Daredevil’s Corridor Fight: A Breakdown of the Smackdown
There is a corridor. At the end of it, there is a closed door. Behind that, a kidnapped boy. Men come and go, speaking in untranslated Russian.
And so, at the end of the second episode of Netflix's Daredevil show, the scene is set for the most memorable action set piece in the entire series — and arguably one of the best in TV history. Thousands of words have been spilled over this fight scene online already. Let's apply our heightened senses to work out why, and whether the show lifted any tricks from its paper-and-ink brethren.
There are no cuts between the shots I've described — the entire five-minute scene was reportedly filmed in a single take — but, apart from the camera moving between them, they could practically be a series of still images, like carefully-composed panels on a comics page. Look again at that door at the end of the corridor, and the way the vanishing lines and the thin wedge of red light bleeding out from underneath the door-frame draw our eyes to it.
The show takes the time to establish its space (the corridor), its objective (the door) and the threat (the men) with the efficiency of a good video game. All that's left is a hero. The camera swivels, and Charlie Cox's Matt Murdock enters the frame, looking in his makeshift costume as much like a Frank Miller drawing as it is possible for an actual human being to look.
This is the point at which the above video begins, but it's important to remember that there have been two whole minutes of build-up before this. Even though the single take dissolves the hard line between shots normally established by cuts in cinema — or by gutters, in comics — it's not hard to imagine how the images of this establishing sequence would translate onto an eight-panel grid.
The remarkable torrent of violence that begins around 30 seconds into the video, though, could really only be achieved with film.
Comics obviously don't have access to the same motion and three-dimensional space as film or TV, meaning action has to be frozen into iconic moments. These tend to focus on the impact: the punch connecting, the bullet being dodged, the classic "BIFF! BANG! POW!" stuff. Moments like these:
Daredevil's corridor scene has its fair share of these moments: when the door first bursts open, under the weight of a caber-tossed mobster; when Daredevil drops a frankly unnecessary MMA-style flip kick; best of all, when that one guy gets KO'd by an airborne kitchen appliance.
The fight ducks and weaves between these moments, and the result is the kind of flow that you only see from the most talented comics artists. The way Frank Quitely slices a page into instant-to-instant panels that almost overlap with one another, for example, or the careful pacing of David Aja's punch-ups, which are often presented from a side-on view to give readers a clear sense of the space, and of each combatants' movements through it.
In Daredevil, this flow is achieved by shooting the scene as a single take, which is the thing commentators have tended to focus on. It looks as though there are a couple of hidden cuts, but stunt co-ordinator Philip J Silvera insists the scene is all one long shot, and either way, it's the kind of spectacle we're rarely treated to on TV. Hold it up next to the average punch-up in Agents of SHIELD, for example, and it shows just how bland most of that show's action really is.
Nevertheless, filming a scene in one take is like adding an extended guitar solo to a song. It might be technically impressive, but it needs context to actually mean anything. The greatest achievement for me is that each punch given — and especially taken — in the scene actually helps tell Daredevil's story.
The increasingly weary movements of Cox and Chris Brewster, his stunt double, build on the foundations of the character the show has been establishing over the past two hours. Daredevil starts out moving like a superhero, quick and acrobatic, but the fight gets slower and slower as it grinds on. He leans on nearby walls for support, catches his breath while he waits for the next bad guy to rush him. It's not a fighting style I've ever seen in an action movie. Cox fights with the moves of a backstreet brawler or, even more aptly, like he's in the final round of a boxing match.
The way Cox takes a punch expresses the character's relationship with his dad better than any of the preceding flashbacks. We've seen Battlin' Jack Murdock telling his son about a style of boxing he apparently borrowed from Homer Simpson. The idea that “knocked down, but never knocked out” is more of a philosophy than a sporting tactic for the Murdocks gets hammered home repeatedly in the dialogue, but this is the first time we actually get to see it.
Between the punches, there are long, quiet moments where everyone is on the floor gasping for breath, Daredevil included, and the real fight is just to be the first man back on his feet. This is an altogether rarer sight, in comics or most action movies, which don't tend to dwell on their hero's weakness. In Miller's Daredevil comics, there is a long tradition of panels showing Matt Murdock, or occasionally Wilson Fisk or Elektra, standing over a pile of bested foes. But in this scene, when those foes are collapsed to the floor, Daredevil is right down there with them. The only difference is that he keeps getting back up.
This is both a tribute to his father, whose story closed with a literal bang in the scene immediately before the corridor fight, and a testament to the character's own strength of will. It's strangely reminiscent of that iconic Steve Ditko sequence in Amazing Spider-Man #33, where Spidey gradually lifts an impossible weight of rubble from his shoulders.
This isn't the only characterisation the scene squeezes in. Silvera's fluid choreography has Daredevil bouncing from one confrontation, off a wall, to deliver a flying kick to the face of an approaching mobster. It's a neat reminder that his capabilities are beyond those of any normal human, as is the moment right before the fight begins: A silhouetted Murdock pauses at the door and listens for the men inside, hinting at how his powers work. Daredevil relies on his non-visual senses, after all, and the scene smartly drives that home by keeping the first flurry of violence off-screen, conveyed to the audience via sound alone.
A stubborn resilience inherited from his father; the agility of a super-human circus performer; a power-set that makes up for a lack of vision with enhanced hearing and touch. That's an impressive list to tick off in Daredevil's three minutes of screen time in this scene. It's even more impressive given that Cox speaks less than a dozen words during that time — but when he finally does speak, right at the end of the scene, what he says is key:
“I know you're scared, but I'm here to help you”.
There's a lot of discussion, among fans and within the show itself, about whether Daredevil is truly a superhero or just a vigilante. There's a small moment right before he opens that final door — the one that was established as his goal in the perspective and lighting of that very first shot — that seemingly answers this question.
Daredevil pauses again, echoing the way he stopped before diving into that first room of mobsters. This time, though, he just pulls back his mask, and it's Matt Murdock who steps into the red-lit room the boy is being held in.
After two minutes of brutal violence, it's a perfect moment of tenderness that is too often missing from superhero screen adaptations. Rather than Superman snapping Zod's neck in Man of Steel, this is Superman stopping to talk a young suicidal girl down from the ledge in All Star Superman.
As Murdock steps back down the corridor towards the camera, the child in his arms, the camera finally delivers that trademark Miller image of him towering over a pile of beaten foes. I've been making the case here for the corridor scene as one of the greatest superhero fights of all time, but it's probably one of the greatest rescues too.