Season 1 review
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Phil Abraham, Farren Blackburn, Steven S. DeKnight and four others.
Series Created by:
Drew Goddard, featuring Marvel Comics characters created by Stan Lee, Bill Everett and others.
Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson
Length:  13 Episodes/60 minutes each
Released:   040215
“That this can be more compelling than what we’ve seen in theaters bodes well for what Netflix has coming next." 

Comic-book storytelling has long seemed more compatible with the arc of a television season than it is with film: For all the success of superhero movies that can devote their inflated budgets to special effects, two hours simply isn’t enough time to do anything truly interesting with plot. Marvel has been playing with longer narrative arcs for years now with its films, which are knitted together within one big, interlinked universe. But the strong first season of Daredevil, which just dropped on the binge-friendly Netflix as 13 episodes, proves the material might have finally found its perfect medium.

Comic-book adaptations may well be reaching saturation point for casual fans, and if not yet, they probably will soon with the amount of competing “cinematic universes” on the horizon aping Marvel’s approach. But all the comic-book company (now a multimedia conglomerate owned by Disney) is doing is repeating a formula that has worked with readers for more than 50 years—replicating the thrill of keeping up with long, evolving stories that can bump into and cross over with each other. This has mostly taken place on film, involving godlike heroes like Thor or Captain America, but with Daredevil, Marvel is smartly building out another vital branch of its brand—the smaller-scale heroes who patrol the streets of New York and save a few people—rather than whole planets or galaxies—at a time.

From the very beginning, the show, Marvel’s first Netflix series, is preoccupied with questions of morality. But more than anything else, it’s a show about how far things need to go before they get better. Set in a bombed out New York, the city, we’re told early and often, is in desperate need of saving. Corruption has crept its way into every corner of life — law enforcement, commerce, even basic things like housing — and how to root it out is at the show’s core. But Daredevil’s morality can’t easily be defined as good versus evil. When your protagonist is a blind vigilante who beats down thugs as much for sport as for a higher purpose, you’re talking about evil versus lesser evil, or about doing abject, unforgivable things for the greater good. In its uncompromising depiction of that struggle, Marvel manages to make this series great.

The series’ conceit, in blurring the line between hero and villain, isn’t especially novel. The mild-mannered professional by day, crime fighter by night trope invites immediate comparison to The Dark Knight trilogy and shows like Arrow. But Daredevil shines in the execution, which is as inspired as it is dark, darker than anything Marvel or DC has so far depicted onscreen.

It manages that first by being bloodier than anything audiences have seen out of the Big Two so far. This show is gruesome. The bloodletting is relentless here; at one point, a character slams his own head through a wall spike just to make a point. But what really sets this apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that Daredevil shows how superheroes fail us. The Avengers saved the world, but the New York they left behind is still scarred for it. Crime took root in the wreckage, and heroes like Iron Man are nowhere in sight. Matt Murdock is the kind of hero that environment now needs: the first street-level hero willing to get his hands dirty. And the blood he and those around him spill is a constant reminder of how morally compromised his part of the city has become. This is what the world is like with superheroes in it. This is how things go too far. It’s as cruel as it is compelling, adding weight to the proceedings without leaning so much on older stories as to prevent the story from standing on its own.

Daredevil centers around Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), an attorney in Hell’s Kitchen who was raised by a big-hearted, small-time boxer and blinded at a young age by some requisite mysterious chemicals. When Daredevil was created by Stan Lee in 1964, Hell’s Kitchen was the West Side Story-esque bad neighborhood of old Manhattan, not the gentrified place it’s become now, and this Daredevil sticks to the original vibe without getting too hokey. By day, Matt is a do-gooder lawyer trying to set up a practice with his law-school buddy Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson); by night, he battles organized crime in a ninja outfit, taking advantage of his remaining heightened senses and magical radar vision to keep one step ahead of everyone.

