TV REVIEW: Give The Devil His Due Netflix’s ‘Daredevil’ Series Is Dark, Intense, and Mercilessly Good
From the moment the opening credits roll, featuring a blood soaked lady liberty, dripping city scapes, and ominous music, you know you’re in for something far more serious and different than Marvel’s typical fun, cheeky, and thrilling cinematic norm. Not that Marvel’s newest show isn’t fun or thrilling, it’s both in spades! However, this is a different type of good time. With its dark and gritty take, which is far removed from the tones of any of the Avengers’ stand-alone features, Daredevil is simply one of the best surprises of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Note: Character details and some situations are highlighted, but otherwise this is a spoiler free review.
Daredevil follows the journey of Matt Murdock, who was blinded as a young boy, but imbued with extraordinary senses. That young boy grew into a man who combats the evils of New York, fighting against injustice by day as a lawyer, and by night as the superhero Daredevil, “The Man Without Fear”. You may remember this story from the 2003 Ben Affleck starrer that went by the same name but it would do you well to forget what you saw over a decade ago (chances are, you have already). Now that Marvel has regained control of the property, audiences are finally treated to the true Daredevil – the Daredevil that makes criminals sweat just by existing, and this is a beautiful thing.
This Netflix series plays in the same sandbox as the rest of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, with the events of the alien invasion from The Avengers being referenced in talks and newspaper clippings (there’s also the Avengers tower in the far off skyline), but that’s where the similarities end. This is the dark, shadowy corner of the MCU; a corner that not even Tony Stark would be willing to visit. It’s a bold, disturbingly dark, earnest drama the likes of which you’ve never even seen attempted in this genre.
Fans of the Daredevil comics from the Frank Miller days in the mid 70’s and fans of the character’s rebirth in 1998 with Kevin Smith‘s Guardian Devil, will commend Netflix and Marvel on how faithful they have been in representing the source material. The tonality, style, and soul of the comic is bleeding from page to screen and this fact is driven home with every SNAP of a broken bone.
The series takes place in modern day Hell’s Kitchen, the seedy underbelly of New York City, where crime and corruption rule and the good are held helpless. Powerful men have profited and gained a substantial foothold in the aftermath of the Chitauri invasion in New York. The Avengers may have saved the world but what did they leave in their wake? A broken city where the most ruthless and conniving take hold: gangs pushing drugs, shady real estate & corporate dealings, children being stolen from their parents while the parents are beaten and left for dead, and women being abducted and sold off a sex slaves are but a few of the terrible aftereffects that have taken root after the “incident”. Keep in mind, all of this is just within the first five episodes of the season.
Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) plays the shows titular hero. The series wastes no time in showing you his nightly escapades as a masked vigilante. No build up or long winded origin. Within the first five minutes of Episode One, you see Daredevil (or, The Man in Black, as he is known at first) stopping a human trafficking abduction by fighting off a gang of goons with his brand of bare knuckle style Kung Fu. Unlike a dizzying Michael Bay action sequence, fight scenes like this are fast, fluid, and most importantly believable. Strikes, kicks, flips, and exchanged blows are not over exaggerated. They’re treated with a sense of realism and even the thuds, cracks, and snaps sound authentic to a real life fight. You could almost design a drinking game around how often you, as a viewer, cringe in pain or throw out an “OWWW!” while witnessing Murdock dispense his vigilante justice.
When he’s not moonlighting as some kind of Dread Pirate Roberts, The Man in Black is simply Matt Murdock – a blind lawyer fresh out of internship looking to make a difference.
Here’s a character that displays tremendous calm and control given that his other senses, particularly his hearing, are so overwhelming they cause him to feel/see the world around him in a blazing fire. There’s something about his character, a sense of allure and danger even, but he ebbs a sense of comfort and trust – he’s a good guy wearing a black hat.
While Cox may not look like the chiseled, red haired, square jawed character from the comics, he plays Murdock with a sense of confidence, charm, focus, and mystery. In other words, he plays it perfectly! He IS Daredevil, there’s no question about it.
With Murdock comes his trusty friend and legal partner Foggy Nelson, played by Elden Henson (The Mighty Ducks). The character is as gawky as he is sharp, which Elden delivers well for the most part. There are moments, though, where his acting is a bit choppy, as if he’s doing a table reading, waiting to speak, or simply over selling a delivery. If you can ignore these few moments, however, you will likely fall in love with Foggy, who serves as the series’ comic relief.
The series picks up with Nelson and Murdock starting out as lawyers for the first time, setting out to make a difference. No cases or clients…that is until a bit of cigar box bribery from Foggy to a local cop gets the duo tipped off to a detained citizen in need – Karen Page played by Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood). After catching on to an embezzling scheme that runs throughout the company she works for, Page finds herself a suspect in murder and, later, a target herself.
Woll delivers Page as a capable, honest, and caring character – a character that has an urge to make a difference, even at the risk of near and present danger. She treads through that danger, almost foolishly, as she digs deeper into uncovering truth, and aims to hold those responsible for her co-workers death and illegal dealings accountable for their actions. Little does she know, Daredevil is on the case and its a much bigger picture than the two of them realize.
Other characters in this series with a strong moral compass are Rosario Dawson‘s Claire and Vondie Curtis Hall (Chicago Hope) is Ben Urich.
Dawson’s Claire Temple is known to comic fans as the future romantic interest of Luke Cage, though, here, her character has been melded with The Night Nurse, Linda Carter. On her night off she finds a beaten and unconscious Daredevil in a dumpster outside her apartment. Curiously faithful and trusting, she attends to his wounds. Thus begins their interesting relationship.
