This review does NOT contain spoilers. Well, I do mention that Daredevil’s secret identity is Matt Murdock , but beyond that there isn’t anything that will ruin your viewing experience. Also, Soylent Green is made of people.
Daredevil is the first of four shows that Netflix will bring out in partnership with Marvel Studios. Each of the shows will center on a third-tier superhero who may not have the following to justify a big screen outing (though people said the same thing about Iron Man once upon a time). Ostensibly, the model is the same as the big screen version: establish each character, then bring them together. The end result, assuming all goes well, will be a mini-series featuring all four of the supes as a team called The Defenders, which will presumably be like a television version of The Avengers. Secondarily, it is assumed that these characters, played by these actors, may pop up occasionally in some of the big screen Marvel Universe productions.
The show was created by Drew Goddard and the show-runner for Season One was Steven DeKnight. Though both have extensive production histories at this point including everything from Lost to Spartacus, the most important thing you need to know is that both of them cut their teeth alongside Joss Whedon on Buffy and Angel.
Charlie Cox (The Theory of Everything, Boardwalk Empire) is in the lead role. Vincent D’Onofrio (of all his numerous and notable credits, the most relevant here are Men in Black and Full Metal Jacket) plays the big bad, Wilson Fisk. A very capable supporting cast includes Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood), Elden Henson (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) and Rosario Dawson (Top Five). Equally impressive in smaller roles are Vondie Curtis-Hall, Toby Leonard Moore, and dueling “that guy” actors Bob Gunton and Peter McRobbie. If it all goes wrong, it won’t be because they didn’t cast good people.
Thankfully, no. In fact, it went very, very well.
I’ve heard more than a few people lament that the Marvel films are too bright, shiny, and funny. While I generally like all three of those things, I do see their point. Take the post-credits shawarma scene from The Avengers. Amusing as it was, it seems a little glib considering the unquestionable loss of life that just occurred. They may have saved the world, but at best they saved maybe half of New York City. I don’t think that anyone wants Marvel to go full-on dark and dreary pathos á la what DC is doing with Superman and Batman, but some type of street-level storytelling in the rapidly expanding Marvel Universe seems called for. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. certainly isn’t going to do it with its network-fitted straitjacket cinched tight (though to be fair, Agent Carter seemed to do just fine with the same restraints, and targeting the same demographic). A more adult take on a darker character delivered via a system that doesn’t take its direction from Nielsen families seems like a perfect fit. And for the most part, it is.
Despite its recent success, Marvel has always struggled to bring their smaller, grittier characters to any size screen. We’ve had three different takes on The Punisher at this point and none of them figured out how to bring the character off the page. Ditto for the Ben Affleck Daredevil film, though to be fair, all of those were in the early days of the superhero takeover of Hollywood, when filmmakers still thought that the only way to make a superhero movie was to go big and hope that the spectacle distracted the audience from the unabashedly campy nature of the proceedings. Costumes were all style, no function and A-listers were lining up to twirl their mustaches, and monologue their way to hefty paydays playing classic villains. Longform storytelling with character and subtlety seemed impossible.
This show turns that paradigm on its ear. Though there is no shortage of action (more on that in a minute), it is always secondary to the characters. If there is one thing that Goddard and DeKnight seem to have learned from their early days in the Buffyverse, it is that the best action scene in the world won’t work if the audience doesn’t care who is throwing the punches (and kicks… and kicks off of walls…and crazy sideways flips with punches and kicks). It is no small feat that they managed to keep the show as grounded as it is, while avoiding the overblown laughable bluster that lesser shows about superhumans lean on. Audiences are too savvy for that kind of nonsense these days and this show bets on that intelligence and wins big as a result.
That level of audience trust comes with benefits. It means that when you do need to indulge in some “straight from the comics” hijinks like introducing an aging, blind, wise but harsh sensei that takes in the young hero in order to teach him the ways of the forc…uhhh…to teach him to hone his superhuman skills, the audience will roll with it. It doesn’t hurt that the creative team was smart enough to do away with most of the trappings of the genre for as long as they possibly could. In the comics, “The Owl” is the banker to the world’s supervillains and he dresses in a ridiculous green cloak that makes him look like he just stepped out of a Dickens novel and has twin pillars of hair that rise up from the sides of his head. Get it? He looks like an owl. On the show, Leland Owlsley (also his real name in the comics) is the banker to the world’s supervillains, who dresses in boring but well-tailored tweed suits and has neatly combed gray hair. In short, he looks precisely like you would expect an accountant to look, even the villainous ones.
Similarly, despite his heightened senses, Matt Murdock does not conveniently have advanced degrees in chemistry or bespoke sewing, so he shops off the shelf for his super suit. Mostly he wears karate pads and Under Armor, though a chance meeting late in the season presents an opportunity for an upgrade to his duds. Once again, though, nothing about that moment feels shoehorned or forced. It is an organic development in the story.
