Daring New Heights for Marvel
It’s saddening that the only live-action showcase for the Marvel anti-hero “Daredevil” was the divisively received 2003 film that starred Ben Affleck as the protagonist. While Affleck’s career improved mightily years later, “Daredevil,” on the other hand was left with a lowly live-action legacy.
Things changed, however, when Marvel Television struck a deal with Netflix to produce five seasons of shows based on four characters, Daredevil included, that would culminate in a crossover “Defenders” miniseries. Since “House of Cards” first premiered, Netflix had consistently built a prime résumé for its programming; “Daredevil” not only prolongs that streak, but also establishes a high pedestal for the first of the five character shows to air.
Matt Murdock leads a more complex life than the common lawyer. He was blinded as a young boy from a radioactive substance spilled for a crashed vehicle, but the chemical also improved his remaining senses to inhuman levels. Twenty years after gangsters murdered his boxer father, Murdock spends his day time at his newly opened independent law firm with best friend Foggy Nelson, and then fights crime as a masked vigilante at night in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. His two lines of work eventually cross paths with Wilson Fisk, a powerful businessman with an extremely private lifestyle who is trying to revitalize the neighborhood through both cryptic and menacing tactics.
I would go as far to say that “Daredevil” is not a comic book series. The overall tone is reasonably dark and the content is almost entirely aimed toward an adult crowd. More than anything else, the series is a crime drama that evokes themes and homages to gritty crime films of the 1970s, and even the masterful TV series “The Wire” which competently portrayed every side of the law that included the criminals, detectives, lawyers and journalists.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the heroes can take a lot of physical damage but still be unhinged in eventually beating their adversaries. However, I’m usually willing to let that go knowing that it’s in the vein of a summer blockbuster. “Daredevil,” on the other hand presents its titular character in a different light, where he’s a lot more vulnerable in his crimefighting. Despite his heightened senses, he’s not impervious to taking physical damage, and that is shown in the fight sequences where the fluidity of his punches and kicks are reduced from the villains he faces off against.
The action sequences themselves are lushly stylized and pull no punches with violence that far exceeds the detail of the MCU films. Some characters suffer very bloody deaths ranging from bowling balls to car doors being used as weapons, and the dark neo-noir atmosphere the show creates heightens those unsettling moments. Furthermore, some of the scenes are staged in excellently choreographed long takes, some of which resemble techniques used in South Korean New Wave films like “I Saw the Devil” and “Oldboy.”
As the titular “Man Without Fear,” Charlie Cox is phenomenal. His understated portrayal of Murdock assuredly fulfills the character’s complex personality, where his reasons for doing what he thinks is right for the city tend to alienate both the people in his life and audiences alike. He isn’t as much as of a smartass as Tony Stark, nor is he as strong as most Marvel characters become from science experiments gone wrong, but Cox smartly uses those traits into being equally charismatic as Murdoch’s two different sides.
Along Murdock in his mission to protect Hell’s Kitchen from evildoers are his law firm partners, Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, played respectively by Elden Henson and Deborah Ann Woll. Henson is highly entertaining in the comic relief department as Murdock’s droll best friend, and Woll is resonant as the strong-willed Page that is nowhere as innocent as she initially seems, as she sets out to seek the truth.
Also included in the supporting cast are Vondie Curtis-Hall as upstanding journalist Ben Urich, Rosario Dawson as Murdoch’s “night nurse” Clair Temple, and Toby Leonard Moore as James Welsey, one of the most loyal criminal right-hand men to grace television in a long time.
Rising above everyone though is Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, the crimelord trying to remodel Hell’s Kitchen through illegal means, but ironically believes that his enforcement of them has good guy reasoning. Surprisingly he’s not introduced until the third episode, but upon that introduction D’Onofrio perfectly dissects Fisk into a man that’s cryptic in terms of motivation behind most of his decisions, haunted by his late father who he has ironically taken grim traits after, and also a lovesick puppy that craves human affection outside of his business field. In all honesty, Fisk is the best three-dimensional villain to come out of Marvel Studios since Loki.
Spearheading the show is Steven S. DeKnight, who comes from a long line of writers that worked under the wing of Joss Whedon. He and his writers develop the episodes with steep characterization and politics with a hard-to-find middle ground, something that was similarly explored in his previous series “Spartacus.”
Compared to the likes of the hugely entertaining “Spartacus,” which had orgies of bloody violence, graphic sex and swearing galore, DeKnight maintains the same violence factor that’s justified by the bleaker atmosphere, but on the contrary almost completely removes the latter two to maintain mature plotting. For “Daredevil,” though, that’s not a problem and it’s refreshing to see his writing style in a similar light to his days in the Whedonverse.
“Daredevil” is another splendid success for Marvel Entertainment, and it shows their live-action content at their most mature levels yet. As if it wasn’t enough for its studio juggernaut to champion the big screen with the MCU, their deal with Netflix has ignited a devilishly impressive beginning for their seasons on the small screen.
RECOMMENDED: Dark, exciting and full of character, “Daredevil” is a great lift-off for their TV deal with Netflix.