So Marvel and Netflix‘s “Daredevil” is here. With the chatter regarding creator Drew Goddard and showrunner Steven DeKnight‘s show drowning out even that surrounding the return of “Game of Thrones,” it was clear that quite a few people dropped by Hell’s Kitchen over the weekend, and perhaps encouraged by Netflix’s all-episodes-online-at-once model, found themselves sticking around for longer than they’d expected. Is it the masterpiece early critics were raving about? Our own first-past-the-post reviewer Nik Grozdanovic certainly thinks so, and you can find his content-focussed piece on the show here. Since then, a few more of us have finished the season, and the following takes a slightly different tack, not analyzing the details so much as the form and broad-strokes structure of the show and weighing up its positive and negative aspects.
Here, then are 5 arguments in favor of the show’s greatness, their five less positive corollaries and how they stack up against one another. We hope you’ll feel free to pitch in with your own thoughts on either side, in the comments section. (Only one real spoiler, clearly marked, contained below).
Pro: The Fight Sequences
“Daredevil” has rightly been praised for the level of characterization it knits deep into the fabric of the story, so much so that occasionally we actually found ourselves a little disappointed when the titular hero turns up in his black-mask —we felt a bit sorry to be taken away from the main thrust of the narrative for what would on any other show be yet another fight scene. But the show goes a long way toward rectifying that by turning in some of the best-choreographed and well-shot fight scenes we’ve ever seen on TV. Matt Murdock’s moves are balletic and athletic; his opponents generally match him well; and while of course he is a superhero and can move impossibly fast and can anticipate his opponent impossibly well, there are still real physics to the scenes and a very real sense that he can be hurt. Using these scenes not only to advance plot and character but also to provide a cinematic kick to a small-screen endeavor is a trick the show pulls off throughout, but it’s best exemplified in the already celebrated “Oldboy“-inspired one-take hallway fight scene at the end of Episode 2, which defies several conventions (assailants come at him more than one at a time, for one) while also conveying character and humor in Murdock’s sagging, exhausted body between parries, all shot with an elegant, inquisitive camera. For many of us, it was the first clear signal that “Daredevil” was not afraid to change up formula and would try for something different.
Con: The Unnecessarily Graphic/Sadistic Bloodletting
We’re a little conflicted about the violence in “Daredevil” however. While the fight scenes are terrific overall, there are moments almost entirely in the first half of the season that feel gratuitous in their graphic nature —specific examples include the bowling alley murder, the suicide by self-impalement and the already notorious decapitation by car door. In all of those cases, it can be argued that the violence serves a purpose —as in the car door scene being needed since, having really only seen Fisk all dewy-eyed and in lurve to that point, we need to be made summarily aware of the hands-on viciousness of his nature. In general, the cost of violence is probed with a great deal more intelligence and insight in the show than in most others, so you could also argue it earns its stripes in this regard. But there is still a queasiness in some individual shots that we probably could have done without with no loss of impact to our understanding of the characters involved: with the excellent sound effects work throughout, we hardly need to be shown bones snapping gorily through skin or brain matter dripping off spikes in order to know what’s happened. In fact, the somewhat gratuitous nature of these moments is more or less acknowledged by how rarely they happen later in the season when the filmmakers are confident they already have their hooks in (a brief exception being Episode 9’s Ninja attack in which the literal hook is in Murdock’s stomach and he’s dragged around the room by it): it’s mostly a setting-out-the-stall tactic, proving early on that this is not your Grandad’s superhero show and yo hey! look what we can get away with on Netflix! Which is fine, but feels a little bit beneath the dignity of the show that “Daredevil” goes on to become.
Pro: The Development of Male Characters And Male/Male Relationships
Nik’s appreciation of the “Daredevil” yesterday went into some depth on just how great Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio are in their respective parts, and we co-sign heartily. But they are given deliciously well-written characters to embody, which is in no way to undersell the skill of their interpretations. It’s rare to have the hoary old cliche of the bad guy resembling the good guy in motivation, ambition and methodology made manifest in such a fresh and uncompromised manner as here. And this is despite the fact that over the whole course of the season, Fisk and Murdock only ever meet twice —yet prior to their climactic encounter, we know enough background on each to count the show as the origin story not just for Daredevil but for the Kingpin. Not since Doc Ock perhaps have we had a Marvel adversary so multifaceted and fascinating and genuinely threatening. In fact, D’Onofrio’s delivery of the Good Samaritan speech in the final episode, and the moment that he suddenly identifies himself with “the Evil intent” (i.e. the moment Fisk becomes Kingpin) is arguably more satisfying than the first glimpse we get of Murdock as Daredevil in his natty new suit.
