Created by Drew Goddard, based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett. Starring: Charlie Cox, Vincent D’Onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Toby Leonard Moore, Scott Glenn, Rosario Dawson, Bob Gunton, Ayelet Zürer, Royce Johnson.
A childhood accident leaves Matt Murdock (Cox) blind but endowed with superhuman senses. Mentored by badass ninja bastard Stick (Glenn), Matt attains extreme prowess in the honorable art of punching people in the face, and as an adult he uses his various abilities to beat criminals up at night and serve the innocent as a lawyer by day, all to help his beloved childhood borough of Hell’s Kitchen. But someone else also wants to save this part of New York, only he has a completely different and utterly ruthless plan for doing so: criminal boss Wilson Fisk (D’Onofrio), who doesn’t content himself with punching a face when he can remove an entire head … or city block.
Violent, gruesome and ferocious, Daredevil is unlike anything else in recent Marvel Comics live action adaptations. It’s set in the same universe as The Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. etc, but has a level of darkness and bloody realism to it that it would send Captain America running from the scene, screaming shrilly. I personally like the lighter, fantasy tone of other Marvel properties, but it’s ever so nice seeing them trying out something new by going the more mature, adult route enabled by a Netflix TV series.
For a show about a blind ninja superhero, Daredevil possesses a truly surprising level of realism. In the action sequences, the characters involved are imbued with unrealistic talents, sure, but they bleed and they cry out and they grow exhausted and they need time to heal their broken bodies. The humour works as well and doesn’t sound too scripted. Likewise, the characterisation makes you feel that were dealing with real people here, and the scripts allow for long dramatic scenes, where a more typical hero show would have been itching to get on with the action. The characters all have believable flaws, and the conflicts between them – such as the one arising between Matt and his colleague and best friend Foggy (Henson) – are not brushed aside or treated in a pat way, but explored in full. Even Matt’s Catholicism, which could easily have annoyed me no end, is treated in such a way as to complicate his personality, his motives and ultimately his approach to the task of bringing down Wilson Fisk. The balancing of the two sides to Matt should also be pointed out: his alternating use of legal procedure and illegal head thumping get equal play and often complement each other elegantly.
Although Daredevil was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, the show is very much based on Frank Miller’s and Klaus Johnson’s 1980s run on the comic book, one which brought the character to an entirely new level of maturity, complexity and mythology. Apart from making Fisk, aka the Kingpin, Daredevil’s primary foe, Miller and Janson upped the grittiness, brought in ninja clan The Hand, turned journalist Ben Urich into a major character, and made Matt a deeper, darker and more conflicted protagonist. All of this, and more, has been adapted for the TV series, giving it an edge and richness second to none in the superhero stakes.
There is, however, one thing that makes Daredevil quite different from its comic book origins, and that is its take on Wilson Fisk. In the source material, the Kingpin is an interesting and powerful enemy, but to all intents and purposes he is what you would think he is: a big, brash, vaguely superhuman bad guy. The way he’s written in the show, and not least the way D’Onofrio plays him, at first had me concerned, before I warmed to it and saw its sheer brilliance. This Fisk is shy and socially awkward, traumatized by a horrible childhood, genuine in his affection for Hell’s Kitchen and his wish to save it (even if it means a lot of murders and bombings), and quite disconcertingly contradictory in his juvenile emotional life and outbursts of joyfully psychotic violence. Nothing like the assertive villain of the comic book, this Kingpin is someone you feel for and are drawn to, while he loses nothing of his ability to terrify. He’s a unique creation among larger-than-life bad guys, and a lovely answer to the common criticism that Marvel’s movies and TV series are bad at fleshing out their villains.
Daredevil is infused with Marvel Comics lore just like most of their projects. The Battle of New York (the climax of The Avengers) is cleverly used to explain why Hell’s Kitchen needs redevelopment, a need that facilitates Fisk’s plans. Thor, Iron Man and Captain America are mentioned, and the Hulk is seen in a newspaper clipping. Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, is not referred to, however, which is kind of funny since she’s the only Avengers character to have been close to Daredevil in the comics. Relatively obscure Marvel characters are either introduced with a wink, like the Gladiator, or hinted at as possible future appearances, like the Owl. And of course, there’s a subtle mention of Elektra, one of the most important Daredevil characters. It’s all fun and ties Daredevil in with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe without damaging its highly individual tone.
The bad sides, then? There isn’t much I can criticize, really, since a lot of thought has clearly gone into this show. The budget limitations sometimes show through, not so much in what is shown as in what is not shown; for instance, certain flashback scenes involving Matt’s boxer father would have been more engaging if one of the matches had actually been shown. Other than that, the many scenes of Daredevil and an enemy punching it out in a dark locale grow repetitious early on (although the climactic fight in episode 2 is one of the best and most emotional combat scenes I’ve ever witnessed). Ben Urich, the dogged investigative journalist, also comes with a few issues. Curtis-Hall is great in the role, but a couple of pivotal parts of Urich’s story have been altered significantly in a way I can’t get behind. Finally, if you look at the very basics of the story construction, it does have a tinge of video game to it, with Fisk being the end boss and his various cronies (Russian, Chinese and Japanese crime organisations) being the level bosses on the way. Luckily, the writing is so good that this just barely registers.
Daredevil is innovative, confident and deeply engrossing television that bodes well for its second season and for its various upcoming companion shows.
Rating: 8 of 10.