Death Note (Netflix)

I'm not a big movie buff, but there's no way I could not watch this one, and I figured I may as well write about it. I'm going to be focusing on the plot, and you're warned now that there are SPOILERS. (I'm also working off memory for the original Death Note, so apologies if I get any details about it wrong.)

As you've probably already heard, Netflix's new Death Note isn't very good. But if you like the franchise, there are less entertaining ways to spend an hour and a half.

My personal take on Death Note is that the focus and draw is the cat-and-mouse logical battle between Light and L (and later Mello and Near). The main problem with Netflix's Death Note is that the cat-and-mouse game just... doesn't happen. Moments of wit and ingenuity are few and far between, and those that show up don't even begin to approach the level of the original Death Note.

Netflix's Death Note follows the basic premise of the source material with some original twists: Light discovers the titular death note, which allows him to kill any person by writing their name in it. He shows the book to his classmate Mia, and they begin murdering criminals to become the god of justice of the world known as Kira. However, "Kira" attracts the attention of the genius detective L, thus beginning the great chase... (Or not.)

The movie follows the same basic plot beats as the original Death Note, but makes changes that cause what were clever stratagems in the original to become stupid or incomprehensible moves in the new movie.

For instance, in the original Death Note, Light begins murdering criminals with his death note, not doing anything clever with them, but not drawing attention to them. L, however, notices the string of strange deaths around the globe and deduces that, despite their seemingly impossibility, they are the work of a human being. Light is normal, and L is smart. In Netflix's Death Note, when Light begins killing criminals, he has them write out messages declaring their deaths to be the work of the god Kira. This makes Light seem stupid, since he can't foresee that this will cause law enforcement to begin to go after Kira, and denies L the chance to showcase his intelligence by deducing that the string of deaths are the work of a human, since Light already revealed it himself. The general events of both versions match each other, but in the original these events are neutral for Light and show L's intelligence, while in the Netflix version they make Light look stupid and do nothing for L.

Another example is how L discovers Light's location. In the original, L has a death row convict appear on a newscast pretending to be L challenging Kira. Light takes the bait and murders "L." The true L then takes over and reveals that, despite "L's" claim that the broadcast was being shown all over the country, it was in fact being broadcast only in Tokyo, narrowing down Kira's location to that city. It was a simple trick that again showed L's intelligence. Although Light fell for the bait, this was (I believe) his first run-in with L, and so he simply underestimated his opponent; it doesn't make him look stupid. (I think L 'should have' used a recorded, rather than a live, clip, but that's a minor point and the strategy would have worked the same regardless.)

In Netflix's version, L discovers Light's location, because... a group of criminals in a Tokyo nightclub have all died, and L has been feeding data about various criminals into each of various databases around the world. Because L put the info about these criminals into the Seattle's police department's database, the fact that Kira got info on these criminals means that Kira is in Seattle. Apparently, Kira could only have gotten the info from the databases for some reason, and there's no way the info on the databases was ever spread or otherwise leaked. And this despite the fact that L apparently had info on enough criminals to assign one to each notable geographical location in the world. And if any of them died, it could only have been from Kira. Plus, the movie never addresses exactly how Light got the info on these Japanese gangsters from his dad (or whether he questioned why Seattle PD was keeping track of Tokyo street gangs).

In both versions L discovers Light's location due to a trap L sets, but while the original L's trap is simple and elegant, Netflix L's strategy is convoluted and full of gaps and assumptions. It allows L to discover Light's location, letting the story continue, but it doesn't make me feel like L is smart.

I haven't seen the third or fourth season of Sherlock, but I've heard lots of people disliked the fourth season, and have watched quite a few videos dissecting why the show, and especially the fourth season, fell apart. Although maybe a bit more brash than I would like, the formulation I liked the most was that Holmes in Sherlock is a smart person written by a stupid person, rather than a smart person written by a smart person, and this was the impression I got of Netflix's L.

The part of the movie that made me think of this was when L figured out Light was Kira. Light (together with Mia) has been murdering criminals. L has deduced that Kira is someone with access to Seattle PD's databases, and has all possible suspects, including Light, trailed by FBI agents. All of those agents die, seemingly by Kira's hand (although it wasn't actually Light). Light's dad appears on TV, declaring that law enforcement is committed to capturing Kira and that they will not let the death of their comrades deter them, and dares Kira to strike him down. Although Mia wants to kill Light's dad for standing up to Kira, Light refuses. From the fact that Light's dad didn't die despite his explicit challenge to Kira, L determines Light is Kira.

This is ridiculous.