But it’s not just their dynamic that “Daredevil” establishes so well. The friendship between Foggy and Matt is touching and believable, even if we’re never quite sure why Foggy defers to Matt in almost every major decision the two make early on, and it’s a source of genuine anguish when they fall out —compare the centrality and sensitivity of that relationship with the relatively callous way their romantic attachments to women are dealt with. Again mirroring that, is bond that exists between Wesley (an absolutely brilliant character and portrayal by Toby Leonard Moore) and Fisk. For two such brutal and ruthless men to have a genuinely mutual friendship based on loyalty and respect (and existing across class lines, it is implied) is a remarkable and unusual string to “Daredevil”‘s bow. Even the more supporting (male) characters have lines quickly but effectively drawn, from the One Good Cop Mahoney (Royce Johnson) to the Russian brothers (Nikolai Nikolaeff and Gideon Emory) to the deeply horrible Leland Owlsley (Bob Gunton). Even Ben Urich, whose rather plodding subplot with Karen is somewhat compensated for by the touching backstory with his wife and by sheer force of Vondie Curtis-Hall’s fascinating face, is given enough scenes with his editor (Geoffrey Cantor) to add meaning and depth to that relationship (and to set up a passing-of-the-baton possibility for season 2).
Con: The Underdevelopment of Female Characters And Total Absence of Female/Female Relationships
Somewhere, Alison Bechdel is weeping into her MacArthur Genius Grant money. With the single notable exception of Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer), a welcome corrective to decades of bad-guy molls too dim to know what they’re involved in, the women of “Daredevil” get a terribly short shrift. And it’s not from lack of decent casting —Deborah Ann Woll does what she can with a character who spends way too much time plodding around with Ben trying to find out things that we already know and far too little making Karen central to the Foggy/Matt relationship or to the workings of the macro plot in general. In her cryptic words about having shot someone before, about what Ben has found out about her and in that odd lingering closeup on her looking shifty in the last episode, there are many clues that there’s much more to her than the sunny can-do secretary she’s passed herself off as. But seeing as how disconnected many of her storylines have felt from the grand scheme, those hints always came across a little clangy and at odds with the Girl Friday/damsel/object of Foggy’s temporary affections she mostly was elsewhere. Where trouble is taken to make sure we understand the motivations and backstories of the male characters, Woll is forced to play Karen as bland on top and an enigma beneath, rather than a real person we can root for.
Similarly, Rosario Dawson is criminally underused as the selfless but stoic nurse Claire Temple with whom Murdock has a remarkably chaste-seeming dalliance but who really exists to show just how committed he is to his vigilante persona: it’s not just anything that would make a red-blooded male give up the chance of being with Rosario Dawson, after all. And outside of these three, we’re getting into very slim pickings. Marci (Amy Rutberg) gets maybe the rawest deal of all, initially implied to be an sexually predatory ice-queen sell-out whose main function is as a punchline to Foggy’s unsuccessful love life, her redemption and heroism take place wholly offstage, and the thanks she gets is her goody-goody mirror image Karen grudgingly admitting that “maybe she’s not so bad after all”. And older women are surprisingly well represented numerically, but aside from Madame Gao (a much more interesting character than Nobu), they function mostly as victims like Elena Cardenas, liabilities, as in the case of Fisk’s aging mother, or somebody else’s backstory as with Ben’s ailing wife, or Fisk’s mother as a younger woman in flashback.
And aside from a frosty encounter between Karen and Marci, at which Karen is largely silent while Foggy does the talking, brief exchanges between Ben’s wife and Karen and Fisk’s mom and Karen, and that one conversation that Karen has solo with Elena Cardenas (in which she refers to Foggy’s crush, so Bechdel FAIL), none of these women have any form of actual relationship with each other whatsoever.
