Marvel’s Daredevil Season 1 Review
Watch this show. I will tell you why over the course of this review, but I will say up front that you should watch Marvel’s Daredevil TV series on Netflix. I got Netflix specifically so I could watch this show legally and I still feel that that was money well spent. How odd it is that a character that spawned one of the most reviled Marvel movies of the last decade would also spawn possibly one of the best superhero TV shows on television. This deserves to be watched.
The series focuses on Matt Murdock (played in the present by Charlie Cox), who in the past was a child from the New York City slum called Hell’s Kitchen who was blinded in a car accident that spilled toxic waste in his eyes. The chemicals altered his nervous system and, while still blind, his other senses were significantly enhanced. His father, Jack Murdock, was a boxer who often took the fall in the ring for the sake of getting money from the local mob. In order to make his son proud, Jack stands up to the mob and wins a fight he was supposed to lose, getting the money he won to his son but getting himself killed in the process. Young Matt, filled with rage for what happened to his father while also pursuing higher education as per his father’s wishes, grows up to become a lawyer who will fight for the people of Hell’s Kitchen in the courtroom against corruption and greed. On the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen, he fights thugs and organized crime as a vigilante. Soon, his two jobs become intertwined as Wilson Fisk (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) attempts to use his vast wealth, his hold over organized crime, and his stranglehold on the police, judges, and lawyers of Hell’s Kitchen to remake the city in an image that better suits him. Death, violence, and cruelty ensue.
The synopsis of the show I gave above is fairly bare bones, considering how intricate the story is, and I don’t intend to go into much further detail here in order to avoid spoilers. In addition to the scenes of Daredevil going out and taking on organized crime on the streets, you have large amounts of screen time devoted to lawyer Matt Murdock and his law partner, Foggy Nelson (played by Elden Henson) and their secretary Karen Page (played by Deborah Ann Woll), who Foggy and Matt save in the first episode, working in Hell’s Kitchen to fight against abusive slum lords, illegal police practices, and graft from construction corporations benefitting from the reconstruction of New York City after the events of The Avengers. Also, we have the criminal’s side of the story as Wilson Fisk and his assistant, Wesley (played by Toby Leonard Moore) manipulate the circle of mob bosses, yakuza, and triads they’ve surrounded themselves with to cement their hold over Hell’s Kitchen while also pursuing more personal goals. The plotting of this series, and I don’t use this comparison lightly, reminds me a lot of The Wire, and believe me that is one of the highest compliments I can give to a show’s story. There are so many characters that are properly developed and given key roles in the story and so many interesting plot threads and sub-plots going on at the same time that you wouldn’t think the show would be able to properly juggle them all, and yet it succeeds at doing just that. Further, my friend Kora always described The Wire as a “portrait of a city,” with different aspects of it focused on in different seasons. Daredevil doesn’t necessarily give you a perfect picture of what Hell’s Kitchen is like, but it gives you a pretty good perception of the systems that are in place (both legal and otherwise) that have kept the area in the state that it’s in and what kinds of people (both good and bad) survive in this area. Plus, in flashback, Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) from The Wire played Fisk’s father, which adds to the series comparisons.
Honestly, a lot this show simply invites comparisons to stuff I am personally fond of. The plotting and story structure remind me of The Wire, and the series’ opening sequence reminds me of NBC’s Hannibal TV show. I’m not saying this is a bad thing by any means. I’m simply saying that I like these things just as much here as I do in the other shows. Best of all is that the show has some of the best hand-to-hand combat I’ve seen outside of some of the greatest Asian action movies like Oldboy or The Raid. Inevitably, fans of comic book character always hope that what they see as key aspects of a character will make it into any adaptation, and Daredevil is one of Marvel’s premier hand-to-hand combatants. Unfortunately, most of the time live-action hand-to-hand combat scenes in comic book movies and TV shows tend to be rather subpar (with a few notable exceptions) and not worth mentioning. However, I can say pretty decisively that Daredevil has the best hand-to-hand fight scenes of any comic book adaptation I’ve ever seen. There are no quick cuts or excessive editing, the camera is always kept either at middle distance or close for the sake grappling or pummeling, there is no CG, and despite the fact that the fight scenes are often in dark rooms or poorly lit alleyways you always can tell whose who and get a sense of just how brutal and violent the fight scenes can get. Also, I would be remiss from mentioning that, because the Japanese yakuza are involved, you might get to see an incredible fight scene with a staple of Daredevil’s comic books: The Hand.
