Daredevil, the opening salvo of Marvel’s Netflix deal, is a strong expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Daredevil centers on Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox), a native of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Blinded by chemicals as a child, Matt lost his sight, but gained super-heightened senses, including a radar-like sense that compensates for his blindness. After his boxer father was killed, Matt grew up in an orphanage, where he briefly received training from Stick (Scott Glenn), a blind martial artist with abilities similar to Matt’s.
As an adult, Matt and his best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), both recent law school grads, eschew corporate jobs to open a small practice in Hell’s Kitchen. Matt also begins going out at night, dressed in black athletic gear and a skull cap that covers his eyes, fighting the criminal element that’s overrunning the city. Corruption is rampant, with no one (the police, the courts, the media, businesses) free of its taint. Matt knows there’s a central figure at the heart of this pervasive corruption but struggles to identify him.
In the pilot, Matt and Foggy defend Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a secretary whose life and freedom are endangered when she tries to expose corruption at her employer. Daredevil demonstrates how both sides of Matt’s life intersect, as the guys help Karen out of her predicament. By the pilot’s end, she’s ensconced at Matt and Foggy’s secretary.
Also on the side of angels is veteran reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who finds both the public and his editors uninterested in his investigations into corruption. Karen enlists Ben to help her expose the conspiracy that nearly derailed her life, eventually pulling in Foggy, as well. Trauma nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) stitches Matt up after finding him in a dumpster, badly injured. A romantic spark doesn’t have the strength to ignite under the circumstances, but Claire keeps helping Matt.
The man at the center of all the corruption is the mysterious Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio). Fisk has secretly consolidated control of local criminal trade, with tentacles everywhere and strong repercussions for underlings who so much as whisper his name. Like Matt, Fisk is the product of a traumatic Hell’s Kitchen upbringing. But rather than save the neighborhood, he wants to raze it and build something new on its ruins.
Fisk’s allies include criminal financier Leland Owlsley (Bob Gunton); Japanese criminal Nobu (Peter Shinkoda) who has ties to a mysterious sect; dangerous Russian brothers (Nikolai Nikolaeff and Gideon Emery); and the enigmatic Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), the elderly heroin queen of New York. Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) is Fisk’s devoted (and somewhat creepy) right hand. Over the course of the season, betrayals are all but inevitable. Art dealer Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) brings out a different side of Fisk in an unlikely love story.
Daredevil pitches its first season as nothing less than a battle for the soul of Hell’s Kitchen. One episode leads into the next in a series of gains and retreats for each side. The story takes some shocking turns and not everyone gets out alive. In the end, the conflict comes down to a brutal final confrontation between Matt and Fisk.
Daredevil does a strong job with the source material. You’ll hear the word “gritty” used a lot to describe the series, but it comes by it honestly. The scripts acknowledge numerous connections between Daredevil and other MCU projects (the Battle of New York from Avengers; “Crusher” Creel from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Roxxon from various MCU projects). The script drops hints of future, familiar Daredevil characters for fans who know the history. In many ways this is its own, compressed world. The effects of crime and poverty on urban areas is dramatized viscerally. Bad things happen. Heroism is having the courage to not look away.
Matt makes for a fascinating central character. He’s layered and complicated, with lots of emotional baggage related to his traumatic childhood. But he’s smart, loyal and possessed of a dry sense of humor. Cox’s casting is spot on. He gets just right the complicated blend of optimism and cynicism necessary to make the character work. The writing gratifyingly doesn’t make Matt perfect. Despite his training and enhanced senses, he makes mistakes and takes a lot of punishment in fights. Cox keeps viewer sympathy for Matt’s mission without mawkishness or excess sentimentality.
Religion plays a strong role in Daredevil. For all that superhero stories are pitched as epic confrontations between Good and Evil, filmed adaptations scarcely mention God and religious notes are even rarer. Matt’s Catholicism is an important part of his character. It’s part of what drives his crusade for justice, but also induces guilt over some of the more brutal aspects of his actions. Matt struggles with the ethics of what he does, especially the idea of whether it’s ever justified to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. As neighborhood priest Father Lantom, Peter McRobbie has some fantastic scenes with Cox that add a lot to the texture of the drama and to Matt’s character.
Fisk is a strong match for Matt. The writing gives the villain a lot of layers, making it easier to, if not sympathize with him, to at least understand him. D’Onofrio is pretty well brilliant in the role. He brings an operatic quality to the performance that heightens the dramatic scenes. But he also shows amazing restraint, embodying the self-control necessary to Fisk’s day-to-day existence. D’Onofrio’s facility for seamlessly transitioning between the two poles of Fisk’s personality is key to the villain’s impact. D’Onofrio and Zurer are also quite good together, giving that odd love story unexpected appeal.
The rest of the cast is excellent. Henson is often deployed as comic relief quite effectively. But when a late season turn ruptures Matt and Foggy’s bond, Henson delivers with more emotional material. Woll, a breakout on True Blood, is fantastic as the damaged Karen. She bonds with Matt and Foggy, both deepening and complicating their dynamic as she pushes them in pursuit of justice. Woll handles a difficult, late season twist really well. Curtis-Hall is ideally cast as Urich, embodying the right mix of idealism and rebellion (though even a pro like him can do little with a distracting sub-plot about Ben’s sick wife).
Character veteran Gunton is a welcome presence, stealing scenes with some well-deployed snark. Ho makes a strong impression as Madame Gao. She uses the character’s seemingly frail façade to mask some deeper, darker roots. It’s a fascinating performance that commands attention whenever Ho is onscreen.
Daredevil delivers strong, stylish visuals. The direction and fight choreography are outstanding. Memorable sequences include a single-take scene that finds Matt fighting his way down a narrow corridor, the action caroming in and out of various doors as Matt makes his way to the end; a punishing battle between Matt and Nobu; Matt and Stick’s explosive fight in Matt’s loft apartment; and the brutal final showdown between Matt and Fisk. Daredevil has a strong visual identity, deploying shadows and washed out lighting for maximum effect. The set design communicates the feeling of urban rot at the heart of the season’s story. The show also is quite canny in how it depicts Matt’s enhanced senses, using smart camera work and sound editing to strong effect.
Also note that this series is not for the faint of heart or for children. It’s rated TV-MA and deserves it. While the sexual content is almost non-existent, there are plenty of curse words tossed around. But where Daredevil really earns its rating is with its gore. The fights are bloody and brutal and the aftermath isn’t pretty. Some characters meet particularly gruesome ends and the show doesn’t stint on the disturbing imagery. There are some scenes even the most stout-hearted of viewer will turn away from.
If you’re wondering, while Matt does spend most of the season running around in his nondescript black outfit, a look based on his classic red suit debuts in the finale. It has a good reason for existing and also prompts Matt to claim the “Daredevil” name.
Daredevil is a strong outing for Marvel. It makes the most of the freedom that a Netflix production provides, producing a compelling, satisfying saga that’s still grounded in the MCU. It’s a good option for fans looking for a little more grit in their superhero action.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on April 21, 2015.