Fearless: Marvel’s ‘Daredevil’ is brutally good

daredevil-charlie-coxBy JIM SABATASO

[A version of this review appears in the April23, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

While the local movieplex may be where we most often get to watch our favorite superheroes soar, more and more of them have been showing up on the small screen in recent years proving that solid story telling can be just as fun as big-budget spectacle.

With weekly installments and multiple seasons, television is uniquely suited for comic books. The format allows decades of continuity to unfold without being rushed or truncated. Ideally, all that room to breathe makes for richer stories and better character development.

I had to laugh recently when I read about how much pressure ABC put on JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof to dial down to the sci-fi elements and heavy serialization of Lost when it premiered in 2004. The network feared that viewers would find show alienating and too hard to follow.

How times change. By the end of its run, Lost proved viewers were willing to commit to (and obsess over) heavily serialized shows with dense mythologies. This current crop of genre shows owes much to “Lost” for creating that new model of network storytelling.

On the CW, Arrow and The Flash have struck a healthy balance between costumed-capering and grounded (albeit at times overwrought) emotional beats. On the technical side, both series shine with vivid color palettes, strong direction, and ambitious fight choreography that proves a rooftop brawl can be as enjoyable as any CGI smashfest.

Over on ABC, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter have furthered the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s intricate master narrative by exploring its obscure corners and expanding on mythology that will later be folded into the films and vice versa.

Building on this success, Marvel kicked off its multi-series deal with Netflix last week with the premier of Daredevil, a 13-episode drama about blind attorney and masked vigilante Matt Murdock. Without hyperbole, this is the best thing Marvel has ever done. To be sure, the studio’s hit to miss ratio is surprisingly good, but Daredevil is the first Marvel property that actually approaches prestige levels of good. This is Marvel’s Dark Knight Trilogy, its Game of Thrones, its The Wire.

Creator Drew Goddard’s well-honed genre TV sensibilities serve Daredevil well. With writing stints on Alias, Lost, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as films such as Cloverfield and The Cabin in the Woods, (which he also directed), Goddard very much in his wheelhouse here.

Resisting some of the epic tendencies of those other projects, Goddard tells a small story with Daredevil. The series benefits from such restraint. Daredevil smartly sticks close to Hell’s Kitchen where a crime syndicate has taken hold of the neighborhood following the destructive events of Avengers.

On Netflix, the series is liberated from network meddling (and censors) to do exactly what it wants — within the parameters of the MCU, of course. The result is a gritty, at times brutally violent show. Parents be warned: this is not sanitized Avengers-style violence; Daredevil is a bloody, rough ride with broken bones, impalings, and the ugliest decapitation this side of Westeros. More than once, I found myself cringing at a particularly gory scene.

Indeed, Daredevil shows the dark underbelly of the MCU. But for anyone familiar with the comics from which this series is drawing its stories, this is all par for the course. For 50 years, writers have put Matt Murdock through hell. Suffering is part of his character as is his willingness to persevere in the face of it.

Religion factors in as both a respite from and source of much of that suffering. In the comics, Daredevil’s Catholicism is a defining characteristic. While religion can be tricky on TV shows, leaving it out of the show would have been a mistake. Fortunately, the show handles it well, showing Matt’s faith as a way of understanding the devil he feels within himself.

The series smartly buries Matt’s origin story in flashback, picking up in the early days of his masked vigilantism. For better or worse, the story follows the current trend of presenting the heroic persona as a work in progress; we don’t get the classic costume or the Daredevil name until the final moments of the season.

But that delay doesn’t really matter since the rest of the show is so strong. Charlie Cox brings the character to life with a quiet thoughtfulness. Given his hard life and dark tone of the series, one might expect a more brooding protagonist, but Cox properly shows Matt’s outward calm despite the intense fire burning inside him.

Overall, the cast is strong. Elden Henson does a great Foggy Nelson, Matt’s disheveled law partner and best friend. Ostensibly playing a comic foil, Henson gets to dig into the character and brings a lot of heart to the Nelson-Murdock relationship.

As Karen Page, Deborah Ann Woll starts out as the stock damsel in distress, but quickly carves her own story. Woll makes for a plucky addition the law offices of Nelson & Murdock, as well as a fearless accomplice to journalist Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall). Though occasionally imperiled, Karen is not entirely powerless. Indeed, her biggest character moment so far occurs when she is forced to act on her own volition.

However, the most fascinating character in the series is its antagonist Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin. Vincent D’Onofrio adds a level of depth and complexity I was not expecting here. To date, villains in the MCU have been of the two-dimensional, mustache-twirling type. Loki has come the closest, but while Tom Hiddleston’s performance has made him a fan-favorite, it’s all still comic book scenery chewing and histrionics.

