Overview: Blinded as a child and gifted with extraordinary senses, lawyer Matt Murdock defends Hell’s Kitchen from Wilson Fisk and his criminal empire who have their own plans for the city. 2015; ABC Studios/Marvel Television; TV-MA; 13 Episodes.
Without Fear: Daredevil knows exactly what it wants to be. While most shows take a couple episodes (at least) to find their footing in terms of tone, look, and character motivation, Daredevil has it down from the first episode. While it fits nicely into the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (easter eggs and references to larger events are scattered throughout) the show quickly establishes its own worldview and it’s one that isn’t afraid to alienate certain audiences. While Marvel Studios typically refrains from some of the more graphic and adult aspects of their characters, Daredevil dives right in. The show is brutal, and it takes its levels of violence and adult situations right up to an R-rating. At the same time, the show isn’t afraid of humor, in fact it’s one of Marvel Studios’ funniest outputs because the humor feels natural and varied.
The violence and humor gel together to create an authenticity that doesn’t feel outlandish or like a hard sell for realism. The show’s look, while not exactly the Scorsese and Lumet-inspired visuals it was touted to be, is stylistic and visually interesting in its use of color motifs, tints, and shadow. The result is a New York that actually feels and looks like New York. Part of this is the show’s focus on the people that make up Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a place that feels lived in, filled with odors and noise, and is populated by the multi-racial, multi-lingual people that actually make up NY. Daredevil’s New York is a sensory environment which makes it easy to see how Matt manages. For all of its realism in these details, Daredevil doesn’t try to hide from being a superhero show. It introduces ancient martial arts mysticism and takes familiar names and places right out of the comics to create an environment that feels just as situated in comic book lore as it does our own world.
Of Men and Monsters: Every role from lead, to supporting, to extras is pitch perfect. Once again, Marvel’s casting does wonders. Charlie Cox was an unexpected choice for Matt Murdock, but there’s no doubt that he fits the role just as perfectly as RDJ fits Iron Man. Cox captures the faith, internal struggle, depression, and perfectly timed wit of the character. And as Daredevil, Cox taps into Murdock’s inner beast, creating a character who is frightening in his drive and violent methods, but still someone we can root for.
Our ability to root for Matt owes a lot to his relationships with the supporting characters. Elden Henson, who portrays Matt’s best friend Foggy Nelson is absolutely brilliant. Instead of taking the route from the earlier comics and making Foggy a bumbling fool, he’s portrayed to be just as mentally equipped as Matt and a hero in his own right. The show understands their relationship perfectly, and it’s Foggy who’s responsible for some of the show’s funniest and most heartfelt moments. Karen Page, portrayed by Deborah Ann Woll, completes their small circle of friends. Her situation as a damsel in distress is quickly dissolved after the first episode and she proves to be fully capable of handling herself. She may be Matt and Foggy’s secretary but the show doesn’t keep her behind a desk, and instead puts her in the investigative hot seat with the help of Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall). Hall’s Urich and Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple keep the show focused on the human interest elements. There may be bigger conspiracies and action beats at play, but Daredevil is intimately concerned with the lives of the poor, sick, and abused.
Daredevil’s concern about individuals and layered characters doesn’t just extend to the side of the heroes. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk very nearly steals the show. D’Onofrio humanizes the character by portraying him as a publicly shy child/monster who wears his heart on his sleeve and is prone to embarrassment. What could have easily been a generic mob boss character is instead a man trying to help his city the only way he knows how. There’s no doubt Fisk is a delusional savage (the slamming car door decapitation quickly dispelled any notions that he wasn’t) but he’s not the devil Matt believes him to be. Underneath the rage you can see the pain of a bullied, fat kid in Wilson’s eyes. Instead of using the route of the lone villain, Daredevil populates Fisk’s life with a love interest and best friend of his own. Aylet Zurer’s Vanessa, Bob Gunton’s Leland, and Toby Leonard Moore’s Wesley all allow for the different sides of Fisk to be seen, all while having their own distinct personalities and arcs. In terms of character development, Daredevil accomplishes in 13 episodes what some shows can’t manage in 22.
Learning Curve: One of the most admirable aspects of the show is its pacing. Daredevil takes its time establishing the plot and stakes. It lets you get to know the characters before it threatens them. Even Daredevil’s “powers” aren’t clearly defined for the audience until a few episodes in. A small number of the episodes incorporate flashbacks to fill in the gaps about certain characters’ relationships. By not using flashback’s every episode, the show only focuses on the moments that matter instead of scraping for filler in order to maintain the same format for every episode. The result is a very Year One-inspired take that highlights the transition from mere vigilante to hero. While the show’s tone and villainous plot has drawn a number of comparisons to Nolan’s Batman Begins, the elements come together to create a show and character that are drastically different from Batman. Those looking at surface level details of course see some similarities between the two properties (Frank Miller has the best known and most celebrated runs on both titles) but Daredevil has an entirely different prerogative. It’s a show about the people our society tends overlook, the people who are beaten down and must use whatever limited resources they have to stand back up again.
Overall: Even with its leisure pacing and secrets yet to be revealed, Season 1 accomplishes a hell of a lot. It’s different from anything Marvel Studios has produced so far, and just when you think the show won’t go that far, it does. Matt isn’t portrayed as a hero who has everything figured out. He makes stupid mistakes and loses more often than he wins, and there’s something refreshing about that. It’s the best adaptation of the character and his world that I could conceivably imagine. The only question that’s still eating at me is how long will we have to wait for Season 2?