A consistently engaging cast, tone, and well-made action help Daredevil overcome the slow, too-safe patches.
Binge-watching a TV show is not the way to go if you want to come at it with some objectivity. At a point you develop a stockholm syndrome like relationship with it. Despite the flaws, you can only see what you like. With nearly all 13 episodes going above the 50-minute mark, Daredevil is exactly the show that Netflix deserved from Marvel (or vice versa). With the right mix of acting, writing, and a tone that sits well the show invites binge-watching. It is not however, the show that the audience or Marvel needed.
Daredevil tells the origin story of the comic book superhero. Blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) works with his partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and their secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) to improve Hell’s Kitchen a.k.a New York. However, Matt’s night time activities as a masked vigilante fighting organised crime bring him into contact with corrupt cops, Russian mobsters, and the mysterious Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) who is in charge of them all.
Matt Murdock is a superhero. There is no getting around that. The level to which his senses are heightened is unreal. In the comics he can do many different things. Yet the show relies on the audience knowing all of this beforehand. There is little to no visual communication of Matt’s powers. For its faults, the 2003 Daredevil movie starring Ben Affleck did a great job of illustrating how he ‘sees.’ In the comics, his hearing and other senses all combine to give him total 360 degree awareness. Yet in the name of ‘realism’ and in furiously distancing the show from the (unjustly) unpopular film, his powers and abilities are played down. It is to the show’s detriment. The references to ‘the incident’ of the Chitauri attack, and iron suits feel glib, and are thin on the ground. Daredevil at this point is not in a position to impact the cinematic Universe, but after a while it is all too easy to forget that in a skyscraper in the city centre, a 90-year old soldier, an enormous green monster, and a literal god are hanging out. In this show the costume he gets in the end is ugly and incomplete, whilst a newspaper gives him the eponymous moniker in one of the last scenes. The show could and absolutely should have leaned into the adherent weirdness of the superhero genre.
That is not to say that the show is a failure. On the contrary, the investigative crime drama aspect of the show is a fresh approach to superhero stories, yet is not explored enough. Nelson and Murdock have had maybe three clients at most by the end of the show. Just as with his crime-fighting persona, the series is an origin story for their law practice. Yet it often does not play a role in the proceedings. While Foggy, Karen, and journalist Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) pursue a tenement case, Murdock is already ahead of them as Daredevil. Matt’s lawyering needs affect his vigilantism and vice versa, as it does in the comics. Here that dynamic is minimal. Given this divide, it is amazing that the show works as well as it does.
This is partly due to some excellent action sequences. The memorable hallway fight in episode two, and Daredevil’s stealthy takedown of bad guys in episode four are just two examples of the good action. His fighting ability is not consistent although the quality of the sequences are. Meanwhile the show is full of interesting characters. Some of them are wasted and seem inconsequential: Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple lifts the few episodes she appears in, despite being almost completely unimportant. Others, like Toby Leonard Moore’s James Wesley, are worth every minute of screen time and are given plenty. Cox and D’Onofrio are fantastic. The former plays Daredevil well, Matt Murdock even better. He is funny, charming, and quietly commanding. Meanwhile D’Onofrio turns Wilson Fisk into one of the most interesting and likeable villains yet. Violent, imposing, and slightly emotionally stunted, it makes for a surprising acting choice. He is also not written as villainous, more as an anti-hero in the vein of Walter White.
Daredevil is a show with so many good things to enjoy. It is beautifully shot. It has plenty of well written dialogue, so that even when scenes and episodes are needlessly long it can be a pleasure. The tone (and Cox’s costume voice) risk being compared to Nolan-era Batman, yet will undoubtedly still work for the majority of viewers. If there is a second season (which is uncertain, given the four other shows being developed for Netflix by Marvel), one hopes they tighten it up, cut out the unnecessary baggage, and embrace the Marvel world entirely.
Daredevil is available now on Netflix