In my June 1, 2015, blog, I discussed how the soaring popularity of Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix hinges in large part on its realistic fight scenes, the essence of which is encapsulated in a three-minute, single-shot battle that takes place in the second episode “Cut Man.” The already bloodied, bruised and battered Matt Murdock (Daredevil) must rescue an abducted child from the depths of a Russian mob’s hideout. At the end of the altercation, our hero is much worse for wear, but he emerges with child in hand.
Daredevil approaches its fight scenes in an unusual way. Because the lead character is a mere mortal — like us — he feels pain, sustains bruises and ultimately bleeds a lot. Also, because of the nightly nature of his personal war on crime, he doesn’t have the luxury of being able to disappear from the public eye while his body completely heals.
The result? On any given night, he’s likely to be out on the streets with stitches still in place, sometimes with blood still seeping from his wounds. We’re reminded of that every time he makes a mistake and allows a bad guy to hit an injured part of his body, every time he rolls the wrong way in a fight, every time he stretches his aching limbs to execute a kick or punch. Each fight is a struggle, one that leaves him more exhausted and more racked with pain.
Adding to the physical intrigue, Daredevil, who’s played by Charlie Cox, is clad in a black outfit and fights only at night. That puts his opponents at a disadvantage while it leaves him unaffected because, being blind, he’s used to navigating and maneuvering without sight.
All that leaves stunt coordinator Philip Silvera with lots of opportunities to be creative. By shooting in low light, he gives the audience a glimpse of what it’s like to wage war in Daredevil’s world. It also makes it easier for Silvera to insert stunt doubles into the action. Because Cox isn’t a martial artist and thus doesn’t have well-honed postures and techniques to display, stunt doubles are essential, especially when the script calls for a fancy technique that’s beyond the scope of Cox’s abilities. (You often can tell when a double is being used just by scrutinizing the character’s punches.)
Because Daredevil is so often injured — or about to get injured — the fights seem more realistic. Just as important, they’re shot at normal camera speed, and the actors are allowed to look tired and hurt, even wasted.
Part of the reason all this works is the premise on which Daredevil is based: The hero can heal more quickly and thus fight through some injuries, but he’s still human. However, because of his martial arts training and the belief that he’s doing the right thing, Daredevil can overcome crazy amounts of pain and adversity. When all seems lost, his survival instinct takes over — just like it does in real life when warriors face overwhelming odds.
Sometimes this style of combat is presented most effectively with a slower pace — which brings us back to the aforementioned three-minute fight. When a battle doesn’t need to be frenetic, when it’s one in which emotion trumps fancy skill and stuntmen need to be inserted via the “Texas switch,” a slower pace is often the best choice. The actors don’t need to remember as many moves, and that can make them perform better by eliminating the pressure that comes from the fear of making mistakes.
Back in 1980, I worked on a Chinese kung fu soap opera in which we Texas-switched two stunt doubles for the same star in one shot. We learned that when the cameras roll longer, it can add a new dimension to the action.
Based on that, I have a tidbit of advice for Philip Silvera: If you train your actors and stuntmen so they have the confidence to do 20 or more techniques per shot (like pro dancers do) and use more than one stuntman for the same actor in the same shot, you can create stretched-out fight scenes more frequently. In addition to pleasing martial artists, this will open the doors for some amazing choreography and draw the audience deeper into the action.
(Photos by Barry Wetcher, Courtesy of Netflix)