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Da Vinci’s Demons, Ep. 1.1 “The Hanged Man”: An intellectual superhero who’s more mindlessly entertaining than thought-provoking

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Da Vinci’s Demons, Season 1, Episode 1: “The Hanged Man”

Written and Directed by David S. Goyers

Airs Fridays at 9 pm on Starz

All the promotional material about Da Vinci’s Demons trades heavily on David S. Goyer’s contribution to The Dark Knight Trilogy.  So it seems more than fair to discuss one in relation to the other, especially in light of so many obvious similarities.  The most conspicuous parallel being a tortured hero with a complicated family history who relies on his wits and gadgetry, more so than physical prowess, to strike out against injustice in a city rife with political corruption.  And that’s just the story.  Several other earmarks of Goyer’s handiwork also show up in the pilot, such as its flashback structure and most notably the heavy helping of Eastern mysticism.

Unfortunately, several of The Dark Knight’s shortcomings inevitably repeat here as well.  One thing the latest Batman saga never quite got right was a realistic, multi-dimensional portrayal of its female characters.  Cracked.com put it best when they identified the femmes of the Christopher Nolan franchise as hollow representations of either “innocent naiveté or selfish betrayal” (http://www.cracked.com/article_20012_if-dark-knight-rises-was-10-times-shorter-more-honest.html).  There are exactly two speaking parts for women in the pilot episode of Da Vinci’s Demons, and you’ll never guess what qualities they personify.  Does anybody else see a real missed opportunity here for a wise-cracking Mona Lisa with an enigmatic smile and the sly intelligence to really keep Leo on his toes?  But maybe there’s still time for that.

Moreover, some of what played believably on the streets of Gotham does not necessarily transfer to the hyper reality this drama tries to replicate. It’s not enough to have Leonardo fight oppression with his intelligence and talents.  He needs to be good with a sword too.  Depicting the Renaissance icon as a genius, a savvy negotiator, even a mouthy protestor isn’t a hard sell, but watching him single-handedly challenge and defeat a small company of armed guards puts a lot of strain on an already precariously stretched imagination.  Apparently, Goyer didn’t consider it even a touch ironic to allow a vegetarian, too squeamish to eat anything with eyes, wield a deadly weapon with brutal enthusiasm.

The series can be fun though, as long as you don’t take it as seriously as the actors do.  If Da Vinci’s Demons took more of its cues from the Batman of the 60’s TV show and less from his broodier update, it might actually translate better.  The acting is never over-the-top, even when the situations might call for it.  Unfitting sincerity aside, Tom Riley’s charming take on the titular character often elevates the material, perhaps beyond what it deserves. And one would hope that as machinations progress and motivations reveal themselves, the other characters might also rise above the archetypal roles they’ve been assigned.  Da Vinci’s baby-faced assistant, one Nico Machiavelli (Eros Vlahos), certainly has a promising character arc ahead of him.

“History is a lie,” says The Turk (Alexander Siddig), a sort of guru character, at the start of Da Vinci’s Demons.  Revisionist history, or at least the suggestion that all history is revisionist history, is very much in mode right now.  Not only is history a lie, it’s up for grabs, and the very knowledge that defines history for the ages is what’s at stake in the conflict that drives Da Vinci’s actions.  It’s hard to imagine a better ideal for the greatest mind of his era to fight for and preserve than knowledge itself, symbolized here by the mysterious and coveted Book of Leaves.

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The show is at its finest when plumbing the depths of Da Vinci’s psyche and positing questions about the blessings and drawbacks of a genius intellect.  Da Vinci’s opium habit, which he employs to dull the burden of an oppressively energetic imagination, and his obsession with flight engage the viewer’s curiosity more so than the clandestine conspiracies Leo is less wittingly involved with.  This episode’s most inspired scene begins with an all too familiar slow motion shot of birds in flight but then transforms them into a series of animated sketches done in classic Da Vinci style.  It is poetic and revelatory.  After all, this master thinker’s sketchbooks are how most modern scholar’s attempt to connect with his thought process, and the same trick works for his fictional counterpart.

At first, an audience might struggle to reconcile the sexy swashbuckler Riley plays with the dowdy, white-bearded self-portrait most people associate with the artist/inventor.  But once they accept that, they can pretty much swallow anything else this show throws at them from murderous secret societies to prophetic books.  Paradoxically, given the show’s veneration of free thought and intellectualism, enjoyment comes a bit more easily if the spectator doesn’t put too much thought into it.

-Kenney Broadway

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