While I’ve come to love the secret agent soap of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and pulpy fun of Agent Carter, it’s fair to say Marvel’s TV projects have not had the same stamp of quality as their films. With Daredevil, the first of Marvel’s five Netflix series’, we are at last given a TV show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that feels like it belongs on the shelf right next to your Avengers Blu-Ray.
As great as that is to finally say, what’s even more exciting is that Daredevil expands the MCU to a much darker and more violent place than it’s ever been before, capturing perfectly the desperate and gritty street-level superheroics of the source material. Of all the TV shows based on comics that are currently pouring out, Daredevil is the first that can be fairly compared to some of the excellent premium dramas we’ve been treated to over the last few years. It took us a while to get there, but that Marvel magic has finally made it to the small screen.
Unlike most modern superhero fare, Daredevil doesn’t feel the need to hold the audience’s hand with unnecessary exposition. The series opens with the aftermath of the accident that cost Matt Murdock his sight and gave him his powers. Before long, we jump forward to Matt as an adult (played by Charlie Cox) recounting memories of his father in a confession booth, and then straight onto him dressed in all black as he takes down a group of would-be human traffickers; all before the first titles pop up. Daredevil hits the ground running, quickly establishing everything we need to know about our hero in a few quick scenes and then letting us watch as he begins his one-man war to save his city.
Considering Marvel’s stature as the premier superhero studio, it’s a little surprising that until now they’ve never given us a straight up, crime-fighting, vigilante. Hell, we haven’t even gotten a secret-identity yet. With Daredevil Marvel are able to explore this very essential archetype of the genre they have brought to life and give us our first genuine insight into the lives of those on the ground, running as aliens and snarky robots blow shit up. With that grounded perspective comes a refreshing sense of authenticity we’ve never before achieved in this world. You can expect to see much more adult themes (and language) than in anything else Marvel have put out so far (to the point that you may want to think twice before letting the kids watch it with you), but it’s the violence that really sets Daredevil apart from its cinematic siblings.
Even with the coat of polish the Netflix budget can afford, Daredevil was never going to have action on the scale of The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy. But with some strong cinematography, and some of the best fight-choreography I’ve ever seen on the small screen, Daredevil delivers some incredible action that rings true to its titular character and still feels like it belongs in this world. Murdock, like his boxing old man, is a brawler, often times taking just as much of a beating as the foes he pummels with bloodied fists. While he’s got an edge over almost any of the men he fights, Daredevil remains vulnerable and feels frequently outmatched and fatigued past the point of his heightened skills making a difference. This awards the show’s action a level of suspense you simply don’t get when watching more seemingly unbeatable heroes duke it out. While there are plenty of great sequences throughout Daredevil’s thirteen episodes, I’d be remiss not to mention the absolutely incredible single-shot hallway fight scene at the end of the second episode. TV action at its perfection.
While the series maintains a consistent quality from start to finish, it does unfortunately lose a little of its steam in the second half. With perhaps one exception, Daredevil’s later episodes remain thrilling, edge-of-your-seat entertainment, but they don’t quite have the same sense of excitement and discovery you get from the first seven episodes. I also have to note that while I love the Netflix model and think it’s an excellent platform for Marvel’s TV projects, I get the sense Daredevil could really have benefited from the reflection and excitement that comes from spreading each episode a week apart. Perhaps it’s just that Daredevil does so well to balance the episodic/serialized nature of TV (something that’s becoming increasingly absent of late), but I can’t help feel like I would have gotten more out of it if I wasn’t encouraged to consume it as quick as possible.
It’s great to see that all the non-costumed characters are developed with the same level of care as the heroes and villains. While some of the cast, like Murdock’s partner Foggy (Elden Henson), can be a bit much at times, the majority of the cast are endearing and impressively realized – regardless of the amount of screen time they’re given. Special mentions go to Deborah Ann Woll who runs a gauntlet across the emotional spectrum as Matt and Foggy’s assistant Karen Page, Toby Leonard Moore as the unflinchingly cool head henchmen Wesley, and my personal favourite, Bob Gunton, who reimagines longtime Daredevil villain from the comics Leland Owlsley as what is essentially the Paulie Gualtieri of the MCU.
Arguably the show’s biggest hitter is Vincent D’Onofrio as Daredevil’s lead antagonist Wilson Fisk. What D’Onofrio has created with Fisk is very easily one of the most fascinating characters we’ve yet seen in the MCU. The series spends a good amount of time exploring the shadow cast by Fisk before we finally catch our first glimpse of him in a serene moment to cap off the show’s third episode. After seeing the fear he instills on Hell’s Kitchen, the shy and lonely man we finally meet is far removed from the monster we’ve been imagining. Fisk loves his city, and believes whole-heartedly that he is the hero in this story, doing what Daredevil does only “on a scale that matters”. Terrified that his monstrous means will define him instead of his courageous cause, Fisk thrives on the encouragement and devotion of those that look up to him, consequently exploding into blind fury whenever his self-perception is challenged. My only real complaint is the gruff, Batman-ish voice D’Onofrio employs that just doesn’t quite fit with the character he’s created.
Which finally brings us to our main man, the ol’ horn-head himself, Daredevil. While he’s probably never going to enjoy the spectacle of his Avenging cousins, Daredevil is already one of the most interesting superheroes in the MCU. There’s a vulnerability to Matt Murdock (both in terms of the beatings he takes and his overabundance of catholic guilt) that simply doesn’t exist amongst the swagger of Marvel’s movies. You’d certainly never see Iron Man or Thor feeling sorry for themselves and sobbing in their dank apartments, or if you did it would be as a result of some great tragedy and not because their best friend called them on their bullshit. Cox carries both a sense of determination and fatigue through all of Murdock’s ups and downs, humanizing the admittedly heavy-handed angst of Daredevil’s journey and making his fist-pumping triumph in the series finale all the more glorious. Daredevil has long been one of Marvel’s most critically acclaimed comics, and one of my personal favourites, so it’s great to see that Marvel have yet again found the perfect man to bring their icon to life.
Some late pacing problems and distracting character quirks aside, Marvel have finally given their fans a television series that matches the level of quality of their films. Daredevil takes the MCU to darker and scarier places than it’s ever seen and comes back with one of the most exciting new heroes in their arsenal. Next up: Jessica Jones, let’s hope they can keep the magic going.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10