If Marvel Studios were a person, I would be kissing them right now. And giving them a big hug. And buying them a present. Because they gave me this show, and this show is awesome.
Daredevil is not one of the better-known Marvel superheroes, but over the last two or three decades, his comics have consistently been among the best written, as well as the most groundbreaking, featuring some of the most beautiful artwork, compelling character arcs, and dramatic storylines in the genre, with a brilliant cast of well-developed heroes, villains, and supporting players. So a TV show based on the Man Without Fear at the very least has strong source material to draw from, and a series certainly makes more sense than a movie, given all that they have to work with.
But source material and storylines are one thing, and it’s a cliché to say that the three most important things when making a show or movie are: the script, the script, and the script, especially when you’re adapting an iconic character. The first season of Daredevil, currently streaming on Netflix, delivers a great cast, great action, great cinematography, and great direction, all of which come together to make a show that is, quite simply, great. If you haven’t watched it already, and are a fan of superhero shows and movies, do so. Now. Right this instant.
Okay, I may be hyping this show too much, so let’s get some minor criticisms out of the way so I don’t oversell it. This isn’t the most original show. If you’ve seen Arrow or the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, a lot of the themes and plot arcs will be familiar to you, and not just because all three deal with gritty street-level heroes out to save “their city” after being trained by a cynical and murderous mentor to fight crime lords and thugs while also contending with ninjas and assassins from abroad who are linked to his past… ahem. Daredevil also has a “no killing” rule, leading to the kind of dilemmas we’ve seen many, many times before, and the primary villain’s dream of destroying the old city in order to save it sounds suspiciously similar to the evil plan of Malcolm Merlyn from the climax of season one of Arrow.
Don’t get me wrong; Daredevil handles this stuff much better than those other works, since it has better dialogue and tighter pacing and a great deal of subtle but gratifying world-building, but the similarities still exist.
But I can admit the “no killing” thing gets a bit awkward at times, given that one of the reasons Daredevil can claim not to have killed anyone (discounting, no doubt, the one guy he accidentally burns alive after a particularly brutal fight to the death; and also, the time he allows a dying man to shoot a bunch of corrupt cops with a machine gun) is sheer plot. Daredevil is a surprisingly brutal show (though, this surprise is not unwelcome), and the hero himself is a particularly brutal one, showing little hesitation in beating his enemies to a bloody pulp and torturing them for information.
One particularly standout scene is when he drops a fire extinguisher on a man’s head from ten stories up, knocking the man unconscious, and dragging him to the roof where the real pain begins. Yeah, I don’t care if this is an urban fantasy/sci-fi show; Matt Murdock really, really pushes that rule against killing.
Though, I will give the show props for its unusually accurate depiction of first aid: In one scene, Daredevil deals with a bullet wound without taking out the bullet, as that can cause more damage without proper medical equipment. In another, he performs CPR without doing mouth-to-mouth, which is also accurate; you really shouldn’t do mouth-to-mouth, and instead focus on getting the heart pumping. Kudos, Daredevil: you get first aid right where 90% of TV gets its wrong.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Also, I feel that the final episode was a bit… deus ex machina. The writers were determined to have a happy-ish ending, despite villain Wilson Fisk having so much power and influence and being so utterly ruthless that the way the heroes eventually bring him down is, well, a bit too easy. Given the show will no doubt have a second season (it would be criminal otherwise, especially with all the plot threads left dangling), I question the wisdom of bringing Fisk down at all, and not going for some other kind of resolution. Don’t get me wrong; It’s an action-packed finale and a solid ending to the series, but the way things happen seems rushed and unlikely.
Speaking of Wilson Fisk, I haven’t heard many complaints about how the show handled him. His character is certainly the one most divergent from the comics, where he’s an arrogant sociopath and diabolical genius who’s shameless in his pursuit of money, status, and power, and takes sadistic pleasure in ruining the lives of his enemies and victims.
Contrast this with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Fisk (who’s never referred to as “Kingpin” on this show, much to its discredit), a far more conflicted individual. While his backstory is roughly the same as the comics, this version of Fisk is a monster in denial, an insecure and even lonely man whose motivation and past directly and intentionally parallel those of his enemy—from the father issues, to his intent of rescuing the city from itself—but is an unstable and dangerous madman who has no qualms about carrying out the most heinous of deeds, or allying himself with (or playing against) the most soulless criminals to bring about his utopia, a utopia built on the blood of the innocent people who get in his way.
