The first of Netflix’s quartet of Marvel-produced comic-book dramas, Daredevil wisely introduces the character closest to being a household name—although The Man Without Fear’s last mainstream attempt was Mark Steven Johnson’s floundering effort from 2003, which turned a profit but disappointed DD fans and proved a creative disappointment. So not only does showrunner Steven S. DeKnight (Angel, Spartacus) have to produce a solid run of neo-noir superheroics, having taken over from creator Drew Goddard (who retains writing credit on the first two instalments), but he’s also having to rehabilitate the character’s reputation—at a time when Marvel product may be popular (see their run of live-action blockbusters post-Iron Man), but the studio isn’t infallible (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s first-year growing pains, Agent Carter‘s so-so ratings). Just last year, I’d have said television is proving to be Marvel’s Achilles Heel (certainly compared to rivals DC with their double-whammy of Arrow and The Flash), but with its modern-day S.H.I.E.L.D series having staged a comeback and period spy-fi Agent Carter sitting well with critics, their small-screen star’s in ascension…
Compared to Marvel’s conventional network joints on ABC, Daredevil benefits from the unique opportunities afforded by an online streaming service like Netflix. This is a much darker and tougher show (rated 15 in the UK), with sequences of violence and bone-crunching brawls that would be difficult to get past the censors elsewhere on TV (a Lock, Stock homage ending in decapitation almost singlehandedly ensures that). Netflix’s strategy of releasing every episode simultaneously may cause consternation with fuddy-duddy viewers, like myself, who ascribe value to audiences watching, discussing, and anticipating new material in vague synchronicity, but it also means these thirteen episodes have been finished ahead of release—meaning less chance of network or fan reactions guiding the story if Character X isn’t proving popular with a demographic, or Subplot Y isn’t being well-received by the Twittersphere. Like a novel—or, more aptly, a graphic novel—this first season’s story is there to be devoured, however ravenously or meticulously you so desire, and there’s certainly value in knowing it’s the tale the producers and writers wanted to tell.
For the uninitiated, Daredevil is essentially a Marvel riff on DC’s Batman—but with several improvements to their competitor’s admired formula, it has to be said. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is an easy-going lawyer working in the Hell’s Kitchen district of New York, but he’s also blind (as a Bat one might say?)—the result of his childhood involvement with a car accident involving a chemical spill. The toxins fortunately endowed nine-year-old Matt with heightened senses that more than compensate for his loss of normal vision. Matt can hear heart beats (thus becoming a human lie-detector), eavesdrop on faraway conversations, deduce people’s recent activities based on their breathing patterns and bodily odours, and kick serious ass when he pulls on a black mask to become a ripped nocturnal vigilante. This season’s most fan-baiting arc is watching Matt gradually establish his own superhero branding; with his alter-ego’s signature billy clubs, crimson-costume with horns, and devilish nickname coming surprisingly late in the game.
Matt’s aided by his best friend from college, Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Elden Henson), who’s now his law partner in their new practice; and later by Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a murder suspect they exonerate as their first case, who becomes their loyal secretary and pseudo private investigator. Along the way, we also meet Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), an amalgam of the comic’s Night Nurse character, who tends to Matt’s battle wounds after being dragged into his life; the amusingly dispassionate Stick (Scott Glenn), a blind martial artist who trained Matt to fight as a boy, but whose harsh mentoring never led to him becoming the surrogate father he could so easily have become; principled investigative reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who serves as a quasi-Commissioner Gordon figure; and a Catholic priest called Lantom (Peter McRobbie) who gives the religious Matt counsel during particularly difficult times, when tough moral decisions have to be made.
The most notable thing about Daredevil—seeing as we now demand and expect the cinematic glossiness it has—is how the writers package their episodes. Clearly aware it’s likely to be ‘binge-watched’ by the fans, and certainly watched in less than the conventional three months by most, each episode cleverly manages to feel fresh and different. This is partly achieved by avoiding the pitfalls of the customary ‘origin story’, by telling it in a non-linear way across the bulk of this season. While Matt won’t become Daredevil, per se, until the finale, he’s a lawyer/vigilante from the get-go, and only through interwoven flashbacks do we develop a sense of how a disabled attorney overcame his handicap, was shaped by the tragic death of his pugilist dad Battlin’ Jack Murdock (a cliché given enough father-son sparkle it works), and was trained to become a weapon by a mulish old ninja. Besides that, the season’s entirely serialised but has the sense to mix things up with episodes casting attention on different aspects of the story, or spending more time in the company of fewer characters—such as “Nelson v. Murdock”, when a shocking truth comes to light.
A fictional hero’s only as good as the villain, and Daredevil aims straight for the character’s most infamous adversary—rotund, bald-headed mobster Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a shadowy figure better-known as the Kingpin (an unused epithet, suggesting his origin story’s not over). Arguably, it’s Fisk who proves to be the season’s most compelling creation, simply because he’s such a dichotomy and provokes unsteady sympathy at times—mainly through his weird, creepy, naïve relationship with an art gallery curator called Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) who becomes his devoted moll. And what a fascinating relationship that is; arguably the show’s best, as it completely avoids the cliches of Vanessa having her own wickedness drawn out under Fisk’s influence, or turning a blind eye to her boyfriend’s criminality to lead a life of luxury. D’Onofrio plays this Brando-esque villain as a shy man-child, prone to erupting into a monster if things aren’t going his way—which, fortunately for those in his vicinity, isn’t too often. And woe betide you incur his unwavering wrath and merciless fists. Fisk exists as an unnamed boogieman for awhile (not even appearing until “Rabbit in a Snowstorm”), then revealed as just one of many crime bosses—alongside pragmatic old-timer Leland Owlsley (Bob Gunton), Russian up-and-comer Vladimir Ranskahov (Nikolai Nikolaeff), suave Japanese businessman/ninja Nobu (Peter Shinkoda), and enigmatic Chinese drug lord Gao (Wai Ching Ho).
