This year, Netflix dropped one of its greatest original series, and before long I found myself hooked. In 13 episodes, I got swept up in the story of an indomitable hero overcoming a painful past on the wrong side of New York City; a story about standing up in the face of overwhelming odds, doomed romances, and a large, bald man who stole the show.
But enough about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, let’s talk about the first season of Daredevil, which was also pretty great.The plot: After being blinded by chemicals while saving a man from being hit by a truck as a child, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) gains superhumanly heightened senses. When his aging boxer father is murdered for refusing to throw a match, Matt honors his father’s wishes to become a lawyer, while secretly learning to hone his senses through ninjutsu from the mysterious Stick (Scott Glenn). Working in a small law practice in Hell’s Kitchen best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson, rocking the same exact haircut he had in Mighty Ducks), and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), Matt helps the marginalized people of Hell’s Kitchen as a lawyer by day and a masked vigilante by night. But Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) stands in his way. Taking control of all businesses and crime in Hell’s Kitchen, Fisk wants to save Hell’s Kitchen too, even if he needs to destroy it first. With the aid of reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and nurse and confidant Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), Matt and Fisk square off for the soul of the city, at a personal cost for both of them.
With Daredevil, Marvel carves out new, grimier territory that feels unlike any of their past screen efforts (and miles away from the 2003 movie I reviewed a few weeks back). Marvel embraces the gritted teeth pulp and noir that’s defined the character for many years, and from which they’ve shied away from with their other film properties. The connections to the Marvel universe at large are present, but the show is miles away from the big-scale action of The Avengers or the space operatics of Guardians of the Galaxy. One of the ways Daredevil sets itself apart is in its occasionally shocking violence. The crunching, splattering acts of violence in the show are, at times, hard to watch, but it’s hard to turn away. At its most gruesome, it feels like it exists to justify the laxer regulations of a Netflix show, at its best, it’s compelling and exciting due to the show’s gorgeous fight choreography. Early episode fights tend to go longer than necessary, but as the show hits its stride in later episodes, the fights hit all the right beats (puns!).
Hitting beats, hitting thugs. Just a lot of hitting happens, guys.Pacing in general is a challenge for many early episodes. Ranging between 45 minutes and an hour, the flashback-laden pacing is uneven when you’re not binging the show.This issue gets addressed as the season continues, and later episodes have the tight formalism that characterized the best of Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil and other comics in his heyday. Throughout, the cinematography is striking and evocative, with clever use of sound editing and focused shots used to evoke Daredevil’s heightened senses in ways more cost-effective and stylish than what could be accomplished with a CGI representation.
Thankfully unlike Miller is Daredevil‘s characterization of women. Saying that a lot of the women Miller writes end up being traitorous, hard-edged femme fatales, or murdered dead, is being charitable. The show seeks to fix the comics’ issues with women, and sets out to make notorious “woman in the refrigerator” Karen Page a character with depth and agency. Similarly, Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer), Fisk’s love interest, fares better than her comic counterpart and gives a strong performance. For her part, Rosario Dawson is underutilized, exiting the show well before her character is fully realized. As strong as her performance is, her presence is felt too weakly in the show.
The central performances serve to raise Daredevil from some of its well-trodden crime drama elements and above some of its DC TV rivals*. Charlie Cox, some Bale Batman growling aside, is a fine Daredevil. A first episode single-shot scene has Matt shot from below as he sits in a confessional speaking with Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie), pent-up rage glinting behind his eyes as he speaks. It’s one of the best scenes in the show, and hints at the struggles Matt will face in the preceding episodes. The Netflix Marvel shows are to all be about grounded and decidedly human heroics, and that’s reflected in the performances. Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson– the comic relief in a show that’s at times none more dark– and particularly Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich, are heroes as much as Matt Murdock, often facing clearer threats and personal sacrifices for their decisions than the masked thug-puncher Matt. Humanity is also what characterizes Vincent D’Onofrio’s magnetic, sweaty take on Wilson Fisk. Far from the measured gangster cool of Michael Clarke-Duncans version, D’Onofrio attacks the role with deep, explosive insecurity. Built as a foil to Matt, he faces similar quandaries with violence, heroism, and happiness, but finds very different answers. Marvel films tend to suffer from broadly drawn villains and unclear motives. Allowing a villain 13 episodes of development and highlighting his human traits over all else easily makes Wilson Fisk the most interesting villain in the Marvel Universe so far.
“Suck it, Hiddles.”I was initially apprehensive about this new series– broad dialogue about “being the man my city needs”, which the show has in spades, kind of makes my eyes glaze over at this point– afraid that the qualities that make the comics and the character so appealing would be lost in Marvel’s bid for serious crime drama territory. Thankfully, Daredevil’s perseverance and the character’s willingness to stand up in the face of overwhelming odds that made me a fan of the character are still at the center of Matt Murdock and the show. It’s a slow build, but as the show finds its pace (and allows the more comic book-y elements to seep through the grime covered streets), it becomes impossible to put down.
All 13 episodes of Daredevil can be streamed on Netflix.
*Though, that’s not exactly a challenge with Gotham.