Darkness, Imprisoning Me: Netflix's Daredevil Is The Best Superhero Show You've Ever Seen
Note: This covers only the first six episodes. Please, no spoilers in the comments.
There was a moment when I was watching The Dark Knight for the first time when I thought, “This is it. This is the Batman and Joker I’ve waited for. It’s not perfect, but it’s so close that it may as well be.” That’s the feeling I got by the end of the first episode of Netflix’s new Daredevil, a television series based on the Marvel comic book character of the same name.
Forget the 2003 film adaptation. Scrub it from your mind. Pretend that Affleck never donned the red tights. This is the Daredevil you’ve been waiting for. Matt Murdock, the rambunctious son of Battlin’ Jack Murdock, a tomato can of a boxer who takes a beating far better than he gives one, is blinded in a chemical accident. That curse came with a gift — all of his other senses are heightened, to the point where he can hear and smell and feel things well beyond normal human capabilities. He grows up to become a down-on-his luck attorney who by night becomes a vigilante, seeking to strike back at the criminal element that is taking over Hell’s Kitchen, the part of New York City that he calls home.
That’s the origin, in very broad strokes, and the show does a terrific job of starting us at the beginning of this tale without being too heavy-handed with the exposition. The chemical accident is a simple, short, but well-executed flashback to open the series, and then we’re in the present, with Murdock (Charlie Cox) starting his own law firm with his friend and partner Foggy Nelson (Eldin Henson). Their first case involves a terrified young woman who would go on to become a larger part of their lives, Karen Paige (Deborah Ann Woll), and eventually bring Murdock to clashing with a mysterious, terrifying crime lord (Vincent D’Onofrio).
I’m not going to talk too much about the show itself, because its worth wading into with as little information as possible. Instead, let’s just talk about how many things it does right. Because the show, created by Drew Goddard, does so many things right. It nails the tone of the comic, making Murdock a charismatic, dedicated, but also clever and witty character. At the same time, there’s a darkness in him, a dedication to eradicating the criminal element that borders on obsessive. He’s no Batman. There’s no tech, no Batcave. Murdock operates out of a crummy apartment, works at a battered-looking office, and uses no weapons (at the beginning, at least) except his own body. He doesn’t have any body armor. He just has a black suit, a mask, some rather unusual sensory abilities, and his own willpower.
There are numerous facets of the show that make it so intriguing. The stories are all intertwined, with various criminal factions vying for power, and that struggle is tangled and brutal. The cases that Nelson and Murdock take are labyrinthine in their complexity and the stories behind them are deep and nuanced. The villains are rarely stock characters, but instead as interesting as they are often unnerving (as of yet - six episodes in - there are no superpowered villains). All of this is because the show’s writing is fantastic — colorful, mature, with uncommon depth not just for a superhero show, but for any show.
It’s helped by the cast, which is uniformly excellent. Cox crushes as Murdock, driven and determined, even as he’s getting his ass handed to him on a nightly basis. And he does — Murdock (taking a page from Arrow, so far he has no moniker, known thus far only as “the man in black”) fights hard and fights well, but lives his life battered and bruised, often fighting with little to no gas left in the tank. This translates itself into not just a world-weariness, but also a soulful kind of loneliness, even in the presence of his friends. He’s in constant pain, and must always hide that pain as much as he hides his nighttime activities.
The supporting cast is great, and the chemistry and camaraderie between Murdock, Nelson, and Paige is utterly delightful. Their moments of seriousness are solemn and filled with concern for each other, and the moments of levity are warm and genuine. The rest of the support — Rosario Dawson as Claire, a nurse that Murdock encounters who helps patch him up when needed, Vondie Curtis Hall as the dogged reporter Ben Urich, Toby Leonard Moore as Wesley, the right hand of D’Onofrio’s character, and of course, D’Onofrio himself — are all wonderful in their own right, but more importantly, each one has surprising depth to their character, with human, relatable histories and backstories. The characters are fleshed out to a surprising degree given how little time we’ve spent with them, and it bodes well for the future.
One of the highlights is, of course, the fight choreography. Daredevil does fascinating things with light and darkness, playing with them throughout each scene as if they are characters all of their own. This plays into the combat, as well, often rendering it murky and shadowy, but never so much that it obscures what is happening. That results in an atmosphere that is dark and unpredictable, and the fights are so fast and savage that it all ties together beautifully. The choreography itself is breathless, brutal, and gripping. It’s well beyond anything else I’ve seen on television, and it makes it terrifyingly compelling. The highlight comes at the end of episode two, when Murdock must brawl through a tight, dimly lit hallway crawling with Russian thugs. He’s already running on empty, battered and bloody and slowed down. He uses the tight quarters to his advantage, and the entire scene, a mere three and a half minutes, is tense and grueling to watch, but goddamn if it isn’t impeccably shot — and all in a single, visceral take at that.
Daredevil is as close to perfect as it could probably be, and I say that as a vociferous fan of the comic book. The characters are all solid reflections of their comic book counterparts, and it captures the mood of writers like Bendis, Miller, and Brubaker. But it also has its own rhythm and flow, a kind of moody intensity that’s broken up by moments of genuine warmth between its characters — both the good ones and the bad. Every element — the criminals, the cops, the lawyers, the media, even Murdock’s struggle with his Catholic guilt — is explored with at least some degree of detail, while mostly avoiding lazy exposition. It uses a number of clever elements to tell its stories — a prime example being its depiction of the neighborhood it takes place in. Hell’s Kitchen isn’t the rough spot it once was, so the show’s conceit is that it’s backslid in the wake of the alien invasion from The Avengers, thus explaining the rapidly, cancerous growth of criminality. It’s smart, dark, grim, fun, and it’s just damn good television.
Check back in a few days for Part Two, where we’ll talk about the final half of the series and dive into the overall stories a bit more deeply.