The funny thing about Marvel studios as of late is that they’re trying really hard to distract people from the fact that they deal in superheroes. In the movies, they’ve turned Captain America into Ethan Hunt and made big money putting a raccoon and a talking tree in space. The same goes for their work on television, with another Mission: Impossible rift (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and a World War II spy drama (Agent Carter). Continuing with their progressing conquest of all forms of media, Marvel is now in a deal with Netflix to produce more TV adaptations. Their first shot is a tricky one with an adaptation of one of Marvel’s most acclaimed costumed crime-fighters: the man without fear, Daredevil. Not only is this Marvel’s second attempt at the character after the underwhelming 2003 movie with Ben Affleck, but it also creates the challenge of l making the hero of Hell’s Kitchen enjoyable for the new Marvel generation. In this case, they pull no punches.
Daredevil premiered its entire debut season on Netflix on April 10, and it’s Marvel’s first out-and-out successful TV show since The Avengers were featured in Disney stores. Created by writer/director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), Daredevil jumps into the tale of blind attorney Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) as he and his partner, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) establish an independent law firm in Hell’s Kitchen. Murdock and Nelson’s first big case is defending Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a secretary at a construction company who wakes up in her apartment with blood on her hands and a dead man on the floor. Page believes she’s being framed for murder to keep her from exposing an embezzlement scheme. Keeping the scheme under wraps is Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. The Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio), an organized crime boss looking to clean up Hell’s Kitchen. Little do these people know that Mr. Murdock dons a skin-tight black attire and roams the city fighting crime.
Being on Netflix is certainly appropriate for the dark atmosphere of Daredevil, because there’s no Agent Coulson(esque?)-sunshine here. Daredevil is a dirty, brutal and dark crime drama that owes as much to David Fincher as it does Stan Lee. Everything is either faded into near darkness (like an exceptional one-shot fight scene between Daredevil and a hallway of Russian gangsters) or exposed to unflattering fluorescent white light (the first physical look at Kingpin as he stares at a white painting in an art gallery), which makes nothing seem polished or staged. Daredevil takes advantage of its little restrictions on Netflix with its graphic violence and expertly staged fight scenes in condensed settings that hark to Oldboy or The Raid. But the violence here isn’t graphic for the sake of being graphic, in fact, it’s kept to a restrained amount on certain episodes (especially in the first half of the season) to keep focus on the story. Admittedly, the violence somewhat overshadows the story after the seventh episode, but it’s well choreographed and doesn’t succumb to shaking-camera syndrome.
The acting is also top-notch, with Charlie Cox (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) embodying the wholesome and friendly Matt Murdock and the brooding intensity of Daredevil. He mixes the two together in solitary moments and shows his battle scars. There are the obligatory flashbacks which provide backstory and an entire episode dedicated to how Murdock got his skills, but Cox shows that Murdock isn’t invincible. Cox has great support in Elden Henson (leagues away from Fulton Reed in The Mighty Ducks) and Deborah Ann Woll (funnier and more heartfelt than her work in True Blood) as his legal colleagues. There’s also the question of killing while in costume in scenes with civilian nurse Claire Temple (the always wonderful Rosario Dawson). The cherry on this ice cream sundae of acting talent is Vincent D’Onofrio, who acts circles around everyone else as Kingpin. Instead of just being a big black suit with a cue ball for a head, D’Onofrio brings a great amount of sympathy to the character, especially with his backstory revealed in the eighth episode. He’s soft-spoken, intelligent, compassionate and vicious all at the same time. I know award shows not voted by texting frown on acting in comic-book media, but someone better give D’Onofrio an acting trophy for this soon.
Marvel’s television output has felt very safe, so it’s refreshing to see them take a risk again with Daredevil. It doesn’t rely on the presence of Daredevil onscreen to feed fanboys and it doesn’t sugarcoat details to bring in the Disney crowd. Daredevil feels strong and independent, not attending to a formula. It’s barely even a superhero show, but a gritty crime drama with a touch of pulp. It’s sure to have competition (Marvel has two more Netflix shows on the way), but like Battlin’ Jack Murdock in the ring, Daredevil will just get up and hit harder.