While Marvel Studios’ reign over the box office seems set to continue for many years, it’s fair to say that their forays into television haven’t been quite so successful. The critics may love Agent Carter but it’s struggling to keep its audience – and hasn’t even arrived in the UK – while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D took almost an entire season to find its groove.
Now, though, Netflix has thrown its hat into this ever-widening ring with Daredevil, one of four planned original series based on Marvel heroes. Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist will all follow, before being put together in a crossover series called The Defenders. It’s a bold strategy, but if this first show is anything to go by, Netflix is more than capable of pulling it off.
Daredevil is both a great crime drama in its own right and a welcome addition to the MCU; never forgetting its place in the bigger picture without being dominated by it.
For those who’ve never read a Daredevil book before and have never seen – or maybe chose to forget – a certain infamously bad movie from 2003, here’s a quick recap. Blinded by a tragic accident in his childhood, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) has dedicated his life to helping others. By day he works as a lawyer in the crime-ridden New York neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen. By night, he dons a mask and a costume – although not the one you’re thinking of – and dispenses vigilante justice, aided by his remaining senses that have been heightened to superhuman levels.
What’s most ingenious about the show’s opening hours is how it immediately ties everything back to what we’ve seen before, and simultaneously answers the obvious question that everyone will inevitably ask: why can’t The Avengers sort this mess out? The answer is simple: they created it in the first place. In the rampant crime and the abundant construction in Hell’s Kitchen, we see a direct aftermath of the Battle of New York. But these mob bosses are (relatively speaking) small-fry. No time to stop them when there are aliens attacking Greenwich or a corrupt global espionage organisation to take down. Besides, if someone like Thor ever did come down to street-level, his cape would probably get very dirty, very quickly.
“Used to be when you kill a man you sent his wife flowers. Now, you just send her with him.”
We’ve gotten so used to hearing the word “gritty” used pejoratively to describe superhero stories, but for Daredevil, it couldn’t be more apt. This is a darker, more mature tone than anything we’ve seen from Marvel so far and while the whiplash is startling at first, it does make a nice change from endless CGI dust-ups. Punch someone in this show and they will bleed. A lot. Some might argue that the bad guys would be better off using their guns, but when the action is this visceral, who cares about guns? Lead pipes, car doors and bowling balls are all used as offensive weapons to squeamish effect and there are some stunning fight sequences – including one five-minute tracking shot that feels like a scene cut from The Raid.
Thankfully, there’s more to Daredevil than just a few well-aimed blows. Rather than going for the new week/new villain approach of something like The Flash or the first season of S.H.I.E.L.D., Showrunner Steven DeKnight has clearly built the show with binge-watchers in mind, drawing out the main story arc. Over the first five episodes (the opening two are written by Drew Goddard), we see Matt setting up a fledgling law firm and getting to grips with the rich tapestry of crime in his neighbourhood – although it quickly becomes clear that he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
Cox turns out to be a perfect fit for the central role. As Matt Murdock, he’s charming in an understated way, a small smile occasionally peeking out from under his shades. But as the Daredevil, he struggles under what is an understandably Sisyphean task. After all, he wants to help his city, but he doesn’t have an iron suit or a magic hammer – just pretty good hearing and a few decent boxing moves.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, are all equally excellent. Elden Henson brings wonderful warmth and humour as Foggy Nelson, Murdock’s law partner and best friend, while True Blood veteran Deborah Ann Woll elevates what could have been a thankless Pepper Potts knock-off into an interesting addition to the team – here’s hoping the “will they won’t they” romance that’s starting to develop gets resolved pretty sharpish. More interesting is the always excellent Rosario Dawson, as a woman who finds herself dragged head-first into Murdock’s world, and has a great chemistry with Cox.
“How do you comb your hair?” “Honestly, you just hope for the best.”
But the real surprise is Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, better known to comic readers as the Kingpin. In the past, he’s been portrayed as an enormous brute, but D’Onofrio digs deep to create a fascinating character, drawing inspiration from the likes of Tony Soprano and even his own role from Full Metal Jacket. His hulking physique belies an awkwardness that’s both touching and a little disconcerting; when his civilised mask finally slips, it makes for a truly terrifying sight.
Daredevil sets the bar at a new high, both for superhero TV shows and Netflix’s ever-impressive library of original content. This is Marvel, but not as we know it, and it makes us more eager than ever to see the rest of The Defenders take to the stage.
Update: June 2016: Daredevil Season 1 is available in HD for £5.99 on TalkTalk TV Store for “a limited time”.
Marvel’s Daredevil is available to watch on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.
Where can I buy and rent Daredevil online?
Daredevil Season 1 is available to buy and rent on pay-per-view platforms Amazon Instant Video, TalkTalk TV Store and iTunes.
Photo: Barry Wetcher © 2014 Netflix, Inc. All rights reserved.