I’ll start with this: I enjoyed Daredevil. But like its hero, it is flawed in profound ways. It’s hard to say what keeps it from being a great show: the flat-attempts at comic relief, the ambiguous and redundant plot, or character inconsistencies.
The best praise for the show comes a comparison to its parent, the MCU. Daredevil is very much the Iron Man of this Marvel-Netflix Defenders TV franchise. So much of what they present exists in a vacuum, as showrunner Steven DeKnight has said. It’s not like the then-uncast Jessica Jones or Luke Cage could stop by for a visit (those roles are since filled by Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter).
As such, it’s quite standalone with relatively few broader connections to the forthcoming series, let alone the films. This turns out to be just fine, as the focus is entirely on our show at hand. Which is good and bad. Here’s the breakdown.
1. Our hero and villain.
Charlie Cox as the titular vigilante and Vincent D’Onofrio as the crime lord Kingpin are fantastic, easily the best hero/villain relationship this side of Thor/Loki (which was wrung dry by the re-shoots on the abysmal Thor: The Dark World). Cox portrays the vulnerability of his blind character with his boyish charm and, at the same time, earns his prowess as a vigilante. I was surprised how much I liked his initial, simple black outfit.
D’Onofrio is nothing short of amazing. His Wilson Fisk is a mass of contradictions, a man-child with a love story and D’Onofrio’s physicality and 6 foot-plus frame does great justice for a villain this kid watched growing up on the Spider-Man cartoons of the 90s. Helps that I love D’Onofrio to begin with, but that is neither here nor there. He sells it when he is delivering brutal violence upon his enemies and sometimes his friends. Ayelet Zurer as his romantic partner Vanessa Marianna takes cues from Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood on House of Cards, with Lady Macbeth tendencies and her evil compliments Fisk’s ruthlessness.
Cox and D’Onofrio’s final boss fight is all kinds of awesome but waiting 13 hours for what is the equivalent of a final movie scene is part of the structural problems I discuss further down. Being a TV series and being on a Netflix, there are all sorts of opportunity to break convention but beyond the obvious, like adding bloody violence and darker content, Daredevil is pretty by-the-book in the superhero storytelling arena. It does succeed as a crime drama on the strength of these two actors and their execution is the elevation of the material.
It also does a good job of world-building, something that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films also did excellent work at. Their Gotham and this Hell’s Kitchen are living, breathing organisms with characters at every level of the socio-political structure, from junkies to crime lords to reporters to lawyers. The across-the-map representation gives depth to an otherwise drab backdrop.
At the edges of some episodes, there are the hints at a greater universe. The best episode of the bunch is the seventh, titled Stick, which introduces us to Murdock’s 90+ year-old blind ninja mentor played with dickish-crustiness by Scott Glenn. He is on an assassination mission and his target turns out to be a child (implied to either be a Hand disciple or an Inhuman). It hints at a coming war between the evil ninjas of the Hand and Stick’s group, the Chaste, as well as foreshadows the upcoming Iron Fist series.
This, along with the hints at Karen Page’s dark past, are straight from the grim-dark Frank Miller reinvention era and its easy to see Season 2 being an adaptation of Born Again, arguably the most famous and popular Daredevil story. All in all, it’s great at teasing out these otherworldly details that might stand-out in a show that obviously takes pride in its gritty, bloody take on the superhero/vigilante story. (after all, this show exists in a universe where Norse gods are real and aliens invaded New York not too long ago).
3. The action and character development
Action and fighting has long been in the purview of film, where epic battles can occur a la most superhero endings. But no fight this year caught the public’s eye like the 5 minute one-shot that ends Episode 2 (embedded at the bottom of this post), wherein Daredevil beats a series of Russian mobsters who kidnapped a child. But this isn’t Captain America or Thor swinging a shield or hammer. This is a lone man fighting 6 unscrupulous gangsters who do not go down with one punch. The sound of his labored and heavy breathing punctuates the fight and is what the viewer is left with at the end of the episode. There’s a distinct underdog nature that differentiates this Marvel vigilante from his more famous D.C. counterpart, Batman. While Murdock may have super senses, he is neither wealthy nor connected. From the law to his fists, Murdock fights using only what is available to him.
