Last Friday was the long-awaited premiere of Daredevil, the first of Marvel’s Netflix series which will ultimately culminate in a Defenders miniseries along about 2017. The first of the “street-level” superheroes, Daredevil is charged with essentially being the Iron Man of the Defenders, responsible for setting the tone and style for the whole team. And man, did Daredevil ever deliver. Taking advantage of Netflix’s native binge-watching environment, series creator Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) and showrunner Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus) offer a tightly plotted, highly serialized season meant to be consumed in large chunks. With all 13 episodes available at once I wondered how best to review Daredevil, and ultimately decided to tackle it in three parts, with this first review concentrating on the overall tone of the show itself. If you’d like episodic recaps, here’s a good set.
Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) is a brilliant Matt Murdock, at once sympathetic and caring yet simmering with a barely-leashed rage. His origins are handled breezily in flashbacks—we see the aftermath of the accident that blinds Matt as a boy, but not the incident itself, just like his inevitable training sequence is focused more on his fraught relationship with his mentor, blind martial artist Stick (Scott Glenn), than on the actual punching, which is fine. Daredevil has more important things to do than show us four hours of Child Matt adjusting to blindness and learning to fight. Even the explanation of his superpower—the chemicals that blinded him enhanced his other senses, giving him the radar-like ability to “see”—is handled swiftly and efficiently.
The acquisition of power is not the important part of Matt Murdock’s persona as Daredevil, it’s the lesson his father, boxer “Battlin’” Jack Murdock, instills—it’s not how you take a punch, it’s how you get up. The best part of Daredevil is its hero’s fallibility, both moral and physical. In episode 2 there is a spectacular single-take fight sequence (inspired by Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy) in which you see Matt and the men he’s fighting gasping for breath and steadily slowing down as the fight takes more and more out of them. It’s a brutal scene because it makes clear just how physically taxing superhero’ing is for Matt, who is not an invincible supersoldier.
Although Matt has some money from an inheritance, he is not endlessly wealthy like Tony Stark, nor is he supported by a government agency like Captain America. Daredevil is a hero constrained by conscience—he refuses to kill—as much as he is by means. So it is that Daredevil’s area of concern is limited to Hell’s Kitchen, and his arch-nemesis, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), is a mob boss tied up in local corruption. The set-up is quite elegant—following the Battle of New York in The Avengers, Hell’s Kitchen’s real-life gentrification was halted because the neighborhood was largely destroyed by space whales, and it backslid into crime and decay. (If you did a shot every time someone says “Hell’s Kitchen” on this show, you’d be shitfaced inside of three minutes.) The rebuilding effort, about two years “post-incident”, has become mired in corruption as various organized criminal elements have carved up territory and are preying on those too poor and weak to fight back. As Daredevil, Matt finds himself the champion of disenfranchised tenants being forced out of their homes by slumlords.
On the other side of the line from Daredevil, D’Onofrio crushes it as Fisk, and he gets a character arc every bit as satisfying as Matt’s. Also a product of Hell’s Kitchen, he wants to save the city, too, but he has that Hydra-esque vision of “my way or you all die and I do it my way anyway”—speaking of Hydra, we’ll get into that tomorrow—which doesn’t bode well for the poor and disenfranchised residents of Hell’s Kitchen. Clearly motivated and shaded in by his genuinely felt relationships with his mother, his girlfriend Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer, Man of Steel), and his friend/henchman Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore, John Wick), Fisk is monstrous but not unfeeling. His reaction to Wesley’s death is especially sad, as he represents Fisk’s only real friend.
Daredevil derives its best elements from its hero’s limitations. Just as Matt’s physical limits allow for brutal, bone-crunching fight sequences, the world of Hell’s Kitchen is dank and moldy, which lends the show a uniquely noir look. It’s not even gritty, it’s just REAL. Shot on location in New York (although Red Hook stands in for the now too-gentrified Hell’s Kitchen), garbage lines streets, windows are dirty, and no one has a nice view. Moodily lit and with lots of faces cast into sharp shadows, the show has the look of old pulp detective comics, separating it from the other, brighter corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But the greatest strength of Daredevil is the matchup of Murdock vs. Fisk, two men with a similar desire but different ways of achieving it. They both tread into morally grey areas and really, the only thing that separates them is that Fisk is willing to sacrifice others to achieve his ends, while Matt is only willing to risk himself. There’s so much to recommend Daredevil, from its outstanding cast—we’re not even getting into the amazingness of Rosario Dawson—to its thrilling action scenes, to its detailed and unique visuals. Come for a worthy and exciting Daredevil, stay for compelling characters and an engaging crime procedural.