In Daredevil, we get under Fisk’s skin. We see him as a man with of vision, a man who earnestly wants to make New York a better place, who nonetheless does not recognize how abhorrent his methods are. It’s a wrinkle that makes the series more interesting.

While we may never agree with Fisk’s methods, the show does a lot of work to make him human and almost sympathetic. Flashbacks of his horrific childhood inform us on the man he would become. Amazingly, Fisk even gets the show’s major romantic subplot with Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer), which shows a compassionate side to the series’ most ruthless character.

Visually the show is gorgeous. The color palette is expectantly dark — much of the action takes place at night and even daytime interiors are bathed in shadow. While all the darkness adheres to the aesthetic mandate that all gritty crime shows should look this way, here it also works to keep us as in the dark as our hero.

To that end, the show has found subtle ways to illustrate Daredevil’s powers at work. Camera techniques such as rack focus and tilt shift zero in on objects and sources of sound showing how he can pick out a conversation or a heartbeat from across the room or across town.

To be honest, I was hoping for a bit more of the “Daredevil vision” we get in the comics. Artist Pablo Rivera has been depicting the hero’s radar sense in recent volumes with beautifully results. However, the show’s decision to go with a less stylized representation does fit with its overall groundedness.

On the action front, Daredevil is on top of its game. Fight scenes are grueling both in physicality and duration. Matt takes one hell of beating. Despite his super senses, Daredevil is not Captain America or Thor; he’s just a regular human. There’s a strong sense of realism here. When Daredevil gets punched, it hurts, and when he throws one the bad guys don’t go down easy.

Based on how damn good Daredevil is I’m excited to see what the rest of the Netflix shows will look like. This fall will bring A.K.A. Jessica Jones, (starring Kristen Ritter), followed by Luke Cage in 2016, Iron Fist sometime after that, and The Defenders team-up series presumably sometime around the release of part one of Avengers: Infinity War in 2018. (Phew. Did you get all that?)

So many shows and films within a shared universe can be overwhelming, especially to casual fans who are less concerned with heavy continuity. However, with Daredevil Marvel has succeeded in creating what might be the first property that can truly stand on its own independent of the rest of the MCU. It all may be connected, but Daredevil is great show in its own right that should appeal to Marvel fans and non-fans alike.

Show notes (mild spoilers ahead)

  • I didn’t really talk much about Matt’s dad Jack who we meet in several flashback sequences. The show wisely presents enough to get a sense of their relationship without dwelling on maudlin family drama, which could have dragged down the season.
  • I didn’t love the Ben Urich plot; though, to be fair, I’m usually unimpressed with the way journalists are depicted on TV since it often falls into cliché, like new media anxieties and editors who “just don’t get it.”
  • Leland Owsley might have been my season VIP for favorite supporting character. Bob Gunton was a lot of fun as Fisk’s hypercritical, “I’m-too-old-for-this-crap” numbers guy. Comic fans will recognize Owsley by his alias The Owl, a mid-level crime boss who’s pestered both Daredevil and Spider-Man over the years.
  • Easter eggs abound for those on the lookout for them. True to comic book form, everybody is somebody. Daredevil digs deep into its toy chest to plant some seeds that will likely bear fruit down the road; e.g. the symbol on Madame Gao’s drug cartel is right out of Iron Fist lore.
  • Speaking of Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), the Fisk co-conspirator at one point remarks that her home is “considerably farther” than China. Given how she leveled Daredevil with one punch, I’m betting she’s from K’un-L’un, the mystical city we’ll likely learn more about when Iron Fist premiers sometime in the next couple years.
  • Nobu’s red costume in episode nine almost certainly makes him a member of the Hand, the deadly cadre of ninja often trying to kill Daredevil in the comics. Expect to see more of them in the future.
  • With the current plan Marvel has for its Netflix shows, it’s unclear if or when there would be another season of Daredevil, which is too bad. However, based on the success of Agent Carter and now Daredevil, the studio may be rethinking its one-and-done season model.
  • In related news, there’s been some buzz at ABC about an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D spinoff. Given the direction this season has taken, I’m guessing it’s an adaptation of Secret Warriors, the Bendis/Hickman comic from a few years back about Nick Fury’s black-ops team of superhuman S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. The show has already drawn a lot from this title so a spinoff kind of makes sense. I’d also take Mockingbird series. Adrianne Palicki has kicking butt as Bobbi this season.
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