But here, the emphasis on Murdock’s humanity and his Catholicism do so much to make this show more than what it could have been. Matt is introduced in the confessional (giving a decidedly inappropriate confession) and his conversations with the priest played by New York character actor Peter McRobbie are highlights of the season. They discuss much of the issues surrounding Matt’s world and offer a cool, believable story space to explore Matt’s dilemma of breaking the law to save it, of desiring violence but fearing its consequences.
What Didn’t Work:
1. Exposition and comic relief.
The show sucks at it. Maybe because DeKnight came from a weekly format he didn’t necessarily know how to do what has become a fine art – crafting binge-watch material. Each episode is somewhere between 50 min. to 1 hr., as opposed to the broadcast and cable standard of roughly 43-45 minutes. Instead of using this ability to let the story breathe, it makes it stuffed with recaps of things that happened at the end of the last episode a.k.a. 10 minutes ago. On a weekly show, this isn’t unusual. While binge watching, it sticks out.
I didn’t have as big a problem with the supporting cast as other reviewers. I did think Elden Henson is a lesser Foggy (anything after Jon Favreau is going to be a downgrade), even though his material wasn’t lacking. I didn’t find his storyline grating but surely he and Karen could have been used better than picking up Daredevil’s breadcrumbs.
2. The ambiguity
Sometimes the greatest strength can be the greatest weakness. As good as D’Onofrio is, we don’t meet him until episode 3. The series builds him up by refusing to mention his name for the first couple episodes, which is fine. I’m all for making a threat credible and mysterious. But when we meet him, he’s an awkward man-child first, violent psychopath second (the last scene of Episode 4 is probably the bloodiest in the entire MCU) and brilliant criminal mastermind . . . never. We don’t see him be capable of his elaborate schemes until the end of the Episode 5 at the earliest and even then, it amounts basically to a lot of explosions, something I’d hope any superhero villain would deliver on.
From there, his romance with Vanessa takes a front row seat and instead of convincing us of this man’s effectiveness, we see him slip and fall as he clings to her against the wishes of his allies. Overall, it does amount to a great character study. But a great villain? Hard to say. DeKnight called this season Kingpin’s origin as well as Daredevil’s and indeed, the final episode has a monologue only D’Onofrio could sell about accepting his evilness and role as a villain. Too little, too late.
Once again, for all the things that Daredevil does right, it does the rest askew. As a result, they stick out further than they would in the broader film world. They’re callbacks to earlier superhero films and antics and don’t fit in the MCU, let alone in our media-saturated world that aired 4 TV-to-comic adaptations last season.
When I first heard about a 13-episode Daredevil series, I thought it was revolutionary, especially on Netflix. No one has done the kind of elongated origin where things are allowed to grow in a such way that they do not clash with the inevitable comic book elements that genre fans want to see: big, over-the-top villains, ridiculously-high stakes, and plenty of explosions come finale time.
But DeKnight doesn’t take advantage of his time, instead padding it so the costume reveal can be held until the last 20 minutes of the last episode, a colossal error if ever there was one. This is compounded by the even worse last scene, which indulges in the exact cliches that I thought the story had analyzed away. Once again, aliens invaded New York and were stopped by 6 superheroes who call themselves the Avengers. Is calling a masked vigilante in a red costume Daredevil really comical anymore, or even surprising? Apparently not for the other characters, but definitely not for a lot of viewers. We’re watching a show named Daredevil. We, the viewers, know what we’re getting. We don’t need all the time it takes to get here. Cut it in half? Now we’re talking.
In this way, it feels more like an extended prologue than the good stuff. I speak as an unabashed lover of Batman Begins but The Dark Knight is in another league entirely. Indeed, the two films hardly connect plot-wise. The difference is, The Dark Knight is a Batman story and Batman Begins is a Bruce Wayne story. This season has been Matt Murdock’s and Wilson Fisk’s journeys. If Season 2 does indeed adapt Born Again, we are in for Dark Knight-level shit next year. I’m pulling for the creators to take this double and turn it into a home run.
The Nutshell: Recommended
Daredevil is a worthy addition for any fan of the MCU, but new or unfamiliar viewers will find many of the idiosyncracises repetitive or annoying. Expectations were met but inconsistently, with too many story highs and lows. It seems 2 hours is not enough and 13 hours is too much for any given origin story. Nonetheless, it is a fun experience and Season 2 has the potential to go all Godfather, Part II or Wrath of Khan on our blind hero. I’ll be there. Will you?
Standout Episodes: Ep. 2: Cut Man, Ep. 7: Stick