Look at Kira's MO up until now: Before, Kira had exclusively killed criminals. L had no way to know that the death of the dozen FBI agents wasn't caused by Light, but they were the first members of law enforcement killed by Kira. However, they were tailing all the Kira suspects, meaning Kira couldn't operate at all as long as they were active. Moreover, Kira couldn't kill only the agent trailing him; in order to hide his identity, he had to kill all of them. In other words, up until now, Kira has killed only criminals, except in a single instance where he had no other choice. There is no reason to think Kira would take the bait and kill Light's dad. On top of that, the Kira investigation squad had been in existence for a bit, and Light was already well aware that his dad was in it; if Kira was going to kill anybody who opposed him at all, rather than those who directly prevented him from acting, and Light was Kira, Light's dad would have been taken care of long ago. Concluding that Light is Kira from the fact that Light's dad wasn't killed is not intelligence.

But this is the sort of shoddy reasoning that a mediocre story will use to try to make you think that a character is smart when it can't make the character do actually smart things. Netflix L doesn't make deductions. He makes educated guesses (if you can call them that) and he's right because that's what the plot demands. He isn't intelligent. He's simply able to blindly guess the plot-relevant truth.

Once Netflix L is sure that Light is Kira, he directly confronts him in a coffee shop. Light denies being Kira, but his reaction and statements make the truth quite obvious. This could have merely been a scheme by L was using to test all of his Kira suspects, and perhaps L could have figured Light was Kira from his reaction. That would have been intelligent. (Concluding someone is Kira just from their reaction to a few accusations would have been a bit iffy, but the idea would have been fine and better than most of the others in the movie.) Instead, L is convinced that Light is Kira before they meet, declaring it to not one, but (if I remember correctly) two people.

My main point with that example is that Netflix Death Note could have kept the scenes it wanted to include and changed some things from the original while still maintaining some intelligence, but... didn't. L could have used a watered down stratagem, which, while not quite as mind-blowing as something from the original, would have still been clever and displayed intelligence, but instead L makes a correct conclusion based on nonsense reasoning because the plot needs L to know this at this point and the writers apparently aren't good enough to have L get there in a way that's actually intelligent.

This specific example (how L discovered Light is Kira) is what first made me think of L as a smart character written by a not-quite-as-smart person, but I then noticed that that applied to the rest of L's actions, and the movie as a whole.

Anyway, I've talked a lot about L so far. There are two reasons for this. First, most of the moments that highlight how the original Death Note was clever while the Netflix version is not just happen to involve L. Second, I think one of the other big flaws in the movie is L's botched character.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the battle between Light and L is the main focus of Death Note to me. However, in the Netflix version, L just... doesn't really do anything. The movie is not very smart, which means L cannot be very smart, but within that, he just doesn't do much. Yes, he figures out that Kira is in Seattle, and then figures out Kira is Light. But this doesn't involve much conflict between Light and L; it's simply L moving forward in his investigation on his own. Rather, the main conflict in Netflix's Death Note seems to be the rift that grows between Light and Mia as Light begins to doubt what he had thought was the simple morality of what he had been doing whereas Mia wants to double-down on Kira's actions. The climax involves, of all things, a foot chase between L and Light (where L corners Light, and then gets knocked out because he's too stupid to realize that a random passerby might be a follower of Kira), while the psychological battle is between Light and Mia. All L does is put general pressure on Kira, catalyzing the formation of the rift between Light and Mia, but none of the plot involves significant psychological maneuvering between Light and L—which, again, was the main draw of the original. (To slightly clarify, the problem isn't that there is no clever psychological battle between Light and L; the problem is that there is no clever psychological battle between anyone, and it hurts L's character as the world's greatest detective when he never gets to do anything clever.)

When I first saw the trailers, I hated the way L looked. I couldn't care less that he was black, but I didn't like how he looked like a hoodlum. However, in the movie itself, I ended up not being bothered by it much. On top of that, the actor clearly put in a lot of effort to retain L's classic mannerisms. However, no matter how L sits and how much sugar he eats, a lack of direct impact on the plot or clever stratagems means there's no way he can compete with the original.

I don't think that all of the changes to Netflix's Death Note were bad; rather, it was the execution that ruined it. In the original, Light was a sociopathic megalomaniac genius chessmaster and Misa was nothing more than a pawn (who knew this and didn't mind, due to her obsession with Light). In the Netflix version, Light is a pushover who might actually have the straightest moral compass of the main cast while Mia is a dark ruthless manipulator. (Ryuk is also made much more assertive in the Netflix version, in order to pressure Light into first using the death note before Mia becomes involved.)

