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DAREDEVIL Review

When Netflix and Marvel announced a production to encompass four TV series that would begin with Daredevil and lead up to The Defenders, fans of ‘The Man Without Fear’ were cautiously optimistic. After all, while Daredevil comics have always been good to great (particularly in the last 30-or-so years), the previous attempts to translate the character to live action had not gone well to put it nicely.

But when the thirteen episodes of Daredevil dropped on Netflix worldwide on April 10 2015, all fears were allayed. Not only is it the best television series Marvel Studios has produced to date (compared to Agents of SHIELD anyway), it might be the best among the entire MCU canon (or at the very least tied with Captain America: The Winter Soldier anyway). It raises the question: “What if the superhero genre was applied to the prestige television format (i.e. grey morality, much musings on power, top-tier actors)?” and answers that with, “Nothing short of amazing.” It is.

The Plot

Blinded as a child (Skyler Gaertner) by toxic waste that enhanced the rest of his senses, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) works in his home neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen along with his best friend and fellow lawyer Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Elden Hansen) at their own law firm, Nelson & Murdock, seeking to get justice for the poor and disadvantaged.

Their first case comes in the form of Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a young worker at development firm Allied Global who wakes up in her apartment covered in blood, a knife in her hand and a dead coworker next to her. Terrified and shaken, she comes to the attention of Nelson & Murdock through a police informant Foggy has. Matt insists to Foggy that Karen isn’t the murderer after hearing her steady heartbeat when protesting her innocence.

The investigation into Allied Global leads Matt, Foggy and Karen (who, after being cleared of murder charges, becomes the duo’s secretary) to a man named Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) who enlists the firm to get an employee of his employer off a murder charge. Wesley’s employer? Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a wealthy, imposing, emotionally withdrawn man who masquerades as a philanthropist but secretly runs a huge organized crime circle along with the guarded Nobu (Peter Shinkoda), the enigmatic Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), gangsters Anatoly and Vladimir Ranskahov (Gideon Emery and Nikolai Nikolaeff) and curmudgeonly money man Leland Owlsey (Bob Gunton). Fisk plans to take the decaying Hell’s Kitchen (made so by The Avengers and its Chitauri invasion or “the incident”) and, using crime, turn it into a prosperous, gentrified area, while also trying to win the heart of art gallery owner Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer).

Like Fisk, Matt wants to make Hell’s Kitchen better but he does it the old-fashioned way. At night, donning a homemade black ninja outfit, he leaps around and beats up criminals one on one. This can go well–the pilot episode sees him successfully defeat a gang of human traffickers–or terribly–the second episode finds Matt bleeding to death in a dumpster and brought to the attention of nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) who saves his life and becomes his love interest. As the “devil of Hell’s Kitchen,” as well as the efforts of Matt, Karen, Foggy & veteran reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) close in on Fisk’s plans, what will the crime lord do? And can Matt defeat whatever Fisk puts in front of him?

The Execution

The effusive praise this show has received has, among other things, seen fans compare it to The Wire. And while I wouldn’t go that far–arguably, no TV show can approach The Wire which, to paraphrase critic Alan Sepinwall, is “a show that teaches you how to watch it”–it’s still pretty damn great. True, it does follow the checkpoints of a lot of prestige television of the HBO era (i.e. mainly white cast, a lot of discoursing on power and the nature of it and a dark, bleak angle) but it does that very, very well.

Given that the vast majority of Daredevil comics in the Modern Age of comics have done the same thing, this is no surprise and the show knows it. Creator Drew Goddard, a Whedonverse alum, along with showrunner Steven S. DeKnight and writers like Marvel heavyweight Cristos Gage, take their rich, compelling source material (in particular drawing from both the Frank Miller era, especially in regards to Daredevil’s costume, as well as the Marvel Knights era of the 2000s) and follow its spirit to great reward.

They’re aided in this by a truly excellent cast across the board. Fans of the 2007 film version of Neil Gaiman’s novel Stardust know Charlie Cox from his lead role there, but he’s unrecognizable here. Disappearing completely into the part, he makes the fact that Matt has to wear dark glasses most of the time an asset, not a liability. Using subtle changes in facial expression coupled with a flawless American accent make the British actor virtually indistinguishable from the Matt Murdock of the comics.

True Blood actress Woll and former Mighty Duck kid Hansen do their part too, with Woll making Karen so much more than the audience surrogate and Hansen providing just enough comic bluster to keep things light but also able to bring the hammer down when the serious stuff hits.

Curtis-Hall plays Urich as a man out of time, a crusading investigative reporter brought low by both his wife’s medical traumas and the stark modern economic realities of working for a newspaper (here, it’s the New York Bulletin rather than the Daily Bugle, most likely because of Marvel/Sony’s co-ownership of Spider-Man). He’s genuinely engaging as is Moore who takes the part of a crime lord’s toady and manages to make every minute of his screen time riveting.

But the standout is clearly D’Onofrio. He’s always been an intriguing character actor going back to Full Metal Jacket but here, he’s a revelation. He takes the very human, very grandiose Fisk of the comics and turns him into something…else. Something not quite human that always keeps your attention and your focus. D’Onofrio’s interpretation of Fisk has been interpreted as autistic; while I don’t feel qualified enough to make that assessment myself (although I have several relatives working in special education who would know for sure, I dare say), I’m not gonna say it’s not wrong. The way D’Onofrio makes Wilson a broken, tortured soul who takes no real pleasure in anything he does and hides a well of rage beneath a calm exterior (which gets unleashed in a scene in the fourth episode that made me gasp) is astonishing and immediately puts Fisk aka the Kingpin far above the other villains of the MCU (who have the same basic template with minor variations). Whether with the bedrock that Moore provides as Wesley or trying to connect to the crafty, smart Vanessa, D’Onofrio is truly a, well, marvel.

The show’s directors all do their job incredibly well, with Phil Abraham being the easy standout for a lengthy hand-to-hand fight scene between Daredevil and some goons that closes the second episode and was filmed in one take. From top to bottom, this show is absorbing and brutal the way Game of Thrones can be at its very best.

Final Verdict

While not exactly the The Wire of superhero television, Daredevil nonetheless offers a slap in the face to anyone who insists that all Marvel productions are the same old thing. While the show can be a bit too violent and Matt Murdock a little too antihero-y, coupled with the fact that it’s somewhat at odds to have this faithful an adaptation of the 2000s Daredevil comics, while the last few years have seen the character swing back closer to his lighter ’60s roots, this series is still very much worth checking out for anyone who wants to see the high-quality TV model applied to superheroes and applied very well.

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars 

 

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Categories: TV

Author:Tom Speelman

A lifetime of reading comics and watching television has left Tom with an inexhaustible supply of pop culture knowledge from the obvious to the obscure. Rather than keep it all in his brain for use at parties, Tom turned to writing a few years ago to help him share that knowledge with as many people as are remotely interested. Tom writes for several websites including The Mary Sue, Strange Horizons, Loser City and others. For even further rambling, follow him on Twitter @tomtificate.

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