Superhero tales, these days, tend to fall into two categories: origin stories or sequels. And Marvel’s “Daredevil,” launching today on Netflix, does not escape that trap; especially because it’s not just the story of how Matt Murdock, blind and orphaned, became Hell Kitchen’s guardian angel, but the kick-off for an entire multi-series franchise of shows drawn from the rich universe of Marvel Comics.
Yet the show is full of surprises, and not just a few shocking deaths and character choices (which are in abundance over the course of the first season). But overall, “Daredevil” proves fully committed to creating a world outside the Marvel universe, one racked with crime, corruption and a few good people looking to make the world a better place. Only one of them has anything along the lines of superpowers, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable.
The basics: Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is on the surface a young, blind lawyer working with his partner Foggy Nelson (Elder Henson) to defend the underdogs of Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. Catch Matt at night, and you’ll learn that he’s also a masked vigilante looking for justice on his own terms. Despite the extrasensory talents developed after his loss of sight, that’s a tough battle given that Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) is looking to take over the criminal underworld of New York one bomb or brutal murder at a time.
Anyone who’s passionate about superhero tales, at this point, has a certain level of exhaustion with origin stories. But “Daredevil” makes the smart choice to dole it out slowly over the course of the season, while also drawing us further and further into the same New York City where Iron Man and Captain America live. There’s no denying that a previous softness for the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes a long way toward warming the heart for this show, but what makes it so compelling is that the events of things like the first “Avengers” film are treated as backdrop for ordinary lives.
You know what happens when the Hulk smashes his way through mid-town Manhattan? Even years later, people are still cleaning up the damage, and the writers behind “Daredevil” use it not just as an opportunity to connect their show with a billion-dollar franchise, but to bring a fascinating real-world component to the show. The Hulk smashes through a building. Someone needs to repair it. What kind of corruption and grift might occur as a result?
Oh, and also, what kind of violence? “Daredevil” easily exists in the grey space between PG-13 and R, and though most of its truly grotesque moments occur off-screen (and thus, in the audience’s imagination) young kids should be aware that “Daredevil” has a lot more in common with “Oldboy” than “Agents of SHIELD” by design. Some of the fight scenes are brutal. Some of them are beautiful. All of them stack up as some of the best-realized fight scenes I’ve seen in a television context. (If you disagree, then you clearly weren’t watching the end of Episode 2 with your glasses on.)
Steven S. DeKnight, who previously served as creator of Starz’s “Spartacus” empire, is running the show here and is on the record as saying “The Wire” was an inspiration. (See our upcoming interview with him for more details.) While the show doesn’t have that level of subtlety, it is fully committed to exploring the elements of the “Daredevil” world that lend itself to a crime procedural place. After all, Matt and Foggy are lawyers, and there’s no shortage of that component.
One of the most impressive things about “Daredevil,” overall, is how well it commits to building its own universe within an already pretty-well-established one. If you’ve never seen a Marvel movie, but wanted to check out the show, you wouldn’t be lost at all.
Especially because — prepare for the obligatory singing of praises of the cast — there’s not a member of this ensemble who feels out of place. Stand-outs include the both vulnerable and vicious D’Onofrio as the soon-to-be Kingpin of crime, and Vondie Curtis-Hall as investigative reporter Ben Ulrich, who adds gritty realism to the proceedings. Oh! And in a perfect world, Rosario Dawson would be in every episode of “Daredevil” (hell, in a very different but maybe also perfect world, Rosario Dawson would be Daredevil), but here she still offers up sanity and balance in the chaos and violence that these 13 episodes unroll.
Charlie Cox simply owns the role of Matt Murdock, backflipping over one of those incredibly tough challenges for a British performer — making us believe he’s 100 percent American. He sinks so perfectly into the role that (as much as we might love Ben Affleck) he makes us forget the 2003 film ever existed.
The only real trouble “Daredevil” faces is that despite its clearly defined hero’s quest to stand up for the beaten and depressed, it might not truly dig deep into the sort of broader theme that elevates fun television to the sort of great television we’ve increasingly come to expect from the medium. It’s rich with character development, don’t get me wrong — honestly, there’s a point where you almost feel that you understand the supervillain better than the superhero — and offers up a lot of entertainment along the way. It’s just not “The Wire.” And perhaps that’s foolish, to expect that of a television show, but the thing that we love about television these days, is that it can surprise us.