(Note: This post stays away from every major spoiler here, though I allude to a couple of significant ones in vague terms. You know the deal. Those who haven’t caught up with the season and wish to remain completely spoiler-free are duly warned and invited to come back when they’re ready).
There’s a storm coming, Playlist readers. DC Comics and its imprints better batten down the hatches, because the thunder has begun. The combined superpowers of Marvel Television and Netflix unleashed the fist salvo of several live action series this past Friday via “Daredevil.” The rumblings you’ve no doubt heard by now, whether or not you’ve seen all or some of the show yourself, are true: “Daredevil” is a wildly entertaining and absorbing watch, boasting fight scenes of the highest technical calibre currently on television, as well as cinematography and dialogue that look and sound like they’ve been conceived by bonafide comic book fanboys. The show also features the kind of thematic depth we get from the best superhero movies, spread out and amplified in 13 visceral and satisfying hours, allowing time and space for supporting characters room to breathe and for the show to create an organic setting. Netflix’s “Daredevil” is an awesome achievement, heralding a new dawn for comic book adaptations.
Let’s assume that you’re not familiar with the story of Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), blind attorney by day, masked vigilante by night. Series creator Drew Goddard (director of boffo horror genre-bender “Cabin in the Woods”) and showrunner Steven DeKnight (creator of Starz‘ successful “Spartacus” series) assume as much, insofar as they structure a multi-layered origin story spanning an entire a season. The first two episodes “Into The Ring” and “Cut Man,” directed by Phil Abraham and written by Goddard, lay the foundation of Murdock’s backstory; he is blinded in his youth by hazardous material while trying to save a pedestrian and grows up in Hell’s Kitchen with his boxer father Jack (John Patrick Hayden), who is murdered by gangsters. All the familiar tropes with which we’re usually inoculated with in one or two scenes in a feature film are here delicately planted with other seeds; the beginnings of Nelson And Murdock, the law practice Matt and his best friend Foggy (Elden Henson) start up after passing their bar exams. We are introduced to Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), whom the two young lawyers successfully defend as their first client and then hire as their secretary. We see Matt’s internal struggle with respect to justifying his nightly actions with his stringent Catholic beliefs, and his first encounter with nurse Claire (Rosario Dawson), who tends to him after he gets roughed up. We get a sneek peek at The Kingpin, i.e. Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), in Episode 3, “Rabbit In A Snowstorm,” before a full-on, fervently gruesome introduction in Episode 4, “In The Blood,” which will forever alter your perception of car doors.
The thoughtful process behind the introduction of Daredevil’s origins in the first two episodes bleeds into the rest of the season and remains the show’s primary force. Thanks to the liberating space offered by the serial format, Murdock’s backstory isn’t rendered a footnote but is instead allowed to develop organically. The punctuation mark is in the very last episode, fittingly titled “Daredevil,” when we see our hero in the classic red-garbed costume for the first time, armed with his trusty billy club. Up until then, he’s been throwing away his walking canes like they’re Costco purchases. What’s more, we keep getting vital pieces of the backstory puzzle long after the first two episodes; like in Episode 7, when we meet Matt’s mysterious old tutor, the episode’s titular Stick (Scott Glenn), a blind master-assassin who taught Matt martial arts, and Episode 10, “Nelson v. Murdock,” when Foggy asks the type of questions we’ve been wanting answers to since the start. Without feeling rushed, the show not only peels back Matt’s layers with meticulous care (“Stick” does double duty by showing us how Matt became a fighter, but more importantly how desperately he wants to fill the emotional void left by his murdered father), but has time to reveal various other character’s background. We get to understand Foggy’s perspective in Episode 10 with the kind of emotional depth rarely provided to sidekicks. “In The Blood” starts with a revealing prologue about the Ranskahov brothers, who’d probably have a single line between them if this was a feature film. More importantly, we get an entire episode dedicated to Fisk’s troubled childhood in Episode 8, “Shadows In The Glass.”
Unburdened by considerations that often hobble network TV and Hollywood tentpoles, “Daredevil” breathes even more new life into the Marvel Cinematic Universe by being its most graphic and grounded story to date. The alien invasion in Joss Whedon‘s “The Avengers” is alluded to here as “the incident,” and the criminal underworld’s financial advisor Leland Owlsley (Bob Gunton) lays out the economic effects as such quite succinctly: “Heroes and their consequences are why we have our current opportunities.” Working in tandem with this approach are the show’s paranormal elements, or total lack thereof. The closest Fisk comes to being called Kingpin is when investigative reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) sticks a pin on the King of Hearts on his metaphorically-convenient board. Characters in the comics are here rendered and defined by their human capacities; Owlsley is not going to transform into “The Owl” anytime soon, and Melvin Potter (Matt Gerald) is a beefed-up tailor whose fighting skills will surprise those unaware of his “Gladiator” alter-ego. Even Matt’s heightened senses are downplayed as much as possible. In this show, the Russians speak Russian, the Chinese speak Mandarin, and the environment is more akin to a dark “Law & Order” episode than the cosmic tapestry of “Thor.” “Maybe if he had an iron suit or a magic hammer, it would explain why you get your asses handed to you,” quips Fisk’s right hand man Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) to the Ranskahov brothers when they return with their tails between their legs in Episode 4. It’s a fitting insult that illustrates how while “Daredevil” may exist in MCU, it’s hardlynot the same world. Adding more grit to the show’s grass roots approach is the fact that Murdock gets his ass handed to him plenty of times as well.