For all its greatness in terms of casting, performance and simple flair (Mad Men regular Phil Abraham sets the aesthetic benchmark with premiere “Into the Ring”), it’s fair to say Daredevil isn’t rewriting the rulebook. Large swathes of this adaptation owe a debt to pivotal runs of the comic-book (most notably Frank Miller’s “Man Without Fear”), plus there are tonal nods to 1970s crime movies like The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon (interestingly, touchstones Joe Carnahan was poised to utilise in his failed attempt to launch a new movie trilogy three years ago—his ’70s-era sizzle reel still viewable). The breadth of the season’s scope, certainly in terms of how the world of big city crime and its newspapers operate, also evoked memories of HBO’s The Wire—with that show’s Domenick Lombardozzi appearing as Fisk’s abusive father, suggesting the nod to David Simon’s critical favourite was intentional. You’ve got to love a show that’s blending those ingredients together, successfully, and even throws in an apparent Oldboy homage with a five-minute one-take hallway fight that ends “Cut Man” with a gruelling swagger.
I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done, Father. I’m asking for forgiveness… for what I’m about to do. — Matt Murdock
Incidentally, how wonderfully refreshing to have a superhero who gets visibly fatigued during battles; sometimes making mistakes, misjudging situations, and getting too cocky. There are times when it takes Matt Murdock a whole episode (days of real-time) to recover from a savage beating on a couch! Putting limitations on asuperhero only makes their victories more triumphant. Aficionados of the genre will undoubtedly feel waves of familiarity within Daredevil, from modern pop-culture. It’s clearly another descendent of Batman Begins (which opened the floodgates on treating comic-books as “serious art”)—most notably in how Fisk, like Ra’s al Ghul, believes his city needs to be razed before it can be reborn. It also operates as a nastier take on TV’s Arrow (only with characters you can engage with as ordinary people, without them having to inevitably wear masks), and features the same corrupt cops angle Fox’s Gotham is having problematic issues with. I bought into the idea that Fisk can buy the allegiance of high-ranking officials and street-level cops, whereas Gotham‘s just full of cowed lawmen because the script demands it. D’Onofrio almost steals the show, but I certainly appreciated the subtler efforts of Britain’s own Charlie Cox (Stardust, Boardwalk Empire) as the unsighted hero. He’s suitably charming as lovable Matt, and something of a revelation when it comes to the bruising violence—unless they did an even better job with stunt-doubles than I thought.
I would have liked to see Matt do something more in his day job as a lawyer (we only step inside a courtroom once), as a lot of that area’s workload is shouldered by Foggy and Karen—who develop a sweet working relationship that grows into friendship and almost tips into romance. Henson and Woll are a surprisingly delightful double-act, giving the series a lot more of its heart than anticipated. As I alluded, this is a show where you’re never counting the seconds until Daredevil shows up to crack skulls, as there’s just as much drama and interest in the more grounded investigations and criminal machinations—especially when Karen and Bulletin journo Ben start digging for dirt on Fisk through his elderly mother (Phyllis Somerville). Karen has a particularly ironic arc, going from wrongly-accused killer to a woman with genuine blood on her hands.
A few friends have mentioned how they thought Daredevil was great fun, but in retrospect it’s a two-hour movie stretched over thirteen. I’m not sure I agree, but I see where their criticism’s coming from. There are definitely hours that could’ve been cut, trimmed, amalgamated, or exist to explore something a film would likely handle in a few brief scenes. But the format is the format. You could tell this story in an exhilarating hour if you truly wanted to, or embellish to twice its current length.
Personally, I liked how things aren’t rushed and you spend a decent amount of time with characters that would’ve been marginalised or underwritten with the time restraints of a feature—which, by and large, wouldn’t have time to stray too far from the Hero’s Journey arc, while shoehorning in three or four big-scale action sequences to ensure its trailers cut though marketing noise. Marvel have those kinds of films on a well-oiled conveyor belt already, so I loved seeing the studio give a significant superhero his due in a format befitting their commitment to a darker story, themes, and characterisations.
Are there any serious problems with Daredevil? There’s always room for improvement, that’s just how it goes, and I wish a few things had been developed more (like Matt’s sweet relationship with kindly Claire), or had just led to more interesting ends. I must confess to feeling deflated by the grand finale, “Daredevil”, which after twelve hours of groundwork just does exactly what you’d have predicted six episodes ago. There are no crazy twists, or even a show-stopping spectacle to compete with any of the earlier ones, which is especially disappointing knowing writer-director DeKnight was capable of unleashing jaw-dropping climaxes on Spartacus. Here, it all comes down to an unexceptional scrap in a dark alleyway. And I’m not a fan of the body-armour Daredevil eventually dons, to undeserved fanfare, which just resembles a purple Bat-suit. Matt’s skintight black attire with his eye-obscuring balaclava was strangely more appealing, but maybe they’ll improve the design between seasons. Making it more overtly red would be a good start.
CAST & CREW
written by: Drew Goddard, Marco Ramirez, Joe Pokaski, Luke Kalteux, Douglas Petrie, Steven S. DeKnight, Christos Gage & Ruth Fletcher Gage.
directed by: Phil Abraham, Adam Kane, Ken Girotti, Farren Blackburn, Guy Ferland, Brad Turner, Stephen Surjik, Nelson McCormick, Nick Gomez, Euros Lyn & Steven S. DeKnight.