Pro: Structure And Netflix Release Model In Perfect Sync
For possibly the first time, the real potential of the Netflix model of releasing all episodes simultaneously has made itself felt in the very shape and structure of the narrative. This is obviously not the first show that Netflix has made available in this way —the company did the same with “Lilyhammer,” “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards” from season 2 onward, and it’s clear this is going to be its model going forward. But where previously facilitating binge-watching in this manner seems to have had more of an effect on how the shows were consumed than conceived (aside from dumping needlessly repetitive “previously on…” prologues), “Daredevil” seems to have grabbed the idea by the horns (sorry) and knitted a more holistic and organic idea of long-form storytelling into its very bones. So while each episode works as an individual hour of television, at all times the main thrust of the show, it’s “A” storyline, is the macro season-spanning arc. The episode arcs by comparison are usually the “B” storylines: backstories told in flashback, subplots about side characters, etc. The show feels designed to be consumed in three or four or more-episode chunks, and you keep coming back for more not because there’s a silly cliffhanger built into the end of every episode (though there are a few of those), but because the momentum of the story carries you as if through a 13-odd-hour-long movie. It’s hard to imagine the program would have evolved in quite the same way if Goddard and his writers had known it would be subject to the vagaries of the weekly ratings scramble.
Con: Does the Netflix Binge Model Undersell the Richness of the Show?
“Daredevil” is a very well-made and presumably pretty expensive show, though Netflix are as notoriously cagey about its budgets as it is about their viewership figures, so I can’t tell for sure. And while early comparisons to “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” made elsewhere are over the top, it does have a very considered, layered approach to its storytelling, often favoring not just character but theme over plot machinations and twists. We’re in the early stages of this model, but it’s interesting to wonder about how much the short-term benefits of the all-at-once release strategy (deafening buzz for the first weekend; social media presence; two Playlist features about the show in as many days) might stack up against the long-term advantages of the traditional week-by-week format. With the premiere of Season 5 of HBO‘s world-beating “Game of Thrones” as a handy comparison this weekend, however much “Daredevil” may have dominated pop culture conversation for the past few days, will any of us even remember it by the time we’re all agog for the season finale of ‘Thrones’? And not that “Daredevil” is necessarily equivalent (‘Thrones’ is still a much more expensive and more sprawling show with a much bigger ensemble), but it is possible that some of the knotty themes, the fine filmmaking and the sheer care that went into its making is lost on those of us gorging ourselves on it like it’s a single three-act entity. Of course, with “Daredevil” only part of a larger Marvel/Netflix strategy that will lead into other shows concerning Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist and eventually a “Defenders” team-up miniseries, perhaps they’re counting on Marvel’s ubiquity on screens big and small to keep the buzz buzzing, and perhaps we should just shut up and count our blessings that “Daredevil” beat the odds to be so seemingly built to last.
Pro: Tackles Areas Other Superhero Stories Shy Away From
The overt embrace of Murdock’s Catholicism as integral to his character is a refreshing change in a show in which the more obvious approach would have been to shear away anything so potentially divisive as religiosity. But “Daredevil” admirably seems to rush in where other superhero narratives often fear to tread, foregrounding social issues like urban decay vs. gentrification, media manipulation, corporate malfeasance and more in surprisingly complex and nuanced ways. Central to this is making Fisk, pre-Kingpin at least, come across as more of an idealogue than Murdock: Fisk is the one with the vision (however warped) of a shining new beginning for Hell’s Kitchen, where Murdock is more pragmatically and possibly prosaically concerned with the smaller picture. Both however are products of depressed social backgrounds in the same neighborhood, and in their interactions with Wesley and Vanessa, you can see hints of Fisk’s deep-seated insecurity as to his blue-collar origins, where Matt draws pride from his own, making class distinction part of the heady brew. Most impressively, “Daredevil” full-bloodedly tackles the fundamental moral dilemma that pertains to almost all superhero stories, about vigilantism vs. “ordinary” (read: legal or journalistic) heroics as a means to fighting crime and does not automatically assume the goodness or moral rectitude of the guy who’s decided that because he can fight and torture and maim in service of an agenda he believes in, he therefore must.
Con: Occasionally Bites Off More Than It Can Thematically Chew
Yet the problem in introducing so many strands is that ultimately many remain underdeveloped or inconclusive, being picked up and toyed with a while before being dropped and largely not mentioned again. Take topical notion that Matt using his super-charged senses on others, (e.g. listening to their heartbeats) without their permission is tantamount to a form of spying or surveillance —a gross invasion of privacy. This is flung out at Matt by a horrified Foggy just prior to their rift, but already seems to have receded as an issue, despite some interesting real-world ramifications for further exploration of that area. SPOILER Similarly our emotional investment in the zoning issue around the tenement building was apparently supposed to die along with Sra Cardenas SPOILER ENDS, yet a second season, assuming one comes, suggests a Kingpin who is no longer interested in even maintaining a facade of Good Works in the city, so again the gentrification debate is just so many hot coals raked over only to die back immediately. And finally, while “Darevdevil” may give us a new way of a looking at the wheel, it’s not a reinvention of it; this is still a superhero story, so ultimately no matter how tortured Murdock is or how many times he goes to confession, we have to come to the conclusion that his vigilantism is a noble thing, at least.
