My exposure to the Daredevil character before the 2003 film was mainly via guest appearances in books I was reading at the time, so usually Ghost Rider, the occasional Spider-Man, and the X-Men. This was back in the ‘90s, so it was well after Daredevil’s reinvention by Frank Miller as a grittier crime drama with ninjas. But this is what I’d known the character as. The ’03 film really never worked for me. It was ok, but it felt too much like it was trying to be the next Batman film instead of standing on its own. While you could make the case that there is a lot of Batman in Daredevil, there’s a lot more separating the two and the way they operate that makes Daredevil work in a way Batman just wouldn’t. I’m very happy to say that this thirteen-episode first season from Marvel, tying into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is very “Marvel”, but at the same time, is definitely tied into that gritty reinvention of the character from Frank Miller. The show works so much better for it.
I binge watched Marvel’s Daredevil over the course of a few days, and that’s pretty much how they designed the show to be viewed. A lot of TV shows have to reference events as they go, which leads to hitting on certain events over and over again, but Daredevil simply keeps moving along at a great pace for a crime drama show that works really well for what’s going on. Yeah, let’s get that out of the way too. This may be a show about Daredevil, but it’s a crime drama and is definitely working on an ensemble kind of set-up instead of just focusing on our lead or villain the whole time. This first season is also very much an origin tale for both Daredevil and Kingpin, as we see them both trying to figure out how they’re going to operate, Daredevil working out how far he’s willing to go in the costume and what his limits are, and Kingpin trying to sort out how he can operate with the several groups of criminal empires he’s brought together to try and take over Hell’s Kitchen. It’s not only a great juxtaposition, but it lets the viewers in on both ends of the spectrum, and keeps the show from getting boring, even when they’re trying to figure out how to put the pieces together to end the season in the later third of the episodes.
Daredevil is set post-Avengers, the after effects New York City is still reeling with, and while in our New York City, Hell’s Kitchen is where the rich are moving to live, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there has been a shift, and Hell’s Kitchen has begun sliding back into what it was in the sixties and seventies like we saw in the Daredevil comics. This has led our blind but still seeing hero, Matt Murdock, to return back to Hell’s Kitchen with his partner, Foggy Nelson, to set up their own law firm to help the little guy instead of the corporate scumbags. There’s a large group of criminals operating out of there now, all being spearheaded by a figure people are afraid to name directly. We don’t even see this person the first few episodes, but we eventually learn his name is Wilson Fisk, the man who would go by Kingpin in the comics. Matt puts on a mask at night and sets to go about finding out who’s really behind all of this. He quickly realizes that he’s going to need more help as not only is he taking an extreme beating doing his work behind a mask, but he’s having limited success with his law firm and balancing personal relationships with his friends.
Daredevil takes itself far more seriously than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or any of the other Marvel films, save for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There is humor in it, a lot of it coming from his partner Foggy, but they’re tackling things on a far more personal level, and we see the stakes far more intimately as we’re up close for the beatings and murders involved. The fight scenes here are extremely visceral, and if this had been released as a series of films, they’d have gotten a hard “R” just for the violence in the show alone. It’s amazing to watch it unfold, and they often go for the long take with the fight sequences, which allows you to feel it in your gut even more. The fight sequence at the climax of the second episode is probably one of the better ones committed to film, and is one of the best across the entirety of the season.
While there is a good chunk of action, it’s the drama surrounding it that makes the show work, and they did a phenomenal job with the casting. Everyone pulls his or her weight, and it really adds to what we see on screen, be it a flashback to the character’s youth, in college, or what’s currently happening. Daredevil also does something that a lot of the Marvel films keep forgetting to do, and that’s provide an amazing set of villains for our hero to face off against. There are some great supporting villains in this that are a combination of small time crooks and big timers in the comics. They all work well here, and we get a sense of their motivations, and that they aren’t simply cookie cutter creations every time they speak. The bad guys work here because they are given depth, much like we got with Loki in the Thor and Avengers films.
Vincent D’Onofrio has to be one of my favorite actors, and him playing a Kingpin that’s more accessible to the viewer than we’ve gotten before is fantastic. This version of Wilson Fisk has a lot of issues relating, and even just talking to people, but he has a master plan, and he’s definitely on the wrong end of emotionally unstable and violent. There is a lot to take away from D’Onofrio’s performance. One of the other standouts from me on the bad guy side of things, other than Wai Ching Ho who plays Gao, one of the Chinese criminals involved with Fisk who’s fantastic, is Toby Leonard Moore who plays James Wesley, Fisk’s right hand man. He’s one of the colder and cooler villains in the series, and is our first real introduction to Fisk as we see Wesley long before Fisk is ever seen on screen. He deals with everyone and his threats always feel very real. I loved seeing him on screen as I knew whatever was coming was going to be good.
Charlie Cox is great as both Matt and Daredevil. They don’t play that there’s much difference between the two, but you get a sense that Matt is kind of using his blind lawyer day job as a front in the same way Clark Kent and Superman handle things. He has the physicality for the role down, as well as that kind of quirky charm when he needs it. I like the inclusion of Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple. While both she and Deborah Ann Woll, as Karen Page, have a lot of influence on how Daredevil ultimately ends up dealing with things, they are both very different characters in the way they take things on. It’s also interesting that neither of them ended up as love interests for Daredevil this early on in his career, but we do get one for Kingpin, which adds all sorts of complexity to what’s going on. Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich, one of the investigative reporters that’s a long time mainstay in the Daredevil comic books, is really convincing as the aging reporter, but the scenes between Ben and his wife were equal parts charming and heartbreaking.
For the most part the show runs through with one goal in mind. There’s really only one episode that feels like its “episodic” and out of place in the overall, ongoing storyline, and that’s episode seven, titled Stick. It introduces us to Stick, played by Scott Glenn, who trains a young Matt to use his extra senses to be able to see without seeing, as well as how to fight. While it loosely ties into what’s going on in the city, it feels like it’s the overarching element that might tie the four series together for the big group mini-series that will come later, The Defenders. Unfortunately it’s the element that sticks out like it doesn’t belong, even though it incorporates, and lets us in on, Matt’s past, as well as providing an element to the ongoing fight between Daredevil and Kingpin’s forces.
I also love the look and feel of the show. It’s filmed in New York City, specifically in parts of Brooklyn and Long Island City that still look like the old Hell’s Kitchen, and that really shows in the flavor and texture of the show. The cinematography is excellent, and it never really looks like a TV show, but instead feels like a film split into thirteen parts. This is a huge departure from what we got with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which, unfortunately looks like a TV show, especially compared to the Marvel films. Daredevil retains that film quality and could almost work as a seventies crime drama film in a lot of ways. I can’t begin to recommend this show enough. It’s fantastic. If you have Netflix, give Daredevil a shot.