Nicknames are absent on the whole. There is no poorly written exchange between thugs that ends on a sudden swell of music as one tells the other, “They call him THE KINGPIN!” (though there is a very clever visual riff on the name that viewers should look for). Bottom line, everything is in service to the story they’re trying to tell, and that story is of how a blind lawyer becomes a fearsome vigilante.
Surprisingly, it is also the story of how a meek, chubby boy becomes a sociopath.
Charlie Cox was an inspired choice for Murdock. He slips easily between boyish vulnerability and righteous anger. You have no problem believing him as both sides of himself but you also see how other people could meet both sides, and never make the connection. Vincent D’Onofrio is something else entirely. There are no hidden sides to his Wilson Fisk but there are infinite layers. Scenes that would have been an exercise in scenery chewing from another actor become quiet, contemplative conversations from D’Onofrio. All too often, excellent villains are ruined due to over-explanation of their backstory. Sometimes, crazy is most frightening when we don’t know where it came from. Here, however, the show builds up Fisk methodically, showing him awkward, shy, and kind for a considerable amount of time before his first outburst of violence. The shock and terror does not come from a sense that his earlier vulnerability and goodness was a façade proven to be false. It comes from the sense that it was not.
The remainder of the cast ranges from good to excellent, though there are occasional issues. Elden Henson struggles the most, though it isn’t entirely his fault. It is not a humorless show, but the kind of buddy-buddy ribbing that permeates most of Marvel’s properties feels alien here, and Henson pulls most of the comic relief load. He fares much better in more dramatic scenes when his tone meshes more closely with the overall tone of the show. Similarly, Deborah Ann Woll is phenomenal when her character is burdened by her situation, but her glowing earnestness the rest of the time can sometimes ring false. It’s like they plucked a character from the 1950s of Agent Carter and dropped her in modern day Hell’s Kitchen, but she hasn’t noticed. In both cases, the actors are more than game, and these are issues easily rectified in a second season.
The big breakout actor for me was Toby Leonard Moore as Wesley, Fisk’s right hand. Moore oozes lethal charm while never seeming slimy, which is difficult. I can’t wait to see more… of Moore.
No Daredevil review would be complete without mentioning the fighting. In my opinion it is, without question, the best fight choreography ever put on television. It’s that good. Even if you don’t care about the characters, or you like action films, but not superhero movies, or you just like to try and figure out how stunt teams pull off difficult scenes, I can still recommend the show to you. There is a long hallway fight sequence early on that has gotten lots of deserved attention, but in truth, almost every episode contains a noteworthy and impressive action moment. Most impressive is that everything appears to have been done practically without CG doubles. I’m sure wires and pads were erased (or who knows, maybe not) but the end result is a consistently seamless experience that looks and feels real. The directors also wisely eschew the usual quick cuts and extreme close-ups (except when they are absolutely necessary to cover certain actors’ lack of skill), and shoot the action more like an Asian martial arts film with long, tracking shots and a minimum of edits. The result is beautiful and brutal.
Which brings me to the unending abuse that our main character withstands. If one thing separates this project from the rest of the current Marvel catalog, it is the genuine feeling of dread when our hero heads into battle. Perhaps it is because he is just a man in a suit without virtue of armor or mystical weapons, but there is no question that the audience feels his suffering and fears for his safety, which I can honestly say is an emotion that I have never felt in any Marvel property of the last decade, despite enjoying them immensely.
The series largely succeeds because it offers an inverted view of the Marvel Universe, interested more in the experience of the common man than the superhuman. In fact, there are so many compelling subplots to follow that some promising arcs get abruptly dropped due to overcrowding. Hopefully, some of those will re-emerge in the second season.
Daredevil is not a perfect show by any means, but it elevates material that easily could have been cliché-ridden into something that feels fresh and undiscovered. Many people who wouldn’t have ordinarily been interested in a superhero show will find themselves reaching for the remote at the end of each episode, because the 15 second countdown is too long to wait for another episode to begin.
Make sure to stock up on groceries and don’t start on a night when you have work the next morning.
Some closing thoughts:
D’Onofrio’s voice for Fisk is a sometimes bewildering but never ineffective mixture of the blunt and loud Edgar/The Bug from Men in Black, and the quiet, hidden violence of Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket. It works perfectly well without those echoes in your head, but hearing the occasional flash cannot help but deepen the experience.
There are easter eggs aplenty for the hardcore Marvel fans. Some are visual clues; some are wordplay (“You suspect her HAND in this?”). The larger Netflix world that Daredevil opens into contains some strong supernatural elements that are only hinted at here (Matt’s meditative healing comes to mind). It will be interesting to watch the creative team attempt to draw mysticism into the gritty world they have built. Also, don’t be surprised when some familiar faces from Hell’s Kitchen turn out to be major players on other shows, particularly Iron Fist.
Jack McKinney is a professional camera salesman by day and a freelance filmmaker, Paste contributor, and amateur prestidigitator by night (and occasionally weekends). You can cyber-stalk him on Twitter.