Here’s the rug. We’re lifting it up, taking our broom and carefully sweeping the 2003 Daredevil film beneath it before carefully laying the rug back down. There. It’s gone now. No need to worry about it anymore. We can all relax.
Ten years on from The Film That Shall Not Be Named the character rights to Matt Murdock and his fearless alter ego reverted back to Marvel and it was announced that a television series was to be made, set in the same universe as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only that, but this new incarnation of Daredevil would be the first in a number of series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which would air on Netflix, to be followed by Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist before leading into The Defenders which will see the characters join together in the same vein as The Avengers.
The ambition of the MCU seems to know no bounds. Not only are they unsatisfied with dominating the global box office each year they have a critically patchy television series already in the shape of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Being audacious enough to announce a further five series for the Netflix audience shows a commitment to experimenting with entertainment mediums that would have shocked most only five years ago.
Many critics are waiting for the opportunity to give a mauling to the MCU, as it’s always fun to take down a winner. Quite a few were willing to bet that Guardians of the Galaxy would be their first misstep, but that only cemented their success. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. may have wound a rocky road, but it is still popular and successful. Could it be that their first foray into the mass release of an entire series in one go will be their stumbling block?
Completely different in tone to the rest of the MCU, at times it is difficult to recognise that Daredevil takes place in the bright and glossy world of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. To say that this is darker is an understatement, from the location to the moral ambiguity of the characters, this is not a show about global domination or an alien invasion. Much smaller in scope, it’s about what happens after the heroes have saved the day as much as it is about two men trying to save their city in completely opposite ways.
Set after the devastation wreaked in The Avengers (or, as it is described in opening episode Into the Ring, “death and destruction raining from the sky nearly wiping Hell’s Kitchen off the map”), Daredevil does not portray Iron Man et al as the awe inspiring saviours of New York. They may have stopped the Chitauri and the world may have been saved, but at the cost of the lives and infrastructure of an already deprived part of the city.
Matt Murdock (Stardust’s Charlie Cox) is already in vigilante action and the worrisome costume featured in the trailers is perfectly in keeping with the tone of the show, but despite his abilities, which are mostly underplayed throughout, he is not a superhero. Apart from a single example of how he “sees” there’s no radar sense on show, no special effects of sound waves bouncing off objects or rain creating an image of a beautiful woman for him. Whilst his abilities are amazing they are illustrated through the ticking of a watch or the smell of cologne. In fact the most astounding ability is Murdock’s talent of taking a beating.
Unlike anything seen elsewhere in the MCU where people are knocked out with one punch until the Big Boss Battle which is always choreographed and clean, here the fights are brutal and bloody, a punch something that actually hurts and does damage. Something to be recovered from rather than shrugged off, Murdock spends much of the series sporting bruises and cuts and isn’t miraculously healed by the next day. Demonstrated in Cut Man in what is allegedly a one shot take where Murdock takes on a dozen men whilst he’s ready to drop from exhaustion, his strength is that he always gets up, and he always keeps going.
Cox is great in the title role which deserves acknowledgement on one very simple count: his eyes are hidden for much of the time, either behind his mask or are hidden by his red tinted glasses. The eyes are a huge part of non-verbal communication, and credit must be given for Cox’s skill conveying the feelings of a man doing what he has to do to make his city safer, though it helps that he is the latest in a long line of actors who looks like he spends more time working out than sleeping.
Perfectly capturing the conflicted nature of a lawyer he knows that what he is doing is wrong but that there is only so much justice that the legal system is able to provide, there’s also his Catholicism to contend with, his frequent church visits church showing his need for approval for his extracurricular activities. In the largely secular MCU this may be the first time that religion has played an integral part of a character.
The rest of the cast are nicely rounded out, both by those that appear as a part of the main cast and those who drift in and out, woven throughout the story where they are needed. In traditional episodic television minor characters who are liked can be promoted during filming, as earlier episodes are aired, but with a whole season in a single batch means that public opinion is discounted in the Netflix model and the characters stand or fall on the basis of the writers and actors. There is no second chance to revise something if it doesn’t go across well with the 18 – 49 white heterosexual male into designer clothes and videogames demographic.
