Recurring Cast: Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Rosario Dawson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Toby Leonard Moore, Ayelet Zurer, Bob Gunton and Vincent D’Onofrio
There are two ways to adapt a comic book superhero. The first is to know your source and have a field day. Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are the two heavy-hitters in the comic book series world (sorry, Flash and Gotham – you’re not up to standard), taking the comics and spewing them onto the screens. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but on the whole, it is always enjoyable, bringing the characters straight out of the graphic novels with colourful recklessness. With Daredevil, Netflix go down the second option. Much like with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Drew Goddard and Steven DeKnight ask, who would Matt Murdock be if he was in the real world? Sure, sometimes there is a little bit of knowing comic bookiness about it – a magic hammer is referenced, a Greek girl is mentioned from Murdock’s college days – but on the whole, Daredevil is a sobering, serious affair. And that is what makes it brilliant.
The realism just keeps the entire show grounded. For a show about a blind man who is suddenly gifted with the powers of heightened senses, it never feels silly or outrageous. The villains are terrifyingly real. There is no master assassin like Bullseye or Elektra here – these bad guys are the men in the shadows that pay off cops to look the other way and use finances to get the job done. Before the hero hiding his identity was always the usual ‘protecting the loved ones’ spiel that gave the writers an excuse to explore character. Here, it is painfully real, as characters are bumped off, simply for knowing too much about that one reporter who is asking too many questions. It doesn’t matter if the character has years of comic book canon – the moment DeKnight deems it narratively beneficial to put a bullet in the back of their head with reckless abandonment that would make the Walking Dead squirm, then you better believe we are waving goodbye to that beloved character. It makes Daredevil that much more intense and addictive. The smaller things are the key features that make the show so grounded in reality. For one, each fight rolls into one another. As an episode starts up, Murdock is still reeling from the punch-up from the previous episode. It seems like a silly thing to bring up, but when Arrow is busy racing forward with the next twist, it is satisfying to see a superhero show that isn’t in any rush to get where it is going. The lower level goons are used to their full potential. We remember the faces of every supporting character, so everyone feels like a cog to a much larger machine. The writing is clever and while sometimes the realism slows the story down to the point, where Daredevil cannot really be considered as essential viewing, rather something to check out if you are stuck on Netflix one evening, on the whole, Daredevil is never anything less than gripping.
Perhaps it is the fact that Daredevil is finally getting a story that makes the hero worthwhile. He was always the easiest Marvel character to ignore. He was a poor man’s Spiderman, Batman without the complexity. Here, Matt Murdock is a completely new figure to explore. He is not a hero like the Fantastic Four who simply wants to do good. He is not an anger-fuelled vigilante like Batman, taking out crime to avenge the deaths of his parents and to stop people from feeling the same. He is a man who simply cannot not be the Daredevil. He lays in bed at night, his heightened hearing making it impossible not to hear every police siren, every rape, every tears of a child getting beaten by a parent. Matt dons a mask and fights crime, because when faced with that, how can you not? Charlie Cox is the perfect choice to handle this new approach to the character. Sometimes the straight-faced Murdock is difficult to do too much with. He is quietly genius, brilliant but without the irresistible showmanship of Sherlock or House. He is by-the-book and blunt, his feelings buried down so deep that he emotes only when needed to. It is with those few moments of outbursts that Cox hammers home the character, especially in the final third of the season. Not to mention how hard it is to play a blind character, Murdock’s eyes never connecting with anyone and his actions carried out, separate from his pupils, something difficult to incorporate into a performance. Cox’s acting here is something that is appreciated on reflection, but when caught up in the moment of the episode, it is the supporting cast that shine. Any other show would have struggled with Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page, the victim from episode one that is worked into the season’s story arc. However, she never feels out of place, the writers giving her some of the best material. When her story peaks, Woll threatens to overshadow the rest of the cast, which is difficult when you consider Toby Leonard Moore’s silky smooth and sinister villain and Zurer’s endlessly interesting Vanessa.
Then there is Vincent D’Onofrio. With Wilson Fisk, he could have found his most nuanced performance to date. He is easily the star of the show, the viewers always waiting with anticipation for the next chance the actor will get to chew dialogue, either rasping it with a soft whisper or handling it with the skills and gravitas of a veteran stage performer. The Kingpin has always been one of the more three-dimensional villains in the comics, able to flick from bald-headed muscular gangster to a deeper villain, depending on the story arc. Goddard and DeKnight realise this and begin dissecting Fisk (note that the character is never called the Kingpin in the show), and seeing what they can make out of the character. When we first meet Fisk, he has been appropriately bigged up. He is a name whispered by the few who are allowed to know it. Murdock might be called the Devil by the papers, but Fisk is that voice in the shadows, the dark evil dripping from the corners of Hell’s Kitchen. However, when we finally meet him, he is nervously asking out Vanessa at an art gallery. The truth is Fisk is far more complex than the big bad that Daredevil has to go up against. He honestly believes that what he is doing is the right thing and, while some story elements fall down because we are never stopped to explain how Fisk’s crimes will end up advantageous for the city, never becomes a pantomime monster like Dark Knight Rise’s Bane or Avenger Assemble’s Loki, which would have been easy to do. Fisk sometimes doesn’t seem in control of his emotions. He is often vacant, detached from himself, almost as though he is aware that if he connects with his emotions, he is unable to make wise decisions. When he does let his crippling anger in, he is like a child that isn’t sure how to actually be angry. When Fisk in in a rage, there is no controlling or stopping him. It makes him unpredictable, many of his enemies meeting untimely deaths, because they assumed the Kingpin would be reasonable. Sometimes, he is only villainous, because we are aware if he is trapped in a room with another loved character and that rage kicks in, then there will only be one winner. Yet he is never anything less than redeemable, especially when paired with Zurer’s Vanessa, far more complex than Lady Macbeth. Perhaps the greatest thing about Fisk’s character is that, deep down, a part of us wants him to get away with it.
Sound good? The cherry on top is the fighting. Knowing that a realistic take on Daredevil is interesting, but not necessary good, Goddard decides that Murdock needs to be able to kick ass. Therefore, Murdock is a hero that is well versed in martial arts, able to go toe to toe with rooms full of goons and take ninjas head on. The first few episodes are breath-taking. The second episode in particular has one of my favourite TV moments of the year. One long tracking shot of Daredevil taking out a corridor full of Russian thugs. It is like if Oldboy was directed by the man who did The Raid. It is intense, you feel every bone shatter and Daredevil stops becoming a superhero movie, but an honest action thriller. Later on, the directional flourish begins to decline, story taking precedent over set-pieces. This is what hurts the show the most, in my books, the bar being set far too high early on. When a new director steps on board and over-edits the fights, it doesn’t have the same punch. The moves are good, Daredevil’s costume meaning the team can effortlessly switch between Charlie Cox and professional karate experts, so neither the acting or the fighting is sacrificed, but the editing tones it down far too much. You want Drew Goddard to direct the whole thing himself, or at least prompt the other directors to take a leaf out of his book. As a result, the finale isn’t quite as good as you want it to be. Good, but not quite there yet. See Season One as a promise for things to come. This has the opportunity to the benchmark for superhero series.
Final Verdict: Despite peaking early, Netflix’s Daredevil is the best take on the character to date. Beautifully acted, gritty realism and terrific fight choreography make it game for a binge-watching session at your earliest opportunity.