“Daredevil” dropped onto Netflix April 10, and as many binge watchers will tell you, the 13-episode series is, well, a marvel. Not since Punisher or Blade has Marvel so boldly presented on screen the violent world occupied by the titular hero. This is especially surprising considering this is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has generally been family-friendly entertainment.
Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is a blind lawyer who uses his radar-like super-senses and martial arts prowess to fight crime as a masked vigilante by night. He battles Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a crime lord who will stop at nothing to remake Hell’s Kitchen as he sees fit.
While most entries in the MCU are colorful and often bombastic, “Daredevil” shows this world’s seedy underbelly. Hell’s Kitchen is a dark corner of the larger universe, full of shadow, grime and grit. The Battle of New York as seen in “The Avengers” was a turning point in the MCU, and its consequences are seen here. Hell’s Kitchen is rebuilding, and its poor residents are doing their best to adjust. This paved the way for crime bosses to sweep in and make money using construction companies they controlled. Leland (Bob Gunton) says “heroes and their consequences” are good for business. This shows how interconnected the MCU has become. It’s a testament to the careful details Marvel Studios’ writers follow. Yet despite these connections, this series is a stand-alone. Viewers with little or no knowledge of comics or the MCU can watch it and not feel lost. Now more than ever the MCU feels like the comic books, which follow a similar format.
Gone are the over-the-top villains of the MCU films, but that’s not a bad thing. Daredevil is a street-level superhero who battles inner-city crime, not alien invasions. While his archenemy, Wilson Fisk (aka the Kingpin), is definitely a larger-than-life figure, Vincent D’Onofrio plays him in a frightening, realistic manner. He rules the criminal underworld using secrecy and fear, creating an almost mythic persona for himself. Like Voldemort in the Harry Potter books, people are terrified to even speak his name. But underneath that well-dressed shell is a troubled boy and a monster. Like Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in “The Godfather,” Fisk is a bizarre amalgamation of vice and virtue. He’s at once sympathetic and deplorable. He wishes to make the city a better place—not unlike Matt Murdock—but he does it using murderous force. He loves Vanessa Marianne (Ayelet Zurer), but he will murder a man for inadvertently embarrassing him on a date with her. He’s easily the MCU’s most complicated and successful villain since Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.
“Complicated” is also an apt word to describe Matt Murdock. A devout Catholic, Murdock is constantly wrestling with questions of morality. He became a lawyer to clean up Hell’s Kitchen, but he quickly learned the limitations of the law. Some criminals, like Fisk, can manipulate the system and literally get away with murder. So, he became a masked vigilante to do what the law seemed powerless to do. Even so, he refuses to kill because murder is a mortal sin according to his faith. But as his conflict with Fisk escalates, he fears must kill him. Is stopping him worth damning his soul? Murdock is a rare example of a religious character in a Hollywood production who isn’t a caricatured loon or hypocrite. But neither is he the squeaky-clean, nigh-perfect image presented in Christian-made films. He has small vices like cussing, but admits it’s his faith that keeps him going most of the time. His struggle to find the right way to do the most good is authentic and, while dark, inspiring. Charlie Cox gives an Emmy-worthy performance as this complicated hero.
The supporting cast is equally as good and often just as complicated. Elden Henson provides much-needed comic relief as Murdock’s best friend/law partner Foggy Nelson. While such characters often seem like they were shoehorned in, Foggy comes across as a naturally funny guy in a frightening setting. Deborah Ann Woll plays the enigmatic Karen Page as a well-meaning but troubled woman who may be harboring a dark secret. Ayelet Zurer’s Vanessa is a brilliant woman who, whether through pity or true love or a combination of both, comes to a point where she is willing to marry Fisk because she’s the one person who can cage the monster.
The backstories of the characters, most notably Murdock and Fisk, are presented in flashbacks shown throughout the series as opposed to a linear origin stories. This is slightly off-putting at first since Murdock’s abilities aren’t fully explained at the start. They are shown but not defined. While his enhanced senses are never described as being a natural radar, the audience is once granted the chance to see through Murdock’s eyes: a “world on fire.” Considering his powers are somewhat subtle, it was no small challenge to explain and present them right, and this show’s creators stepped up to that task, well, marvelously.
The series also has tight pacing. Kingpin isn’t seen until after three episodes of build-up. The characters’ actions interconnect and flow from one episode to the next. Even something as small (and borderline meta) as people telling Murdock to get a better costume pays off in the end.
Speaking of which, both of Daredevil’s costumes are excellent. The basic black outfit is elegant in its ninja-like simplicity. But the Kevlar-esque red suit unveiled in the final episode is a thing of beauty, though it does seem to take some hints from Christian Bale’s Bat-suit in “The Dark Knight Trilogy.”
The action sequences—with their flips, kicks and parkour—rank as some of the best in the MCU. Only “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” gives it any competition. The best is arguably the climactic fight in the second episode. Daredevil enters a dark hallway and battles thugs guarding a kidnapped boy. He fights them in the hallway and in two side rooms. This whole two- or three-minute sequence, which has the camera moving through the tight quarters as it follows Daredevil, is done in one take. The choreography, stunt work and practical effects come together beautifully to create one of the most memorable fight scenes in recent memory.
Finally, the series featured several great Easter eggs. The most exciting one came in the tenth episode during a flashback to Murdock and Foggy’s time in college. Foggy asked Murdock how things were going with “the Greek girl,” to which Murdock said they’d broken up. This is a reference to Elektra, Daredevil’s most famous love interest.
Is it any wonder Marvel announced the series was renewed for a second season?