The fight scene that ends “Cut Man” is a technical and choreographic wonder not just because it’s a single take (a technique that’s losing its oomph by the minute), but because of Cox’s physical performance as the very-noticeably-exhausted vigilante. I mean, this guy is tired. Count the amount of times Claire has to patch him up and that absolutely brutal fight in “Speak of the Devil” in which he gets fucking dragged by Nobu’s (Peter Shinkoda) spike across the room, and you’re left with the most mortal of all Marvel superheroes. The show’s graphic extends beyond Matt’s fights; Healy’s (Alex Morph) visit to the bowling alley in “Rabbit In A Snowstorm” and his self-impalement later in the same episode come to mind. Or the two murders committed by Fisk, which both share a kind of hands-on brutality that would make every MCU villain take a few steps back. Since Daredevil is one of Marvel’s most grounded superheroes (in many ways, he’s Marvel’s answer to DC’s Batman), the benefits reaped from Netflix multiply tenfold, allowing the creators to push limits and keep the story honest to its source.
Marvel’s management of comic book themes and motifs has also made a significant leap forward with the show. The dominant theme of fear shatters Daredevil’s infamous “The Man Without Fear” mythos and is intrinsically interwoven in Matt’s struggle with his Catholic beliefs. Fearing the devil he has inside him, Matt confides in Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie), and his confession at the onset of the season is the first in a number of key conversations that all lead to their final talk in Episode 11, “The Path of the Righteous.” Lantom’s explanation of why God let the Devil fall from grace finally builds the bridge between Matt’s religion and emotions (yet another crucial piece to the Daredevil origin) and provides him with a method to conquer fear once and for all. The generous dimensions of this format make way for even subtler ways of presenting the religious angle; like Ben’s “count the angels on the head of a pin” remark to Karen in Episode 4, or Wilson’s Bible story about the Samaritan in Episode 13, adding more parallels between himself and Murdock.
It’s significant to note just how strongly frustrated Murdock and Fisk are in “Daredevil,” particularly in light of how their different methods of attaining the same goal (i.e. make the city a better place) stems directly from each man’s relationship with his own father. Matt’s father taught his son to help those in need. Wilson’s father taught his son to keep kicking, so he wants to tear the city down. “World on Fire” is perhaps the go-to episode in understanding how the two are inextricably connected and fated to collide: both are developing personal relationships, Murdock with Claire Temple and Fisk with Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer), and hours after Matt explains how he constantly sees a “world on fire,” Wilson does him one better and by blowing up some Russian criminal hotspots. Take this complex and multi-layered rendition of these two characters, and then compare it to the dynamic between Daredevil and Kingpin in the 2003 film. Apples and oranges.
This expert care carries over to the show’s secondary and tertiary characters, who should be grouped together and considered the show’s undisputed MVP, aside from Temple, who simply exists as proof that Matt can’t have a normal love-life, and Page, who is an infuriatingly uninteresting character despite Woll’s terrific performance. The rest of the supporting characters get the kind of attention they rarely receive in feature films. Be they villains, heroes, or just “people with different agendas” as Urich calls them, all come out with at least two but frequently three-dimensions. Like the mystifying Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) who runs the Triad heroin operation and who whoops Daredevil’s ass with one blow. Or Urich himself, who gets his own subplot; a necessary component for our emotional investment by the time Fisk pays him a visit in Episode 12. Most notable are Nelson and Wesley. Nelson is actually funny, and not in a comic-relief kind of way; his interactions with Page and Marci (Amy Rutberg), his resolve over a tenement housing case, and that whole “Nelson v. Murdock” episode, go far deeper than mere outlines. Wesley, though his pedicured facade reveals very little about the man behind the suit, ends up one of the season’s biggest highlights. Eloquent monologues (“They say the past is etched in stone…”), an undivided loyalty to Wilson that breaches familiar crimeboss-lapdog dynamics in lieu of something resembling friendship, and posh idiosyncrasies that collide with the surrounding grime of Hell’s Kitchen.
Leading these stellar supporters are Cox and D’Onofrio, both making a strong case that their Daredevil and Wilson Fisk are two of the greatest comic book franchise performances not coming to a theatre near you. Even though he nails his first scene in the church, it takes time to warm up to Cox; his monotone American accent at first hearing paints a picture of a rather indifferent attorney and a vigilante going through the motions. But as the show continue to expand on Murdock’s life, the nuances of Cox’s performance begin to emerge, and one starts to respect the actor’s portrayal as something totally believable. D’Onofrio is more flamboyant, but don’t mistake that gruff voice for overacting: Wilson Fisk is an oversized, bald baby in a $10,000 Armani suit, fond of children’s stories and desserts who must play the part of crime-lord with such intimidating menace so as to completely obscure his hypersensitivity. With this in mind, D’Onofrio’s portrayal is revelatory and appropriately complex, bolstered by the writers’ refreshingly humane approach to the character and his arc with Vanessa. Besides being just great to watch, D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk is MCU’s most fully realized and relatable villain to date.
All these elements are ably dispatched by Netflix. The one-season-in-one-shot delivery system makes the streaming service’s original programming feel more cinematic than anything else on TV. “Daredevil” may fumble through some subplots, but overall it allows Marvel to break another ceiling, leaving the likes of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Arrow,” “Gotham,” “Agent Carter,” and other ongoing comic book TV shows looking puny and disheveled in comparison. A successful path has been paved for the next three Marvel series on Netflix, ““A.K.A. Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage” and “Iron Fist,” and it invites an exciting new way to realize comic books on the screen. Others will have to adapt alongside Marvel, sooner rather than later.