Claire is more than a character that stitches up Daredevil when in need of medical attention. Daredevil brings her into a whole lot of danger, she becomes a person of interest, and forces Matt Murdock to realize doing what he does puts people at risk. Despite how quickly things go south, she acts as an unexpected conscious, reminding Matt why he does what he does, and keeps him in check from becoming the very thing he’s fighting against. She’s the embodiment and voice of a city bleeding, crying out for justice.
Vondie Curtis Hall is Ben Urich, an investigative journalist at the New York Bulletin who find himself drawn into a war for the soul of Hell’s Kitchen. With Karen Page as a credible source and informant, the two shape and piece together a scandalous story for the ages. While his character isn’t explored much during the first half of the season, chances are that he will play a rather pivotal role in the series by the time all is said and done.
Some of Hell’s Kitchen’s more unscrupulous characters are Toby Leonard Moore’s (John Wick) Wesley, the right-hand man and confidante to a mysterious employer who is later revealed as The Kingpin, and Bob Gunton’s (Argo) Leland Owsley, that’s the super-villainous Owl to fans, an enigmatic and key figure in the crusade to remake Hells Kitchen.
And there there is Wilson Fisk a.k.a “The Kingpin of Crime” – the man pulling all the strings. The underworld won’t even speak Fisk’s name because of the power he holds, though at first glance he comes off as insecure, especially when he meets the comely art dealer Vanessa Marianna ( Man of Steel’s Ayelet Zurer). But when folks cross or disrespect him, the results often are very bloody. There’s a particular scene where he lashes out on a fellow gangster and it’s one of the most brutal scenes you will ever see in a Marvel cinematic product.
Despite being 6’3″ and 250 lbs, Vincent D’Onofrio doesn’t quite fill that intimidating mass that Kingpin is known for in the comics but D’Onofrio’s portrayal is fascinating. This is a character who, in one sentence, could easily go from being a child to a monster. He’s a freaking sociopath that defends his cruelty and evilness as virtue and courage. He’s absolutely chilling! All the spoilers in the world could not prepare viewers for, or take away from the experience of, witnessing Fisk on screen.
While these may be a few key players in the Hell’s Kitchen underworld, they are far from the only bad guys on the block! Russian mobsters, a Chinese drug dealer, and the Yakuza, to name just a few of the other villainous threats, flesh out this compelling, layered, and evocative story.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects to this show is that Matt Murdock’s motivations as Daredevil are not immediately clear. At face, it’s obvious he’s on a mission to make his city a better place against an underground terror within. The “Why”, however, is something progressively developed throughout the series, with flashbacks to his youth (before and after he lost his eyesight) and interactions with current day friends, allies, and the people of the city that need his help.
His motivations are perhaps best surmised in Matt’s confessional to a Catholic priest in Episode One. Where Murdock recounts his father’s former boxing days losing more fights than he’s won but never getting knocked out. He’d gotten knocked down before but always got up. Sometimes he’d get hit a certain way and he’d go cold, drop his arms, and have a look of no fear in his eyes. In those moments “he let the devil out” and his opponents would do their best to get away from him. Thus is the underlying thematic of show.
Matt Murdock’s alter ego is not a superhero in the same way Captain America, Thor, or The Hulk are superheroes – neither physically or on the same world saving scale. He’s a trained fighter and has used his skills and heightened senses to do something good – to be a defender of the street! He struggles, bleeds, and gets knocked down…but he always gets up! A devil has no fear. A devil puts the fear in others. That’s the purpose of Daredevil and unlike the city’s human monsters, he let’s the devil out for the right reasons. In most ways, Matt’s Daredevil is trying to make a world where good men can’t be bought, bargained with, or scared into submission – a world where a young Matt Murdock can see his father be a boxing champion and not pay the price for refusing to take a dive.
On the flipside, you have Wilson Fisk who sees the city as a cesspool and himself as its savior. Fisk’s outlook can be summed up best with his comment, “The city can’t wrap itself in a cocoon and wake up a butterfly”. To truly make a difference, a little force is needed, and sometimes that means necessary evils, despite however unpleasant, are just a part of the process. In other words, Fisk is Murdock’s perfect counterpoint; the yin to Murdock’s yang. They each believe in the same principles and both truly believe that the city needs a savior. Their methods are equally brutal which is why Claire’s role in Daredevil’s life is so crucial. She reminds him which side he is fighting for and makes sure he toes that line without allowing him to cross over.
Whether it’s former enslaved Russian brothers making new but violent beginnings, men in suits profiting from development deals, a mob boss burning down a city to build a better one, or a hero trying make things right by less than conventional means, they all have a story and the difference between good and evil is all a matter of perspective. That’s a paradigm this show examines exceedingly well.
Daredevil has the pacing, storytelling, character development, direction and overall style that only Netflix can deliver. You won’t see such piercing violence, turmoil, and intrigue on the big screen or a Prime Time Network. It’s a show without constraint and delivers the kind of product fans deserve.
This is the first Marvel on screen outing that is not meant for younger audiences, and that’s a bold but good choice. It is something that most regular TV viewers (not kids) can relate to. It’s recommend viewing for more mature Marvel fans, and perhaps for those you want to introduce slowly to the Marvel Universe, once the kiddos have been sent to bed.
All thirteen episodes of Daredevil will be available on Netflix on April 10.