It’s no secret I enjoy the new age of comic book adaptations. I think the work Marvel has done in bringing their iconic characters to the screen has been nothing short of amazing, even if I have my issues with the Thor films in particular ( I just don’t think they’re all that entertaining). Now, Marvel is adding another television show to their stable of filmic comic interpretations, joining the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the superior Agent Carter. This time around, they’ve taken to Netflix, where all 13 episodes of their latest, Daredevil, are now available. For those of you who think the previous television work has been sub-par, let me tell you that Marvel’s new Daredevil ain’t your daddy’s comic show.
Daredevil has, to me, long been Marvel’s answer to DC’s Batman comics. Unlike the Dark Knight, Daredevil does have native superpowers, but he is less concerned with other costumed supervillains than with corruption and crime in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. He is a grittier type of character, and show creator Drew Goddard, best known to readers of this site as the co-writer and director of The Cabin in the Woods, understands that Daredevil exists in the same world as the other superheroes, but is cut from a substantially different cloth.
The series spreads its origin story out in small bites over several episodes, where we get glimpses of young Matt Murdock, whose father is a boxer and not a very good one, injured in a car accident and splashed in the eyes with some sort of chemical. The Murdocks, they say, get hit, but they know how to get back up, and it’s this philosophy that drives Matt Murdock in his adulthood. After the accident leaves him blind, but with his other four senses heightened to a nearly-magical degree, the older Matt Murdock finds himself living in a “world on fire,” both metaphorically and often literally. His attempts to stand for the little guy within the bounds of his law practice, where he practices with college pal Foggy Nelson, are often thwarted by the powerful forces at work in Hell’s Kitchen. Thus, he takes to the streets at night to aid those for whom the law fails.
Much of the first season involves the uncovering of a conspiracy, crimes which appear unconnected at first reveal themselves to be the machinations of a mysterious central figure. If you’ve seen the trailer (or ever picked up a Daredevil comic), you know that the foe Murdock will face is Wilson Fisk, known in the comics as Kingpin. The show does an admirable job of cloaking this figure in mystery before giving us the most interesting take on the character of Fisk I can recall.
As I mentioned before, this isn’t the lighter fare currently airing on ABC. Daredevil is a violent, dark show with it’s roots firmly planted in the work of Frank Miller’s run on the comic. As played by Charlie Cox, Matt Murdock is at odds with himself. He is a lapsed Catholic, who is haunted by his faith, and still returns to the church for absolution or, at least, some solace that his nightly violence is justified. Much of the series concerns itself with the dark morality at play here, and whether Murdock is becoming what he fights in the process of exacting his punishment for crimes against the weak. He is a tortured soul, and this internal conflict makes him dangerous to himself and others at inopportune times.
He is surrounded by characters that remain fun, despite the somber tone of the series. Deborah Ann Woll from True Blood is fantastic as Karen Page, a victim of crime-turned-secretary for Matt and his partner Foggy Nelson, played by Elden Henson. Matt’s only real ally in his role as a vigilante (never referred to directly as Daredevil for much of the run) is Claire Temple, a nurse whose evenings are frequently occupied by Murdock appearing on her doorstep, battered and bloody and in need of care. All of the supporting cast is quite good, though Woll is the real standout from this group, and there remain questions about her character that carry past the first season and leave me anxious to see these questions answered.
No discussion of this show would be complete without mentioning Vincent D’Onofrio’s turn as Wilson Fisk. The series places Fisk in opposition to Murdock, though their goals are the same – to change Hell’s Kitchen and make a better world. D’Onofrio’s performance is odd and jarring, speaking in a gravelly staccato, but implying a rage we see boil over several times with gruesome results. We understand his motives and his capacity for violence, but, much like Murdock, the series is more concerned with the question of how Fisk sees himself. Both Murdock and Fisk are working to define who they are when they look in the mirror – are they hero or villain or something in between? “Choose your fate,” one character says to Fisk, “or fate will choose for you.” It’s this question that haunts both protagonist and antagonist throught the first season, and the answers are found in satisfying ways.
As I mentioned, this is a violent show. Unlike the bloodless series on ABC and even the rather tame approach to violence in the films, this series is bloody and often brutal. The fight scenes are exciting, and the repercussions are occasionally graphic. Also, thanks to its home on Netflix, the characters are free to toss in a few expletives where appropriate. All this to say that this is not a series for younger viewers. Be advised that they may come to you with questions you’re not thrilled to be answering if left to watch alone.
There are a few moments of blatant emotional manipulation through the course of the series, but they are small complaints given the accomplishment of this show. It is brooding, compelling, occasionally grisly viewing that doesn’t require the watcher to be a fan of Daredevil or comics in general to be thoroughly entertaining. If you enjoyed Nolan’s take on Batman, I can’t imagine you won’t like what Goddard and his team have done with Daredevil. If you are already given to these kinds of stories, it’s one of the best comic adaptations to come along. At the end of the season, my biggest complaint was that I wanted more, and what could be a better response than that?