The short version: Netflix’s entry into the MCU is the best comic book television series I’ve ever seen, and very nearly the best thing Marvel Studios has put their name on.
That’s what makes you dangerous. It’s not the mask. It’s not the skills. It’s your ideology. The lone man that thinks he can make a difference.
I never saw the 2003 Daredevil film — you know, the one with Ben Affleck. All I really know about it is that it was quite bad, and that its spin-off film Elektra practically ended Jennifer Garner’s film career. All I really knew about Daredevil the character, prior to this Netflix incarnation, was that he was a blind guy who, thanks to some kind of accident, had his other senses enhanced to a superhuman degree and now goes around kicking bad guys in the face.
So suffice to say that even with Marvel Studios’ recent hot streak — no production house save Pixar has been more consistent, and they’re both owned by Disney, so there you go — I wasn’t initially planning to check out Daredevil. I felt, for lack of a better term, major Superhero Fatigue, and didn’t really want to get invested in anything new. But the buzz on Twitter and elsewhere grew and grew until it became deafening, so last week I finally made the commitment and dove in, dragging my wife with me.
With that in mind, this review isn’t going to be about how Daredevil works as an adaptation of a beloved comic book character, because I honestly don’t know and I don’t really care. (I’ve proven my geek bona fides elsewhere — do I have to be an expert on everything?) Instead, I held it to an even higher standard: how successful is it as episodic television? How heavily does it have to rely on its own esoteric mythology, and how effectively does it deploy it? Most importantly, can creator Drew Goddard (Buffy, LOST) make me a raving fan of another series about another masked vigilante that I truly didn’t give a crap about not even two weeks ago?
The verdict: Daredevil f-ing rocks.
For sure, it’s darker than anything else in the MCU — it’s hard to imagine that Daredevil takes place in the same universe as Guardians of the Galaxy, though we do get a few (welcome!) throwaway references to the Avengers. The tone is much closer to what DC is attempting to do, with a “gritty,” street-wise aesthetic and a more cynical worldview, but that’s as far as it goes — the Marvel commitment to character over style and spectacle (though the spectacle sure is fun) holds true. Yet Daredevil is at times shockingly violent: people don’t just get beaten, or shot, or thrown off buildings, but stabbed, burned alive, and — most gruesomely of all — decapitated by car doors. It’s urban warfare in its setting of Hell’s Kitchen, New York City,* and the casualties mount, almost to the show’s detriment. (But more on that later.)
*One of a few comic book tropes you just have to accept is the show’s fictional handling of that very setting, as today’s “Hell’s Kitchen” is really just West Midtown, and nowhere near the rough-and-tumble neighborhood it was when the comic was first created in 1964. The most dangerous part of living there is choosing where to buy your tapas. So the constant hand-wringing over “this city” or “my city” — take a drink every time someone says tha…oh, you passed out already — takes some getting used to, and feels even more pronounced during a binge-watch.
Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) is Matt Murdock, a boxer’s son who fell victim to an accidental chemical exposure, which left him blind–sort of. As far as anyone else is concerned, he can’t see a thing, and uses dark glasses and a sensing cane as props. But in truth, the chemicals left his other senses extremely heightened: he can smell how long it’s been since your last shower; he can track a car by following the music that’s playing inside it; he can even identify the specific ingredients of your ice cream by taste. It’s a little creepy, but he tries to use his powers for good, honoring the memory of his father (who was killed by gangsters for refusing to take a dive) by clearing Hell’s Kitchen of the riff-raff that has corrupted it. The show has a cool way of letting us see the world via Matt’s senses, through clever sound mixing, shallow depth of field, and the fiery shapes that make up the limit of his vision.
By night, he’s a vigilante in black Under Armor and a mask (the Dread Pirate Murdock?), using his years of secret martial arts training to subdue petty criminals. But by day, he’s a lawyer, saving “his city” one downtrodden citizen at a time. His partner is Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), whose boyish appearance and unflagging wit provide a stabilizing bromance for Matt. But as both an attorney and as his alter ego, he soon gets entangled in a conspiracy much bigger than he is: the malevolent influence of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a millionaire with his fingers all over the police and local government, and who seeks to scrub the poor and their decaying tenements from the city.
Wait — so the big villain of Daredevil is… gentrification? Well, yeah. Murdock runs headlong not just into a violent criminal underworld, but bureaucracy, and institutional decay. It’s The Wire, Marvel-style. And like that seminal HBO series, the characters are exceedingly rich, layered, and shaded in grays; it’s easy to see how even Fisk views himself as a hero, while Matt is willing to sacrifice his very soul to bring him down. The dialogue is sometimes clunky and expository, but on a thematic level it’s the most sophisticated storytelling we’ve ever seen from a comic book adaptation.**
**For a while, anyway — towards the end of the season, right about the time ninjas show up, the series takes a turn for the overtly “superhero” in a way I should have anticipated, at the cost of some of that real-world resonance. Ah, well.