Of course, all of this would not be as compelling as it was if the performances were not as stellar across the board as they are. With a few notable exceptions, these are mostly lesser-known actors, but they all turn in career-making performances on this show. Charlie Cox’s portrayal of Matt Murdock/Daredevil is a revelation, and is the lynchpin that holds the series together. Matt Murdock is a complex character, and the writers and Charlie Cox had a lot to balance in his back-story and his performance (being a lawyer, a Catholic, a warrior, a vigilante, and a blind man). In a strange and bizarre twist on normal acting stereotypes, the kid playing young Matt Murdock, Skylar Gaertner, gives just as great a performance as the adult actor. In addition to Charlie Cox’s great performance, he is surrounded by a cast of great actors and actresses playing the supporting characters to help flesh out the world. Elden Henson’s Foggy is a funny, goofy character with a lot of heart that really cares about Matt and Hell’s Kitchen and would do anything to help him. Plus he gets some of the best lines. Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page is a likably upbeat, optimistic young woman who is haunted by the terrible things that happen to her and the things she must do to survive. Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple (aka Night Nurse) is a woman who believes in what Daredevil is doing, but still fears that he may go too far in his pursuit of punishing the guilty. Vondie Curtis-Hall is a great Ben Urich; he’s smart, cunning, committed to his job as a newsman, but is also haunted by the consequences of his past actions and his inability to protect those he cares about. Just on sheer entertainment value though, Scott Glenn as Daredevil’s blind master, Stick, is the most fun character with his gravelly voiced cynicism and complete lack of sympathy or remorse along with his truly remarkable combat abilities. On the villain’s side of things, D’Onofrio plays a very interesting Wilson Fisk. In the past, the character has always been equal parts cunning schemer and cruel, violent brawler. In this show, they seem to suggest that because of his past he is fighting to maintain a balance between these two urges that often leaves him violently unhinged and dangerous (Insert car door scene). Also, D’Onofrio surrounds himself with interesting villains like the Triad leader Madam Gao (Wai Ching Ho), the Russian mobster Vladimir Ranskahoff (Nikolai Nikolaeff), the yakuza boss Nobu (Peter Shinkoda), the Wall Street money launderer Leland (Bob Gunton, the warden from Shawshank) and most importantly Fisk’s assistant Wesley, who is a well-developed character in his own right who believes in Fisk’s dream and wants to help him with his own vast intelligence and willingness to be as ruthless and cunning as necessary. Basically, there are no bad performances in the entire series.
If there are any flaws in this show at all, they are mainly in the flow of the story. I said earlier that the story is one of the strongest aspects of this show, and I still stand by that, but I feel that between episode 9 and 11, the pacing seems to slow to a crawl to wallow in character drama and reinforcement of plot threads that are already fairly well established. These are not bad episodes by any stretch, but they do feel drawn out and unnecessarily slow in their execution. After that though, the series picks back up again for an engaging and exciting climax that ends the series on a high note. So while I do think the story is one of the strongest aspects of the show, I feel that these episodes could either have been better utilized or cut out for more effective pacing, particularly since Netflix always intended to release the entire season all at once. Still, I must praise the story if, for nothing else, fitting in organic tie-ins to other Marvel properties, past and future. For instance, beyond the fact that Hell’s Kitchen is a slum because of the attack on New York during The Avengers, the opponent that Jack Murdock has to take the fall to in the ring is Carl Crusher Creel, a.k.a. The Absorbing Man on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Further, one of the crime lords, Madame Gao, is heavily implied to be from the Marvel universe’s mystical city of K’un-Lun (the fact that her heroin is marked with The Iron Dragon symbol, the symbol of K’un-Lun martial arts, confirms this). This is particularly appropriate since Iron Fist is going to be another one of the characters getting the Marvel Netflix series treatment in a couple years. So, it’s nice to see them laying the groundwork now.
Marvel’s Daredevil might be one of the best superhero television shows ever made. Great story, writing, characters, acting, action, and directing all make this one of the best TV experiences I’ve ever had. While the minor pacing issues in some of the later episodes prevent this from being absolutely flawless, it is still truly great nonetheless.
The only sad part about this show is that I will now have to wait several years for a season 2. Oh well, hopefully the rest of the upcoming Netflix Marvel shows will keep this level of quality across the board. Daredevil is not to be missed.