I’m putting this up before the world goes crazy in the wake of The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Enjoy:
Sometimes the best parts of a beautiful tapestry are the details. These, while often not the highlight of the piece, are just as integral to the whole, adding something both distinct and necessary if one wants to create a piece of art that truly resonates across a broad spectrum of people. This longwinded analogy is perhaps the best way to describe Marvel’s Daredevil, the new Netflix series based on the superhero of the same name. In an age (heh heh) of superhero franchises and crossovers that deal with worldwide threats, it is refreshing to see something as single-minded as Daredevil.
Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire, The Theory of Everything) plays Matt Murdock, blind lawyer by day, superhero by night. While other Marvel heroes are concerned with villains hell bent on destroying whole populations, Murdock reiterates time and again throughout this first season that he is only concerned with protecting his home of Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. Despite being the first of Marvel’s “street level” heroes to debut with a Netflix show (three more are to follow), Daredevil is a soaring success. It deftly combines the crime procedural with the fantastic to deliver something truly unique and thanks to the freedom its Netflix platform offers, it gives us a darker, grittier side of the Marvel universe that we haven’t seen before.
Yet the true brilliance of Daredevil lies in its storytelling and structure. Though this season does function as an origin story, it begins with Matt Murdock already fighting crime as a masked vigilante. The story of how he got his powers, how he was trained in martial arts, and what led him to fight crime are all handled in a clever, non-linear fashion, avoiding the pitfall of the slow, predictable opening with which many other superhero stories have struggled. Even more interesting is that this season is a dual origin, handling Matt Murdock’s transformation into Daredevil while also exploring the rise of his arch-nemesis, Wilson Fisk, who will come to be known as the Kingpin.
The performances here are top-notch across the board. Charlie Cox imbues Matt Murdock with a roguish charm while also allowing him to be a fallible human being, prone to self-doubt. Murdock’s sharp sense of justice becomes increasingly at odds with the tenets of his Catholic faith and he often struggles with the classic question of whether or not murder can be used for good. At the same time, thanks to some deft writing as well, Murdock’s love for his city is made clear and handled in a way that is neither campy nor saccharine. Cox relates all of this with immense skill and subtlety, making his Matt Murdock one of my favorite Marvel heroes so far.
Cox’s foil is Vincent D’Onofrio, who plays Wilson Fisk. D’Onofrio (of Law & Order fame, as well as Full Metal Jacket, and Men in Black) is incredibly compelling as Fisk, shattering the expectations viewers have of a comic book villain and instead making his version of the mobster businessman a socially awkward, emotionally repressed man child. Yet despite the horrific nature of some of his deeds, the viewer really forges a connection with Fisk since he does genuinely wish to improve Hell’s Kitchen, just in a way that is diametrically opposed to Matt Murdock. Given the long format of a television show, Fisk receives just as much screen time as Murdock, allowing for both characters to receive the time they need to grow, develop, and become the hero and villain fans so love. So far, this is something that distinguishes Daredevil from the rest of the Marvel universe and I hope that Marvel’s other Netflix offerings (and perhaps even movies) go on to explore the motivations of their villains in the same manner.
Rounding out the cast are the always-awesome Rosario Dawson as Claire, a nurse that befriends Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Murdock’s friend and secretary, and Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Murdock’s college roommate and fellow lawyer. Also, Vondie Curtis-Hall is particularly memorable as Ben Urich, Hell’s Kitchen’s most intrepid reporter, and Ayelet Zurer (Man of Steel, Angels &Demons) is mesmerizing as Fisk’s inscrutable art dealer/love interest, Vanessa.
Beyond the acting and the smart writing (led first by Angel’s Drew Goddard, and later by Spartacus’s Steven S. DeKnight), something has to be said about the action in this series. Given that Daredevil is a superhero, he spends a lot of time going toe to toe with criminals and here this show does not disappoint. The stunts and fight choreography are both exciting and engaging, yet realistic in a way that is not often seen in the superhero genre. Despite his amazing sensory abilities, Matt Murdock remains a human, and it is refreshing to see a hero that fights, gets tired, bleeds, and sometimes even loses. If you’re doubting the action potential for this series, just watch the end of the second episode which features a stunning, unbroken, single-shot five minute hallway fight scene. A remarkable achievement, especially for television.
That technical praise can be stretched to address the whole show. From top to bottom, it’s a beautiful production. The music by John Paesano is fitting and the theme song is particularly memorable. On the visual side, each frame just drips New York City, capturing that nearly indescribable vibrancy with impressive cinematography and clever camerawork. It’s dark and gritty and yet still maintains a vitality that is sometimes lost in other hands.
Even though the visuals may be gloomy, the characters are what breathes life into Daredevil. Matt Murdock, for all of his self-doubt and exploration, still has drinks with Karen and Foggy, shares moments of romantic tension with Rosario Dawson’s Claire, and sometimes just has to take a night off after a good beating. It’s a humanizing show, for both its heroes and its villains, and I found myself incredibly appreciative at the lengths the Daredevil team went to give each character depth and motivation.
Sometimes Daredevil is so good and feels so real that it’s strange to think that somewhere in this universe there’s a talking raccoon with a sentient tree for a sidekick, but that’s the real draw of the Marvel universe: it’s insane and ridiculous, yet possesses a broad range of characters that exist within different genres and archetypes. Everything is connected. The motivation for both Murdock and Fisk’s crusades stems from most of Hell’s Kitchen being destroyed in the events of The Avengers (2012); news clippings in Ben Urich’s office address the climactic battle at the end of The Incredible Hulk (2008); one of Fisk’s lieutenants wonders why his men can’t handle a man in a mask when there is a Norse god and a man in a high-tech suit running around. This is the stuff you dream about as a kid.
The first season of Daredevil is simply a great story, deftly told, filled with distinct performances and oozing with atmosphere. I can’t wait to see more of the Man Without Fear.