Take, for example, how Daredevil is steeped in Catholic subtext — from the confessional opening scene of the first episode, into the candle wax imagery of the credits, the series is as much about Matt’s Irish-Catholic inner turmoil as it is heart-pumping fight scenes. (Cox’s thoughtful performance gets the balance just right — he’s charming, earnest, and doesn’t go over the top with a “Batman voice.”) One of my favorite moments from the season came in “Speak of the Devil,” where Murdock finally takes Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie) up on a latte and unburdens himself. Lantom’s no idiot, so he can read between the lines and guess what Matt is up to after hours, and he realizes that the beating that Matt puts himself through (seriously, I’ve never seen a Supe story that spent so much time on the hero’s wounds) is his form of penance. He pleads with him to consider the cost of doing what Murdock believes he has to do — as in, kill Fisk. The devil comes in many forms, Lantom says, but Fisk is still just a man, who deserves redemption like the rest of us.
That man, it turns out, is the best part of Daredevil. Fisk is melancholy, sensitive, and a hopeless romantic, with a devastating backstory and an earnest desire to make his world “better.” He’s also a ruthless, violent kingpin (though not yet, you know, Kingpin), who will snap on anyone who displeases him — or interrupts him on a date. And as portrayed by a towering Vincent D’Onofrio, Fisk commands every scene he’s in. When we first meet him, he’s awkwardly attempting to woo an art curator named Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer), a sequence that earns our sympathy in a startlingly efficient amount of time — but less than an hour later, he’s exploding into horrifying brutality. D’Onofrio similarly tears into each line of dialogue like its a freshly-killed gazelle; it’s a cerebral, delicate performance, and his over-precise enunciation and staccato rhythms play as sinister in one scene but strangely endearing in the next. It’s the kind of performance that wins Emmys, if there’s any justice in the world.
D’Onofrio sets the bar high for the rest of the cast — almost too high. The others struggle in the early episodes to find their footing: Henson seems too aware that he’s “comic relief guy,” and spends half the season leaning into the jokes, but settles down when the writing finally begins to give him real emotional beats to play. As Karen Page, Nelson & Murdock’s secretary/third wheel, Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) is often awkward and brittle, and too frequently finds her character victimized. Others fare better, like Toby Leonard Moore as Fisk’s cooly competent lieutenant Wesley, Rosario Dawson as the nurse Claire (way too underused), and a perfectly crusty Scott Glenn as Murdock’s mentor, Stick. But the biggest impression is made by a terrific Vondie Curtis-Hall as reporter Ben Urich; his weather-beaten face is endlessly expressive, and Urich, out of all the characters in Daredevil, feels the most like a real person — or at least like a Wire character.***
I mentioned above how Daredevil emphasizes story over style, and that’s true, but one of the reasons I’m raving about it is that it actually has both. Phil Abraham, who directs the first two episodes, gives us an early contender for Best Action Scene of 2015 at the end of “Cut Man,” a long, unbroken Steadycam in a hallway where Murdock takes out a group of Russian goons, crashing back and forth through doorways — it’s an outstanding piece of choreography (over a hundred beats!), and the transitions between Cox and his stuntmen are seamless. Nothing else in the following 11 episodes touches it, though the long take is something the show continues to utilize with great effect. It all works so well that it’s a real shame the season finale — which climaxes with a more traditionally-staged, meat-and-potatoes fistfight — is such a letdown. That finale, “Daredevil,” is directed by writer/showrunner Steven DeKnight (who took over for Goddard) himself, which might have been a mistake.
REAL SPOILERS AHOY in the next paragraph, so if you haven’t seen the show yet, skip ahead past the next photo and then I’ll wrap this up.
***Look, can we talk about the show killing Ben? Again, I’ve never read the comics, but it was obvious even to me that there was SO much more to be done with that character. The fact that it came at the end of the season’s penultimate episode — which is when that kind of thing usually happens — felt more like a heartless calculation than out of any real storytelling need. Also, with Urich strangled (and Madame Gao leaving the country that same episode), all that remained were the sad white people. Just not good optics, show.
And, like I alluded to earlier, that wasn’t even the tip of the body count iceberg. Wesley shot? Bob Gunton’s slimy banker, Owlsley, shoved down an elevator shaft? Did the writers not think they were getting a second season? To assemble such a solid supporting cast and then dispatch them so quickly felt…wrong. And Fisk’s big turn in the finale — giving up his altruistic delusions and embracing his villainy — was weirdly abrupt, given how patient they had been in building his character up to that point. I’m griping. I’ll stop. It’s because I truly love the show, honest.
As has already been reported, DeKnight will be one-and-done as a showrunner. Stepping up to take the reins in Season 2 will be writers Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez — key pieces of the creative team this year, and responsible for some of the better episodes, so no one should really be worried. And this is only Netflix’s first foray into the Marvel universe; we can look forward to upcoming series with Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and — most intriguingly — Jessica Jones, starring Krysten Ritter and David Tennant(!!!). These characters will all join forces later in The Defenders, assuming the comic book bubble hasn’t already burst. (Ha! Yeah, right.) Maybe I’ll actually read about these characters beforehand, but I probably won’t. I dug the heck out of Daredevil and I want to be able to evaluate the others the same way. If they’re anywhere near as good, I’ll be thrilled. Either way, Marvel is one step closer to total media domination — eventually they’ll absorb everything, even Fuller House. I always knew there was something off about Dave Coulier.
Grade: A-. I had some gripes, but it’s just too awesome to score any lower. WATCH THIS SHOW.