These changes (and Mia's personality, specifically) may have been the most legitimately surprising element of the movie, as someone who knew the original Death Note. If they wanted to make Light a pushover and make Mia the calculating grandmaster who battles with L (through Light), I think that actually could have been awesome. But instead we just get L, Light, and Mia running around doing things because they vaguely resemble events in the source material.

If they wanted to turn the main conflict into Light against Mia, they probably could have managed that as well... if they had made it actually clever. Instead, Mia just writes Light's name to get him to hand over the death note, and Light writes a more detailed plan that kills her and gets him out of the situation. There isn't much, if anything, clever in this. Light wins merely because he puts more detail into his death note entry, not because he outsmarts Mia. In fact, the whole ordeal could have been avoided if Mia had written Light giving her the death note in her entry, instead of simply demanding it! (When the movie first ended I thought Mia was the cleverest character for how she took out the Kira task force, but when I realized this lastest point I had to reconsider.)

So to boil it all down, if it isn't clear enough already, I think the main reason Netflix's Death Note fails is because it has very few clever ideas, whereas the core of the source material was a clever, well-plotted logic battle. (...Well, it might have gotten a bit out of hand for the later parts, but that's a whole different discussion.) They made some changes to the characters, but I think it could have actually worked to the movie's benefit if the plot had been clever enough to support it.

One final complaint is that Netflix's Death Note isn't quite clear enough with its rules for the death note. They explicitly show that a a death by the note must be physically possible... and yet Light is able to have a "mysterious collapsing Ferris wheel" (which is apparently being magically dismantled by Ryuk). They say one death can be prevented by burning a page, but is this one death per keeper, or one death period? Mia and Light's conversation at the dance makes it sound like the latter, and yet you'd think that in the history of the death note that one death would've been used up already. Additionally, Light says that you need to burn the page in order to prevent the death (without any particular emphasis or intonation). While it sounds like "the page needs to be burned," is it really "you need to burn the page"? When Light finds the page with his name written on it he does nothing, and when he writes Mia's entry he specifically makes her tear out the page with his name and have it fall into the fire. This makes sense if the person who write the entry must be the one to burn it, but the movie doesn't make that element of the rule clear. Finally, could Light simply have had Watari stab L to death? In the original Death Note, while you can control a person before their death, you can't cause an accident or event that would kill others (otherwise the death defaults to a heart attack). Some version of that rule likely holds in Netflix's Death Note as well. But Mia was able to write in the note that the FBI agent wrote the other agent names in the note, and Light was able to get the guy at the end to write names in the note while Light was in a coma. Something just seems a bit wonky in this situation where they apparently can't indirectly kill people through the death note unless the indirect death is also through the death note—but if that was the rule, they should have clarified. (And it wouldn't have been hard to sneak in. Right before writing Watari's entry, Mia could have said "Just have him stab L," and Light could have responded "The rules prevent you from making someone directly kill someone else, but don't worry, I have a better way.")

...Okay, one more quick complaint: the Final Destination-type deaths were a bit weird, mostly because we got three of them at the beginning and that was it. If we had gotten them throughout the movie, okay, that could've been an original thing, but having a few at the beginning and then forgetting about them made it seem more like a gimmick than anything else.

Also, at around the midpoint of the movie, there's some heavy-handed implications that Ryuk will be the true villain, and he implies that he kills anyone who tries to write his name in the death note. (He's also a lot more assertively evil than in the original.) However, after this scene, that entire plot direction is... kind of dropped. Delaying the explicit revelation that Mia had agency, was evil, and was actually doing things was a good move in my opinion, but it still felt a bit strange having this plot thread just left in the state it was. I think that Light versus Ryuk could have been an interesting and unique (and better) direction for the plot to go, but... whether it actually would have been better would depend on the actual execution, so I can't comment on this idea any further.

Anyway, before I wrap up, I think the movie could have been greatly improved with a final ~30 minute act where L legitimately and cleverly comes back from the situation to nail Light (without just writing Light's name in the death note). This is obviously a very different path and destination from the original Death Note, but Netflix Death Note was already doing its own thing. If this is how it ended, it'd solve both the lack of logic battles and L's lack of a direct role in the plot. Although it'd ruin the Netflix version's ambiguous ending, I think Netflix L's emotionality was a change to his character's detriment, and I don't think L possibly violating his moral tenets added much.

Welp, this ended up much longer than I expected, but those are my thoughts. Netflix's Death Note isn't really good on its own merits, or a so-bad-it's-good trainwreck, but the core of Death Note is a simple yet genius and compelling story, and even a mediocre adaptation like this one is entertaining enough to be worth watching with friends if you like the franchise.

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