In the past, Hypothetical Audience, I’ve mentioned how I’m somewhat a fan of the current crop of Marvel Comics-based films, albeit with some heavy caveats. As is a natural progression, they’ve also done a couple of shorter-format series (I’m not going to call them TV for reasons that will swiftly become apparent), helmed by Agents of SHIELD. I will freely admit that that particular series didn’t gel well with me, something about how the characterisations were handled and the story was paced really gelled badly. Now recently, I have been getting into this whole Netflix streaming thing, mostly for old Graham Linehan sitcoms and the American remake of House of Cards, so when news of Marvel’s recent deal with them came through I was initially apprehensive. However, when the first fruit of this collaboration, Daredevil, hit the… series of tubes (what’s an appropriate equivalent of Airwaves for the internet), I was quite surprised by the amount of good press it got compared to it’s forebears. I decided to give it a go, and y’know what? It didn’t totally suck!
For those unfamiliar with the comics, Daredevil is the story of Matt Murdock, a man who was blinded by chemicals as a child. As is de rigueur in super hero comics, this accident also boosts his other senses into the super human range. Fast forwards a few years, he’s become a lawyer by day and masked New York vigilante by night, with the usual array of colourful allies and villains, with his regular nemesis being crime boss Wilson “King Pin” Fisk. As is the norm with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the series follows the comic’s basic outline fairly closely, albeit dropping the codenames pretty much outright. Over the thirteen episodes, the series forms Daredevil’s origin story, fleshing out his world and starting him down the route to being the “icon” he is in the comic world. While the story is fairly self contained, it does follow the usual MCU thing of having little details that cross between other works, for instance New York is still rebuilding after the abortive alien invasion in Avengers Assemble (which is what we in the land of bat-shit insane ITV fantasy dramas called The Avengers) and one of Murdock’s boxer father’s opponents in a flash back turns up in Agents of SHIELD. Whats useful, however, is that this show doesn’t rely upon foreknowledge that much, and can be enjoyed without having seen other Marvel films or series. Indeed it could be a perfect gateway into the MCU for new viewers.
The first thing that struck me about this series is the tone. Compared to the current crop of Marvel films, Daredevil is much, much darker, and constantly makes an issue of the morality of both the vigilante and his criminal opponent. While it may seem like a cliché, the old “We’re not so different, you and I” trope gets rolled out a couple of times, and is entirely justified. Apparently the writers were trying to emulate Frank “Sin City” Miller’s time on the comics, and it comes through in spades. Unlike the dark-age of comics, though, it’s not overdone. The world presented has an almost noir-esque feel to it at times. Compared to the more tongue-in-cheek action that the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe adheres to, it’s a bit jarring if you go between the two, but not in a way that ruins the show.
The acting in Daredevil is one of it’s strong points, though interestingly Murdock, played by Charlie Cox, is the least interesting of the regular cast. Due deference to Cox, he isn’t a bad actor and plays the lead better than expected, however compared to the other leading roles he’s a bit on the flat and uninteresting side. The stand out characters for me at least was Fisk and Foggy. Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson started off as if he was going to be the tone-breaking “Wacky Sidekick” present in so many otherwise fine works, but over the course of the series he manages to become something of an endearing character. While he keeps the kind of loveable klutz act up, the rest of the world seems set against him, and Henson acts this wonderfully. The flat out best performance is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, who only appears on screen from episode three onwards and flat out steals the show. While this Fisk retains the ruthless streak and temper associated with the Kingpin in other mediums, D’Onofrio’s take has a surprisingly endearing social awkwardness about him. Fisk’s plot throughout the series includes courting gallery owner Vanessa Marianna (played by Ayelet Zurer), and despite his best efforts, comes across as totally unprepared and surprisingly out of his depth for a man who controls a city’s organised crime rings. Fisk is certainly a villain I’d want to see more of in the wider MCU.
Another area in which Daredevil excels is the directing. Throughout the series extensive use is made of shots more at home in noir thrillers than a short form TV show. Fight scenes, too, are very stylishly shot, culminating with an amazing fight in the second episode that’s one continuous shot across about 5 minutes, to the point the action actually leaves shot and continues off screen for a short spell. Lighting is also used to great effect. As well as the noirish tone, the moody lighting (or lack thereof) in some scenes is used to accentuate the characters. Murdock, being the blind vigilante (who to his own admission doesn’t need light) is almost always in shadow while in the mask, whereas villain-with-good-publicity Fisk often turns up in brighter scenes, especially later on when he finally takes to the public light. Even the city itself gets in on the act, with the Hell’s Kitchen Murdock is trying to save constantly poorly lit and full of shadows in contrast to the brighter world of the redevelopments threatening to sweep it away.
I did have some issues with it as a series, however. While across the thirteen episodes of this first series, the main plot arc remains pretty tight and generally avoids the filler episodes that blight even the good longer length US TV series’, occasionally things are introduced and given significance that don’t appear to go anywhere. A recurring character of the local Catholic priest (and only one in Manhattan apparently) is introduced as something of a confidant for Murdock and set up to have fairly significant info on him, but nothing is really made of it. Similarly, Murdock’s mentor Stick turns up for a single episode, which admittedly has some important character development, but then simply get’s told to bugger off by Murdock and he complies, only future mention of his presence was a trashed apartment and a slight spanner in the bad guys works. Maybe both plot points will be picked up in the second series, but they were rather conspicuously loose ended.
While the direction in general was quite good, occasionally things were dwelled upon a bit too much, especially during fight scenes. Some action beats went on far beyond necessary, and while this worked for one or two (like the aforementioned single shot fight in episode 2) it’s a near constant across the series. Cox is certainly an actor who can convincingly take a hit remarkably well, and a lot of the time you can see believable enough pain when his character gets beaten across a room, the fact it’s near constant tends to drag pacing down a bit and detracts from some of the less-action orientated scenes that can be as immersive as the fights.
As I said, the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe TV outing left me a little iffy about the milage achievable with the concept, which was a shame, as Agents of SHIELD’s Agent Coulson is one of my favourite inventions of the “Phase 2” MCU films. Daredevil managed to provide a wonderful counterpoint to this, and held my interest certainly a lot better than it’s predecessor. Perhaps this was due to a shorter season and ability to watch all in one go thanks to choosing the Netflix platform over broadcast media, each making the series-long plot arcs easier to follow and harder to miss episodes and be left with no clue as to whats going on. Part of me reckons maybe they should have started with Daredevil, as it’s certainly the better series, and an ideal gateway piece to the MCU as a whole. Certainly they’ve made me a fan of a character I wasn’t too fond of previously (although that may have been down to the kind of naff Ben Afleck film), and I’m left waiting with anticipation for the second series which has been promised for some time next year, as well as seeing how things link into the rest of the cinematic universe. Now all I have to do is find the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.
And Now The Inappropriate Score: I give Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil Season 1 5 masked vigilantes out of a possible 7 overcrowding the damn city!
—Marvelverse New York always struck me as a very dangerous place to live
—Daredevil series 1 is available right this second on Netflix