The other half of Nelson and Murdock, attorneys at law, Eldon Henson (Idle Hands, The Butterfly Effect) is possibly the least recognisable actor in this series but does a great job as Franklin “Foggy” Nelson with many of the best lines. Though outwardly cynical and more focused on making money but with a genuine desire to help people, Foggy develops nicely over the course of these thirteen episodes and Cox and Henson play off each other well with a believable relationship of best friends fighting the good fight.
The audience’s perception of events comes through Karen Page who seamlessly progresses from murder suspect to legal secretary and vital member of the team. As would be expected from True Blood’s Deborah Ann Woll, rather than being a stereotypical damsel in distress she is strong and driven with hints littered throughout the series about a dark past. In many ways Karen has more of an effect on how the plot progresses than Murdock himself, the catalyst for getting him involved and the momentum for moving the plot forward in each act of the story.
The women of Daredevil are well represented on both sides of the law, although quite how many times it passes the Bechdel Test might give some disappointing results. Sin City’s Rosario Dawson plays Claire Temple, an ally of Murdock’s known as the Night Nurse in the comics and one of a few recurring characters that are likely intended to feature across Netflix’s Marvel series where if the beatings Murdock takes become the norm she’ll be kept busy patching up heroes for the next few years.
In the same way that Foggy is not just the comedy sidekick and Karen isn’t just the damsel in distress, Vanessa Marianna is not just the love interest. Played by Ayelet Zurer (probably best known as Superman’s mother in Man of Steel but an accomplished and award winning actor in her native Israel), she catches the eye of the Kingpin himself. Vanessa develops from being flattered by his attention to fear of who he is on to a much more complicated and interesting relationship.
The highest praise, however, belongs to Law & Order: Criminal Intent‘s Vincent D’Onofrio who offers a completely different interpretation of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin. Previously portrayed as little more than a thug who had made it to the top of a criminal empire, this Fisk is softly spoken and contemplative, deferring his power rather than brandishing it. In many regards he appears relatively weak when he first appears, raising questions about how he actually managed to achieve his level of power, but as the series progresses and we learn more he becomes a man with an extreme amount of buried violence which he wants to keep deep inside; he doesn’t want to be brutal, but he has to be in order to become the saviour of Hell’s Kitchen.
The parallels between Fisk and Murdock are clear. Emphasised through flashbacks, dialogue and their friendships with others, their actions and development echo each other. Murdock has Foggy, and Fisk has right hand man James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), his confidante and the sole person whom Fisk allows close to him. One of the better villains of the MCU, as polite as his employer, Wesley seems motivated by his extreme loyalty to Fisk and it slowly becomes clear that the two genuinely care for each other.
With the power dynamic between Fisk and Murdock swinging continuously throughout the series, this makes the temptation for binge viewing even more compulsive, every episode leaving the viewer wanting to know what happens next, although there are some problems.
The continuous nature of the story is interrupted in episode seven (Stick) with the cliffhanger of the preceding episode (Condemned) ignored in favour of introducing Murdock’s childhood mentor for a standalone episode which, despite being very good, distracts from the audience’s investment in favour of setting up something for the future (possibly the Defenders series).
The question is begged of how Nelson and Murdock manage to keep the lights on. Or eat. They’re a new firm but have a grand total of three clients over the course of the first season, only one of whom can actually pay them. It’s a minor niggle, but none of our heroes are billionaire playboys so paying the rent should be addressed, particularly as this is a more grounded show.
Perhaps fitting considering the impairment of the lead character, Daredevil is a very dark series which at times makes it difficult to keep track of the action. A little more lighting, even in the various dark alleys that feature regularly, would have been appreciated particularly for those who are streaming the episodes on devices with smaller screens, and it is a show which requires attention from the viewer; special mention should be made of a painting which Fisk purchases during his first appearance which becomes a recurring motif of the show.
There will come a time when marvel fail in their domination of all media, but today is not that day, and overall Daredevil is yet another triumph, an addictive show that is at the same time a part of, yet removed from, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Different in tone to everything that has come before it, this is no bad thing and, as usual, shows that Marvel are willing to change everything in order to keep their productions fresh and surprise their audience.