If the road to getting good superhero movies was long and bumpy, the one to superhero tv hadn’t even been paved yet. In the last few years, things have gotten better and better, though. DC has two solid shows on The CW network, Marvel has an on-going series and a successful mini-series.
With Daredevil, though, it feels like superheroes have finally arrived in the serial television format. I’m not going to pretend the 2003 Daredevil film wasn’t terrible, but it was the fault of the format as well as anything else.
Daredevil, and his alter ego, Matt Murdock, both fit the longer format provided by a television season much better than they ever would a movie.
Carving reality out of fantasy
Compared to Marvel’s collection of movies and even their TV shows, Daredevil offers something very different from what we’re used to from them: dirt, blood and sweat.
Matt Murdock and his long-time friend Foggy Nelson are fresh out of law school and a successful internship and are starting their own practice in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York. Hell’s Kitchen has long been considered one of the rougher areas of the city. It’s becoming gentrified in the real world New York City, but the show compromises somewhere between the real world and the grittier version portrayed in places like Frank Miller’s run on the Daredevil comic book. Damage caused by an alien invasion certainly didn’t help things, though, giving crime and corruption new openings all over the place.
The world Daredevil starts in feels very real and grounded. Apart from the alien attack and the flying superheroes they reference a couple times. This is New York with its dark alleys and varied crime families.
It sets the perfect backdrop against which to learn more about Murdock. He’s a character constantly in conflict.
During the day, he works to defend and protect the innocent in court. It’s not just a cover for him, either. It’s something he truly believes in, both the work he does and the principles behind it.
At night, though, he can hear everything. The screams, sirens, and violence might as well be right in his room, and he can’t help himself from doing something. It’s almost a compulsion.
The moments where Murdock has to consider the actual and potential consequences of his actions, the way they might affect innocent people and even those he cares about help us understand why he continues to do it.
A villain you can believe in
Daredevil’s nemesis, Wilson Fisk, better known as Kingpin in the comics, is no different. He’s not a villain, he’s a human. Vincent D’Onofrio disappears into the character. Even if you’ve watched the guy on police procedurals in the past, he’s nowhere to be found. Fisk might be the highlight performance of the show.
Wilson Fisk is a deeply flawed man in great pain. He wants to reach out and connect with the world, with someone real. He genuinely wants to make that connection. But he craves control, too, and he struggles constantly with these two warring elements for most of the show. It shows in virtually every scene he appears in. With his love interest, he tries hard to be tender and thoughtful. Instead, he comes across more like a lonely child. And with every word, he shakes. Not from fear, but because he’s holding something back, and it takes every ounce of his being to do so.
Daredevil has its origin stories for both of these characters, but they don’t define the show the way they have so many superhero movies and television shows. Murdock’s backstory is necessarily a bit campier. At first, all we get is his classic superhero origin moment – a crash, a chemical spill, and blindness. For a while, that’s it. The origin stories give us some insight into the characters, especially Fisk. There’s no question he’s a scary, dangerous person, but he’s a believable one, too.
Charlie Cox nails both Matt Murdock and Daredevil, too, driving his inner conflict home, as well as his journey to becoming Daredevil and not just a masked vigilante. Other characters like Ben Urich and Foggy Nelson make great contributions to the show, too. In creating the show, Marvel opted not to go with any huge actors (though Rosario Dawson and Vincent D’Onofrio are certainly well-known). They’re good actors, though, and their performances are on display instead of their names.
Foggy, for example, first appears to be a standard cut-out of a greasy lawyer. His hair’s a bit goofy, he’s got a line for everything, and money seems his primary concern. As we get to know him, though, it starts to become apparent that he’s the more principled of the two. Where Murdock is a storm of internal conflict, Foggy seems relatively clear-headed and these moments help him stand out.
Roll with the punches
Murdock struggles with the consequences of his actions, as I mentioned, and they are everywhere. When people are hit, they bleed, especially Murdock himself. Despite his best efforts, the body count is constantly rising. In the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe it’s largely implied that people die, but in Daredevil‘s tiny corner, you don’t get to pretend. Death is real and very graphic, and even the fights that go well rarely end without stitches.
One of our first meetings with Wilson Fisk involves a car door and a lot of blood and will definitely test some viewers’ limits for brutality. A benefit of the show being on Netflix is that, like HBO, there aren’t any concerns about standards and practices, but as they say on broadcast television, viewer discretion is advised.
The fights themselves are one of the true highlights of the show. Among the great performances and interesting character development, the fights stand out as especially accomplished. Daredevil is already a trained fighter by the end of the show, but its his senses that are super-powered. The punches he throws are still human punches.
In the second episode of this first season, which is when things truly get started, there’s a climactic fight sequence between Daredevil and a group of Russian gangsters. This sequence, something like four minutes long, happens in one cut. Daredevil takes swing after swing at the mobsters, landing most of his punches and taking a few in the process. He reacts visibly to each impact, and like his boxer father, gets tired as he continues to fight. He stumbles, leaning on the wall for support longer and longer.
The closest comparison I can think of for the scene is the hallway sequence from the Korean thriller Oldboy for the combination of choreography and brutality, both as its own showpiece and as a way to tell us something about the character. This might sound like a bit of a downer, but it might well be my favorite part of the entire season, even though it’s in the second episode. It’s a high point, for sure, but it’s not downhill from there by any means.
Daredevil consistently impressed me throughout the 13 episode run. I had a tough time putting it down and watched it through in its first weekend of release. It’s not perfect. Some characters aren’t used to their full potential. A couple elements aren’t really explained. There are a few spots with pacing issues here and there. But by and large, just about every element of the show contributes to fleshing out the world these characters exist in. Interactions with corrupt cops, tenement problems in an area ripe for redevelopment, and small moments between characters turn Daredevil‘s Hell’s Kitchen into a real place where two believable characters clash in a fight for control or justice.