Whether you love them, hate them, or exist somewhere in between, you can’t deny that on the big screen at least, Marvel Studios has had some of the most consistent output from a major studio of recent years. They have had more mixed results on television, namely in the entertaining but uneven Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as well as the somewhat more accomplished Agent Carter, both of which are broadcast on ABC. Daredevil, however, is an entirely different sort of animal. Produced as the first in a multiple-series deal with Netflix and spearheaded by Drew Goddard (Lost, Alias) and Steven S. DeKnight (the Spartacus series on Starz), Daredevil is a pulpy, violent, and thrilling series that captures not only the essence of the Marvel character, but a feeling of urban despair and buried emotional pain reminiscent of classic film noir.
Charlie Cox nails the lead role, playing Matt Murdock with a powerful combination of buried pain and boundless determination. What sets this series apart from many others in the genre is that the Murdock identity is just as important to the success of the mission as Daredevil (or “The Man in the Mask”, as he is called for most of the season). Matt Murdock begins the season opening a law practice with his best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson, whom I will always know as slapshot maestro Fulton Reed from The Mighty Ducks) in a blue-collar neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. This gives the early episodes of the series a nice balance of martial arts action and law procedural, showing how justice can be served both in the courtroom (where Murdock’s superhuman senses prove effective at gauging the jury’s reaction) and on the street (where they allow him to take on a whole gang of thugs single-handed). Later, with the introduction of newspaper reporter Ben Urich (played by Vondie Curtis-Hall with an effective balance of idealism and world-weariness), the legal element is mostly replaced by a crusading reporter story, as the villains seem to be in the pockets of half of Hell’s Kitchen’s police and all of their businesses, which obviously means it will take more direct action to bring them down.
The head of this crime syndicate (an uneasy union of Russian, Chinese, and Japanese organized crime families) is a mysterious figure named Wilson Fisk, a man so cautious about his identity that he doesn’t even let his allies and underlings speak his name. Fisk is played by the always underappreciated Vincent D’onofrio, and it’s a fascinating performance, frightening and intimidating, but also painfully human and at times sympathetic. Fisk is the sort of crime lord who tries to avoid getting his hands dirty whenever possible, but will still take your damn head off should you dare embarrass him when he’s on a date. He believes that he’s doing the right thing to clean up the neighborhood (although in his case he plans to do it by tearing the old buildings down and replacing them with modern architecture), and like Matt Murdock, won’t let anything stand in his way.
Aside from Murdock and Fisk, Deborah Ann Woll has the other major role in the series, playing an early client of Nelson and Murdock after she’s framed for the murder of a man tied to Fisk’s financial empire, and she later becomes their secretary and valuable ally in gathering evidence and unraveling the web of corporate secrecy that ties the scheme together. Woll does good work and shows great chemistry with the other actors, but suffers a little in comparison because her character is less dynamic (an almost inevitable problem with female characters in the superhero genre, it seems). Nonetheless, the writers of the show do a good job of giving even the smaller characters layers and personalities. Foggy, for instance, looks at first to be simply a goofy comic relief sort, but become more and more endearing as the season progresses. By the end, he is firmly established as the heart of the show. Scott Glenn comes close to stealing the entire show in episode 7 as Murdock’s cynical mentor, while Rosario Dawson is another important ally, playing a nurse who helps stitch Daredevil up in between missions.
And the injuries Daredevil sustains are far from superficial. More so than almost any other show on TV, Daredevil makes its action feel visceral, brutal, and real. Bones are broken, blood is spilled, and heroes and villains alike feel the consequences. A battle sequence at the end of episode 2 is incredibly effective not only because it is shot in an unbroken take, but because Daredevil (who was already severely injured before he arrived on scene) actually moves and fights as if he were in pain. He limps, lurches, and doubles over, but is able to succeed through a combination of adrenaline and sheer force of will. That is more impressive to me than any of the overelaborate and showy action sequences from something like The Raid.
The show isn’t perfect, of course… as I mentioned, the female characters tend to get the short end of the stick drama-wise, and I would have liked to see the law procedural element play a more prominent role in the story, but as a piece of dark, pulpy entertainment, Daredevil hits all of the right notes and could well signal a more accomplished future for Marvel on the small screen.