As a comic-book character, Daredevil has always felt most evocative when New York is in dire straits. Writer and artist Frank Miller’s brooding take on the character in the late 70s and early 80s, when the city was mired in recession and rising crime, remains the definitive one. Indeed, the only thing that Daredevil could protect citizens of the current Hell's Kitchen from is rent control. Brian Michael Bendis’ four-year run as writer, starting in December 2001, acknowledged New York’s long shadow of post-9/11 paranoia and fear. Those separate arcs clearly serve as the major inspiration for the show’s creator Drew Goddard and its show runner Steven DeKnight; their Daredevil is pitch-dark and gritty, sometimes to the extent that you can barely tell what’s happening on screen.

As Matt Murdock, Cox brings a quiet charm and Catholic guilt that makes him immediately sympathetic. The character simmers when he’s onscreen, only boiling over when he lets rage consume him as the masked hero. This is a good man capable of doing terrible things, and he’s good at what he does. He’s joined by a cast that all embody some moral struggle that exposes how broken New York has become. Elden Henson plays Murdock’s best friend and legal partner Franklin "Foggy" Nelson, an essentially good lawyer still smarting from the pair turning down a lucrative position at a corrupt law firm. Foggy is meant, at times to provide the series some lighter moments. Unfortunately, the character is sometimes grating. True Blood alum Deborah Ann Woll plays Karen Page, a victim of the show’s core criminal plot whose past on the show is likely as checkered as her troubled past in the comics. Rosario Dawson plays Claire Temple, a night shift nurse who stitches Murdock up despite witnessing his penchant for violence. And Vondie Curtis-Hall plays Ben Urich, probably the most storied investigative journalist in all of Marvel, as he wrestles with how to help bring the city’s darker influences down without getting himself or those he cares about killed.

But the real highlight here is Vincent D’Onofrio’s take on Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime. In the past, Fisk has been portrayed as a fearsome crime lord only posing as a legitimate businessman, serving as the arch-enemy of superheroes like Spider-Man, the Punisher, and especially Daredevil. Here, he’s Murdock’s twisted reflection. They want the same thing — that is, to make their city a better place. But, where Murdock wants to stamp out crime one punch at a time, Fisk wants to dismantle the underworld from the inside, even if that means dirtying his hands with drugs and human trafficking.

Who’s really serving the greater good? The show offers no easy answer outside of our knowledge that we are watching a show called Daredevil, and the titular character is supposed to be our hero. But D’Onofrio makes Fisk charming in his way — in one early episode, we see him fumble awkwardly on a date with a woman he admires. And Fisk states outright he takes no pleasure in his criminal activity, while we can only wonder as to how much pleasure Murdock takes in ripping his enemies apart.

With so many new superhero shows on television, Daredevil successfully raises the bar. As Marvel’s crop of TV projects have been safe, and frankly dull (Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter), Daredevil pushes the envelope by going down dark paths the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t gone down before. This isn’t about aliens saving planets. It’s about one man taking on mass murderers with his bare hands. That this can be more compelling than what we’ve seen in theaters bodes well for what Netflix has coming next. Daredevil is the first in a series of street-level solo series dramas Marvel is making with Netflix. All are scheduled for the near future and will eventually unite into a miniseries called The Defenders-because the studio can’t do anything without thinking three years ahead. There are certainly kinks to work out in the formula, but while every other studio is rushing to replicate what Marvel accomplished on the big screen, this new bulwark seems like an exciting next step.

No problem gets solved within one episode, but as soon as the credits are rolling, Netflix is prodding you to watch the next chapter. It’s no different than buying a trade paperback and devouring a year of comic-book storytelling in one sitting. A network show like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC has some obligation to keep things simple enough to follow along with week to week; Daredevil is its graphic-novel cousin, meatier and more ambitious, and succeeding on those grounds even though the pace is slower. Since embarking on adapting its own properties, Marvel has done well to make its adaptations accessible to the general public. Daredevil represents a leap into more niche territory, and the results are encouragingly different.

DAREDEVIL © 2015 Walt Disney Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2015 Alternate Reality, Inc.



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