After two so-so outings in live action, Marvel’s darkest and probably most interesting hero Daredevil makes his way to his third chance to show people outside of the comics what a great character he is. And he doesn’t walk clumsily towards that goal as some freshman comic book TV shows do at first (Agents of SHIELD, I am looking at you), but reaches it within the first episode, vaults over it with spectacular acrobatic fashion and even manages to take down a few gun wielding badguys on his way down to the ground. This is a spoiler-free review about the whole first season of Netflix Daredevil, about how great this show is and about how it renewed a whole lot of faith for Marvel Studios in this reviewer.
When people think about Matt Murdock’s origin they think about him pushing a man off the street to save him from an oncoming vehicle. They think about the radioactive waste that hits his eyes in the progress, that turns him blind but grants his other senses a superhuman boost. While this is the origin of his powers, the Netflix series is actually much more about the origin of his decision to go out and fight crime and to don a red (in the shows case red and black) devil suit at the end of this road. This is not a story about Daredevil at the height of his powers, but more of a “Daredevil Begins” kind of show, his “Year One” like Frank Miller’s “The Man Without Fear” comic. And woah… what a ride it is.
We watch him struggle to get his lawfirm going, “Nelson and Murdock Attorneys at Law”, see how his nightlife extends into his love life, how he forms friendships, alliances and personal vendettas. The show goes into his faith, his relationship with his father and how Matt came to be the man that he is today. This is all done in a very well told fashion that seems much more grown up than the somewhat cheesy or soap opera- like relationships in shows like Arrow or Flash. This is not a slight against those, shows, which I enjoy very much, but Daredevil is made out of another kind of material and considerably better written and made overall. Over the course of 13 episodes we see him make the journey from a vigilante in a black ninja outfit to the horned, billy club throwing badass we know and love from the comics… and it is a blast to watch. Even when it takes quite a while until the show reaches Daredevil in his iconic red suit with the horned mask, the payoff is absolutely worth it and the build up is born out of the story, not out of the need to tease us. The suit itself is much more functional than in the comics and uses body armour to give DD more of an edge against knives and guns. It is close enough to the source, but also excitingly fresh looking and I really loved what they did with it. Wait till you see it in action until you make up your mind, it is a sight to behold. It also helps that the black ninja suit he wears for most of the show is not too shabby either and closely based on the comics as well.
This is street level superheroism at its finest. Moody, dark, violent (even sometimes incredibly so, especially for a Marvel Studios thing) and gritty realistic. It has much more in common with the Dark Knight approach to superheroes than with anything Avengers related. In scope, tone and subject matter. There are no aliens, no magic stones that give any no-name wannabe villain godlike powers. This is about a city in trouble and two men on opposing sides that want to see it rise out of the filth. There are no clear cut heroes or villains here, no black or white, but a whole lot of grey… sometimes Wilson Fisk, the big bad of the piece, is actually much more sympathetic and likeable than the hero and the similarities between both men are a blur.
Acting On Fear
Charlie Cox plays Matt Murdock very well and is as convincing as the blind lawyer as he is as the bone breaking vigilante. The whole cast of the show is extremely well prepared for the challenges ahead of them and they are all game from the onset. Deborah Ann Woll is a Karen Page who is equally beautiful and fierce if she has to be. Elden Hanson is, maybe apart from his grungy hairstyle, a perfect adaptation of Foggy Nelson from the comics and he makes this character, Matt’s closest friend since college, completely his own. He is by far the most likeable character in this. Ayelet Zurer as Vanessa, Vondie Curtis Hall as Ben Urich, Rosario Dawson as Claire and even the smaller players are all perfect in their own ways but there is one man who steals the entire show: Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk.
He brings a soft, vulnerable, almost childlike side to this Marvel villain, which makes him not weaker but a lot more frightening. Wether he attends an art gallery, makes himself breakfast or uses a car door or his own hands as sledgehammers, this Wilson Fisk is a fully realised human being, a round character with a backstory almost richer than that of the hero. With this portrayal we have a villain, who the viewer is really scared of, because of his actions and his mindset. This is a guy with true goals and true feelings for the people around him and it makes for a far more compelling villain than we have ever seen from Marvel on the screen before.
