Marvel’s Daredevil is not only, as the first of Netflix’s five planned comic book series that all take place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Netflix’s most ambitious series to date; it’s also an instant classic for the streaming site, one that roars out of the gate with the addictiveness of Orange Is the New Black and manages to make its slow build and teasing reveals much more thrilling than Bloodline. It’s a dark, violent, and bloody adaptation that is prime for binge-watching. The only reason you’ll want to pause between episodes is to prolong the viewing experience; the 12 episodes tell a fully realized story, yet the series (and the performances) are so good that it’s over too soon.
Daredevil begins with the backstory: At nine years old, Matt Murdock was blinded by radioactive chemicals that heightened his other senses. Raised by his father, a gentle, patient, and small-time boxer, Matt learned what all superheroes must learn: how to take a beating, and how to get back up again. Fast-forward to the present, and Matt (Charlie Cox) is an attorney, along with his best friend/partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and their first-client-turned-secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). But, of course, he leads a double life. At night, he’s a superhero — though he’s not yet referred to as “Daredevil,” nor does he have the red suit that appears in the series’ superb opening titles, though a running gag has other characters telling him to get a better costume than the flimsy all-black garb he runs around in. Matt tasks himself with cleaning up Hell’s Kitchen, which ties in to a season-long battle with the Big Bad supervillain Kingpin/Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio, whose performance adds admirable — and incredibly creepy — depths to such an evil character).
Many viewers may be of the opinion that we’re heading toward an oversaturation of superhero stories (and particularly superhero origin stories) in film and television. I disagree, but it’s a fair point — I can’t even reel off half of the upcoming projects in the MCU. Daredevil certainly makes the case for its existence, though. You don’t have to have preexisting knowledge of the Daredevil character (it’s a comic series I skipped as a kid), nor do you have to be super-familiar with the larger MCU to enjoy the show. (Daredevil does, however, have a clever way of connecting itself to that universe: the “incident” mentioned in the pilot refers to The Avengers‘ destruction of New York City. The series picks up as they’re still rebuilding, putting Hell’s Kitchen at the middle of a war between those who are trying to control it.)
Marvel’s Daredevil is more than a simple comic book show: It works effectively as a crime drama, as a bite-your-nails thriller, and as a character study. It’s a rumination on good vs. evil and the prestige drama-fueling inner demons that drive Matt to both torture a criminal (and growl that it’s “because I enjoy it”) and work as an honest-to-god good lawyer. Matt murders those who should be murdered; Matt shows up to church for a confessional session with his priest.
Like the best-written comic adaptions, there is a solid balance between the human character (Matt) and his alter ego (The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, soon to become Daredevil). This is especially true of Fisk/Kingpin. Daredevil has an exhilarating build-up to the villain reveal, with people terrified of just uttering his name out loud, teasing viewers with fear and horror stories for a few episodes before finally showing Fisk staring at a painting, remarking on how “alone” it makes him feel. The ruthless violence — and man, does Daredevil get ultra-violent; a scene involving a car door will have you reeling — and the sheer terror that King exerts over Hell’s Kitchen is only made more believable and chilling after we learn about Fisk as a person, a human, a man trying to woo a woman, who puts on an air of importance but later admits that he doesn’t know anything about wine. When Fisk’s temper flares and he begins beating his enemies (innocents) to a bloody pulp, it’s the backstory, combined with D’Onofrio’s standout performance, that makes it land so effectively.
When it finally comes to the Fisk vs. Daredevil showdown, everything is already perfectly in place — one of the series’ strong points is how it delights in the serialized story, with each episode leading to this final battle. What’s clear is that this is much bigger than their hatred for each other: They are at war for their city, for Hell’s Kitchen, because each wants to make it better, but they have diametrically opposed ideas as to how.
D’Onofrio isn’t the only actor to watch in the series. Cox, from the very beginning, feels more like Daredevil than Affleck ever did. Both Deborah Ann Woll as Karen and Rosario Dawson as Claire (Matt’s secret nurse/love interest, who routinely stitches him up and tries not to ask too many questions) bring their characters to life, even — especially — when they both, individually, get thrown into the woman-gets-kidnapped plot. (Both plots, particularly Karen’s, are dealt with surprisingly well.) Elden Henson’s confident but subtle portrayal of Foggy Nelson results in a character that you truly (almost painfully) care about as the series progresses. Foggy and Matt’s friendship is one of the driving forces of the series: their conflicts are real, and are dealt with accurately, rather than rushing through to a conclusion. And, thankfully, Marvel’s Daredevil forgoes the overt love triangle despite Karen’s clear interest in both men.
That isn’t to say Daredevil doesn’t have some rough patches — a reporter character falls into cliché territory, and both main women could still use a bit more development. But it’s an exciting start for Netflix’s multiple Marvel series. It tears down the massive destruction of Marvel’s bigger movie properties (though the fight scenes are still numerous and impressive) to show us the “street level noir side” of these popular superheroes, resulting in highly serialized, character-driven stories that care as much as about the unmasked men as it does the masked ones. Which, in a way, is as fearless as Daredevil himself.