Pro: Not Too Fan-Servicey
So we’re no doubt going to disappear under an avalanche of jeers and catcalls for this admission, but there are quite a few of us on staff who have absolutely no experience of (or huge interest in), the Daredevil stories of the comics. While this might seem a terrible blind spot (pun intended), in fact it allows us to come to “Daredevil” with a relatively unbiased eye and to judge it on its merits as a TV show first and foremost. And it succeeds on that front like gangbusters —absolutely zero prior knowledge of the character is necessary, as this is essentially a 13-hour-long origin story, which is good news for anyone who had only ever seen the Ben Affleck movie previously because Lord knows no one remembers anything about that abomination. Even if you are one of only six people worldwide to not have seen anything relating to the much-vaunted Marvel Cinematic Universe before now, even that wouldn’t impact on your enjoyment of this show at all. With “Daredevil,” Marvel proves that there is room for totally disparate worlds within their Universe —tonally and thematically, it is very different from other Marvel TV or film products, so those of us who worried that the shared Universe might lead to a kind of homogenization of all these offerings into sub-“Avengers” knock-offs, can feel relieved.
Con: Connection To MCU Is Tenuous
Of course, the corollary to “Daredevil”‘s apparent lack of concern over the Shared Universe (good!) is its lack of concern over the Shared Universe (bad!). Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to know that the Universe we’re all destined to be living in for the next few years is one that can foster a little diversity of mood and attitude. But occasionally “Daredevil” almost seems too in thrall to the gritty, semi-realist tone of its DC counterpart —the Nolan Batman movies, particularly “Batman Begins“— to sit comfortably back in the Marvel stable. And it doesn’t help that the references made to other films and TV shows in the canon are mostly throwaway lines of dialogue (usually delivered by Foggy, who is the closest the series had to comic relief) or backgrounded easter-egg-type window dressing for the eagle-eyed fan to spot —like the newspapers in Ben Urich’s office which refer to the climactic “Avengers” battle and destruction of Harlem in “The Incredible Hulk,” or the fact that intern Matt is disgusted by Landman & Zack’s representation of Roxxon, the evil corporation that pops up in the “Iron Man” films as well as in “Agent Carter.” Other than these occasional nods and mentions, the events that we’re told early on precipitated Fisk’s rise to power — i.e. the events of “The Avengers“— seem to have made very little impact on this noirish Hell’s Kitchen. Characters occasionally refer to it as “The Incident,” but aside from that, “Daredevil” does not really feel like it takes place in a world where aliens, Gods and cryogenically unfrozen supersoldiers are known facts of life.
“Daredevil” has its flaws, of which the lack of relatable female characters is probably the most glaring and detrimental. However, with Vanessa free, Madame Gao still standing and Karen’s character potentially coming more into focus, there’s room for that to change for the better going forward into (hopefully) season 2. And even that can’t obscure the show’s many terrific assets —a stunningly well-chosen cast, terrific writing and direction, and a genuinely cinematic approach, not just to the look of the show but to the shape and structure and resonances of the story. And while the stakes may not be as high as “The Fate of the Universe!” they run deep into characters we care about and operates in an environment where every action has consequences, knock-ons and ripple effects. It’s also both a superhero TV show and a sly comment on superhero shows in how cleverly it subverts genre expectations (people stay dead! The Bad Guy is capable of love and friendship! Foreign people speak Foreign!) to the point that when it occasionally slips into a cliche (like Karen’s dream sequence about Fisk or the rather atypically cheesy low-angle intro of Daredevil in his costume), it feels like a surprising disappointment. Which is to say, the vast majority of “Daredevil” is a complex, provocative, clever and absorbing treat —and it’s been quite a while since you’ve heard me append a string of adjectives like that to any superhero property at all.
Let us know what you thought of “Daredevil,” or what particularly struck you as great or terrible that we’ve missed, in the comments below.