The Tone of Violence
As I said before, this show is dark and brutal. Fights are choreographed in a way that blends the more realistic (think the Bourne movies) with the more martial-arts, spectacular approach of movies like the Raid. One fight early in the season shows Matt trying to take down roughly a dozen guys in a hallway and two connecting rooms. The way he really has to struggle to put them down, to keep those guys from getting up again and again is breathtaking, rough and a far cry from the one punch knock outs we see from most superhero fights. It is all rendered in bone crushing detail, blood gets spilled and it even veers on the gory side of things sometimes. Not completely on the Game of Thrones end of the spectrum, but not that far off either.
There are a lot of spectacular action scenes, with the already mentioned hallway fight, a brutal smackdown with a red clad ninja we already glimpsed in the trailers and both physical crashes between Daredevil and Fisk himself among the stand out pieces. The action and violence is always earned and happening because the story demands it and not the other way around. However, as great as the action is, this is not an action show. Fights and spectacular stuff are maybe 15-20% of the show, but this is a character study, with lots of conversations and deeper questions being raised. The action is sprinkled into the story, makes total sense and is never just there because an episode needs to end with a fight. When it is there though, you are always in for a treat.
All of that wouldn’t matter if it wouldn’t fit the tone of the show and the look, but oh boy… it does. It is a dark and shadowy show, with accents of brightly colored light breaking through in almost every shot. The bold white tinge scenes have when Kingpin is on screen or hinted at, the slight shine of red when Matt saves a young child, which foreshadows his red clad future… this is shot expertly. It looks closer to a movie, or at least a cinematic TV show like Breaking Bad than a normal broadcast show and the experience is that much richer for it. Next to that almost perfect craftsmanship the series is peppered with easter eggs for all hardcore Daredevil and Marvel movie fans, like nods to hopefully upcoming Daredevil characters for season 2 and to the past of the MCU. The explanation for why Hell’s Kitchen, Matt’s corner of NYC, is such a troubled neighbourhood again directly ties in with the battle at the end of Avengers, for example.
A Better Tomorrow Today
I was really afraid Marvel wouldn’t dare (pun intended) to go this dark, serious and real with the show, since most of their movies had that action/comedy vibe the audience likes so much today and not the grim and gritty stuff the internet suddenly seemed to hate upon after Nolan finished his Batman movies. That fear was unfounded, since this show goes even darker than I expected and shows again that grim and gritty is a good tone for certain type of characters/story and that not everything should or can be funny and lighthearted. Marvel should be applauded for this decision of staying true to the character and not following what would have been easy or popular at the time.
In the end, Marvel’s Daredevil truly is among the best things Marvel Studios has done yet (in my opinion THE best thing, period.), even when I sometimes wished they would have reached the fully formed Daredevil from the comics a bit sooner. The long arc of his origin that the show represents still makes total sense and benefits from the fact that characters and mood are key, not action or fan service. I can only hope that we will see a second season next year, since it is still unclear if there will be space for it or if the characters are getting only cameos in the upcoming three Netflix shows over the coming years. As much as I look forward to see Luke Cage and Iron Fist in a similar show, I truly want to see where Matt is going after the end of the last episode more than anything else Marvel has coming up, no matter if movie or TV related. I would also bet money on Daredevil showing up in Civil War next year, but that is also still unconfirmed. This show really was as good as people have been saying on the internet and scratched that particular itch that nothing else Marvel did before could scratch for me.
So, if you are a fan of the more serious and gritty superhero stuff, this show is a MUST SEE for you. People who are looking for the kid friendly comedy/action most Marvel movies are known for won’t find much of that here. This is definitely not a show you should watch with your young kids. This is the grimy Hell’s Kitchen my favourite Marvel character resides in… and I love it for that.