It’s different, I’ll give you that. While this character is probably one of the most praised aspects of the show, I do kind of privately yearn for the original character, who’s given a ton of development in the comics and often gets his own story arcs, and is less deluded and more of a magnificent, fearless bastard. And I find it a bit hard to swallow that Fisk would think that the best way to build a better tomorrow is to become a crime lord who peddles in every known vice, and is paranoid enough to allegedly slaughter entire families for someone daring to speak his name.
Granted, he’s portrayed as nuts, but this seems like a rather lame excuse to give him a character arc and set up a bit of the plot on the way to making him accept the fact that he’s indeed a ruthless kingpin and little else, since it’s easier to make drama out of a character like this rather than a villain who’s fully in control of himself.
But I seem to be in the minority here, and at the end of the day, it’s more a matter of personal taste than my thinking this was a bad direction for the show. D’Onofrio gives a stellar performance, as does everyone else.
Charlie Cox is Matt Murdock, who’s written perfectly as a conflicted man of principles, empathy, and good humor who struggles with his violent side in the face of the horrors he’s chosen to wage war upon. Elden Henson is Foggy Nelson, and manages to be warm, funny, and humane, and his presence goes a long way toward keeping this mostly gritty and bloody drama from veering into grimdark territory. Deborah Ann Woll is Karen Paige, and… yeah, you get the picture. I should also add that these three have terrific chemistry together, and I completely bought into their complicated friendships, which is essential for a show like this.
Ayelet Zurer plays the more villainous than usual Vanessa Marianna, the woman who would be Mrs. Fisk. Vondie Curtis-Hall plays an old and tired Ben Urich, and Toby Leonard Moore plays Fisk’s fanatically loyal right-hand toady James Westley, and once again, the acting from all three is terrific.
They also throw in Rosario Dawson playing an amalgamation of Daredevil supporting character Night Nurse and Luke Cage romantic interest Claire Temple, and I imagine she’ll show up in the upcoming Luke Cage series as well. She too gives a solid performance.
But I especially loved Scott Glenn as Matt’s blind asshole mentor Stick, a verbally and physically abusive warrior with a heart of gold who isn’t afraid to kill, or call blind young orphans stupid to their faces. He isn’t in this enough, but he’s a brilliant and hilarious dick when he is. Throw in Bob Gunton as Leonard Owlsley (AKA the Owl from the comics) and Rob Morgan as the inept (as he should be) gangster Turk, and you have a well-rounded cast of characters who all hail from the comics.
The fight scenes are excellent, though the absolute best is arguably in the second episode, where a bloody and beaten Matt Murdock takes on a dozen guys in a corridor in a fight that wouldn’t look out of place in a film like The Raid. And this brawl is only made more awesome by being done in a single long take. The cinematography throughout is terrific too, with the on-location New York setting coming to life thanks to the choice of filming the show handheld style, making it all feel as real as possible.
But the greatest strength of the show, and what sets it apart from the aforementioned Arrow and Batman movies, is that it isn’t afraid of its roots. This series is not only damn faithful to the source material, it’s filled with supporting characters and references throughout, setting up future storylines like “Shadowland” and “The Devil’s Hand” and having true to the source material nods to characters like Iron Fist (star of another upcoming series) and Elektra, as well as a couple of name drop tie-ins to Agents of SHIELD and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Kingpin aside—and as I said, most everyone agrees he’s done well anyway—this isn’t a show that makes unnecessary changes to the comic or shies away from what it is or what it’s based on. It may maintain a dark and gritty tone, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to forget that there are sorcerous ninja clans or evil magical old ladies out there. What makes this show work is that is knows exactly what made the comics work, it has faith in its fans and in the material they love, and it’s wonderful to see even the little touches, such as hiring an actor who looks exactly like Melvin Potter (the anti-villain Gladiator from the comics) in a relatively small but important role as Wilson Fisk’s tailor.
In other words, it’s a show made by people who not only love and understand and respect the character and the comic, but also trust the source material enough to let it speak for itself, and who manage to incorporate just the right balance of in-jokes and world-building, while letting this show be its own beast. This is a brilliant show, and I loved every minute of it. Bring on season two.