A man dressed in black stands atop a rooftop. A kaleidoscope of sounds echo from the shadowy streets of the vast metropolis below; police sirens, voices, laughter, screams, all forging into one disparate whole. A young boy cries out for his father as he is dragged away into the night. The man in black dives into action.
Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen. Welcome to Daredevil.
After much fanfare, Marvel Studios’ first foray into the realm of Netflix finally arrived this past Friday. With its brooding tone and violent nature, it’s safe to say that this new iteration of the blind lawyer turned vigilante of the night does more than enough to banish any memories one might have of the character’s much maligned 2003 theatrical outing.
Despite being set within the light hearted, family friendly blockbuster world that has come to define the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Daredevil is far removed from the colourful world of his Avengers and SHIELD counterparts. With Netflix, comes an air of freedom afforded to the creators that one wouldn’t see on the likes of ABC or even on the big screen.
While still firmly fixed within Marvel’s set universe, Daredevil is far more violent than your average Marvel project. People get hurt and people die. The Daredevil world is one of real consequence, where our characters pay for their mistakes and the price of doing the right thing is more often than not, perhaps too high a price than some characters would be willing to pay.
The Hell’s Kitchen of Daredevil’s world represents the dark corner of the MCU, a corner yet to be explored; the seedy underbelly, unseen by the likes of the Avengers, where the criminal element is left to fester, rotting in the shadows of a city still rebuilding in the wake of the devastating alien attack from Avengers Assemble. This is a place where iron suits, super soldiers and Norse gods have no place. Bathed in swathes of neon yellow streetlights, dark shadows and deep shades of red, this is a far more brutal and bloody world that Matt Murdock and his alter ego inhabit. Here the hero gets as much as he gives, bleeds savagely and questions his own morality.
Daredevil’s freshman season functions as you would expect. It’s an origin story, but the majority of the how, what and why is almost exclusively told through flashbacks. By the time we meet Matt Murdock, he’s already an embedded vigilante of the night, fighting the good fight, trying to “make his city a better place”. The focus of the show is very much on the here and now.
How Matt was blinded, the discovery of his heightened senses, the relationship with his father and his training is all dealt with over the course of a couple of episodes in flashbacks. These are never dwelled upon but give us enough information to allow the story to move forward. One terrific episode deals with Matt’s training at the hands of Stick (a wonderful guest appearance from Scott Glenn), which offers up the reasoning behind the moral conflict working on Matt as he goes about his nightly jaunts and the complexity that goes with it.
In fact, if one were to compare Daredevil to any on screen comic book adaptation, its closest cousin would be that of Batman Begins. With similar designs and colour schemes, building on the same themes, Matt Murdock bares more resemblance to DC’s Dark Knight rather than his MCU counterparts.
Murdock constantly seeks justification for his actions, trying to decide whether the end result would justify the act of killing. Couple that with the character’s own spirituality and Catholicism, and it seems that Murdock may be the most rich and compelling comic book hero in some time. What helps is that Daredevil is never really Daredevil. Throughout the majority of the season, Murdock’s vigilante is rarely referred to by his alter ego. The writers and the creative team, although well aware that they exist in a comic book universe, never forget that behind the mask there lies a human being.
Charlie Cox nails the role with perfection. As well as looking the part, Cox brings a vulnerability to the role, especially when sharing scenes with Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson and Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple. In fact, it could be argued that Cox delivers the finest performance in all of Marvel’s output thus far. But let us not restrict ourselves to the hero. This show also belongs to Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk. One of the key problems that has plagued the MCU since its inception, has been its lack of a memorable villain. Yes, we have Loki, but out of eleven movies and two TV shows, one truly great villain just isn’t enough.
Wilson Fisk is a magnificent creation. Rich, complex and utterly terrifying, Fisk represents the flipside to Murdock. Just like Murdock, all Fisk wants is to make his city a better place, and indeed there are many subtle references and mirror images throughout the show as to how Matt and Fisk are very much alike. It doesn’t always pay off, but Fisk is so memorable and D’Onofrio so terrific in the role, that whenever he’s on screen, he fascinates you.
Again, what makes Fisk such a success is that despite his villainy, he is still just a human being. He may run a criminal empire, but he is still subject to the same foibles and follies as everyone else: he struggles to ask a woman out on a date, he has trouble speaking in public and he still has this desire to protect his dear old Mum. An extended flashback into Fisk’s childhood reveals a fragile and nervous young boy who simply wants to impress a father. His right hand man, Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), is not just a henchman but a best friend, a confidante and an advisor. The burgeoning relationship that develops between Fisk and Ayelet Zurer’s art dealer, Vanessa, is also strangely moving, affording another layer of humanity to a role that could’ve so easily been exaggerated and comical.
There are a few flaws of course. A subplot in the early episodes involving Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page and Hensen’s Foggy Nelson ultimately goes nowhere, with them simply going out drinking and flirting, something which is frustratingly dragged out for far too long. In fact Woll’s Page is the weakest element of the show. Meanwhile Rosario Dawson, such an effective and strong performer, is given nowhere near enough screen time, although if rumour is to be believed, then we may be seeing a lot more of her character stretched across the other Netflix comic book shows that will be heading our way.
In spite of these flaws, Marvel’s first foray into Netflix has been a marvellous success. A grounded and brutal comic book tale that isn’t afraid to dig deep with its characters and investigate the dark corners of the world that they inhabit. Needless to say, if Daredevil is anything to go by, it bodes well for the rest of the Defenders.