western boxing and the brutality of Muay Thai (‘Thai boxing’) as primary components. This makes sense both in universe and is a comic-accurate note (Matt’s beloved deceased father was a boxer and he trains in a boxing gym).

The first flurry of blows exchanged (43:53-44:30) is in the open center of the room, close quarters, in a long uncut take. It’s — from the eyes of a fighter — beautiful, all pretty, crisp punches, short sharp footwork and flying elbows. And it goes on FOREVER (thirty seven seconds of linked action in front of and behind the camera is not easy to do) in that one take. This is masterful craft, firing on all cylinders.

I think this is Cox as Matt, though I’m not sure, and as always I adore when actors do the damn homework to learn how to fight realistically. There are several superlative camera moves, a pull out, a sideways VERY fast slide and a push in so this was obviously a steadicam shot.

It is impeccably choreographed, the camera adding urgency and intimacy by moments. Dex still has one of his steel batons and he starts to use it in the fight now, with Matt blocks and counters with his bare fists.

Matt knocks Dex down. Dex spits blood.

And rebounds his baton off the floor into Matt’s face.

Hmmm…strange that hit him. Matt should have caught it. Well, he’s still not a full capacity, still healing from the near mortal experience of having a building dropped on him in Defenders.

Dex charges and tackles Matt to the ground, clears a desk and starts throwing stationary. (This whole sequence–despite the literal life and death situation–is absurdly funny at times and contributes to one of the best bits of black comedy I’ve seen in years at the climax of the fight).

Dex begins indiscriminately hurling items at Matt: a stapler, a metal thermos. A lighting panel. Matt is reeling, unable to get back to his feet, as the items strike home or nearly miss him.

Again, it’s very odd these things are connecting. He’s basically dodged bullets in the past.

Matt dodges a hail of pencils, pens, scissors, as he flees the open area for the relative cover of the desks and partitions. Crouched in the maze, he reaches for small silver craft knife on a near by desk — and takes a pen in the arm, sending him reeling.

Everytime we see Dex he’s moving with calm efficiency, gathering weapons, looking for targets. He’s centered, controlled, in his element. But Matt is getting more frantic. Against one guy, he shouldn’t be on this much of a defensive.

Dex absolutely lays out Matt with a hurled computer monitor to the gut. Matt ducks behind the partitions again. And now he’s breathing hard, licking his lips, head swivelling as though he can’t quite … hear what’s going on. As though even he can’t figure out why he keeps getting hit.

Dex gets in the best strike of the night, bouncing a baseball off the wall an into Matt’s head. Matt doesn’t even register him picking up the ball and takes the blow full on. (These sequences are filmed with a near horror movie vibe to them, Matt hiding in the foreground and Dex appearing in the back of the frame to do something the audience sees coming when Matt doesn’t).

There’s a clue to what’s really going on here in this moment (45:38). Dex picks up the baseball from a desk, bounces it in his hand once. It smacks into a palm with an audible noise on the soundtrack. For Matt that should be the equivalent of a slow motion zoom in onto Dex’s hand.

So why couldn’t Matt dodge it?

Matt takes another I think stapler to the chest the pulls the transparent “make noise over there move in the other direction” gambit which Dex falls for (he’s not bright, that’s been clear from the start) and they’re back in close quarters, with a visibly hurting Matt throwing punches again.

Both men are bleeding now as they grapple and flail around desks and partitions, Matt getting in several good blows with his knees as well as some joint strikes. There’s no art left in either of them. They’re both angry and descending to brutality.

Matt kicks Dex into the open space and Dex, helicopter twirling off his back, picks up and hurls a snow globe at him.

Matt catches this like it’s nothing (hmmmm) but Dex instantly follows it with a thrown pen, shattering the globe and spraying water and glass.

There’s a slightly weird jump here (some transition got cut) and they’re running parallel to each other on either side of shelves and desks as Dex hurls pens at Matt. They grapple again and Matt has a lot more blood running down his face, plus a hole in the palm of his hand from the pen that shattered the snow globe.

As Matt takes Dex’s back Dex swipes scissors off a desk and stab-throws them into Matt’s shoulder near his neck, then knocks a set of shelves onto him and stomps him unconscious. Panting, triumphant, Dex hears police sirens. Rather than kill Matt, he completes his mission, kills the witness and departs.

//End of Fight

(The black comedy I was speaking about earlier comes in the aftermath of this scene as Matt is walking away from the police officers chasing him, somewhere in the bowels of the building, very stiffly but very calmly extracting pencil after pencil and then the scissors from his body. He honestly looks like a superhero Wil E. Coyote.)

It took me two viewings of that fight to twig what bothered me about it: Why did Matt keep getting hit?

Yes, the room is crowded and Dex throws with nearly superhuman speed, power and accuracy. But a room full of metal filing cabinets should be a perfect sounding board for Matt, lots of reflective surf–

–oh. Ohhhhhhhhhhh.

They are fighting in a room filled with office equipment and SOUND ABSORBING PARTITIONS.

Maybe fighting a normal opponent Matt could have adjusted but fighting against Dex’s skill set he never, ever has the time or space to compensate for the speed and unusual angles of the thrown objects.

I don’t know for sure, obviously, but this whole fight is too cohesive in specific details (watch where Matt is EVERY TIME he fails to dodge something, excepting only that first baton rebound and that is choreographed with zero telegraphing from Dex so he gets that one) to be accidental.

There is both an understanding of the real-word physics of Matt’s abilities and a deep, abiding affection for the idea of superheros in this fight. This is a fight conceived and executed by people who respect the world they are getting to play in. This is a complex, masterful collaboration between two actors, two stunt doubles, the camera crew, the set dec team, the production designer, the writer, the director and the show-runner. The complicated gestalt of all those professionals exerting their skills to the highest and most refined levels presents itself as one simple thing in the end:

This fight is a love letter to superheros.