I planned on only watching the first three episodes of Netflix and Marvel’s new Daredevil series, but then I couldn’t stop. It’s compelling – a superhero made not only for adults, but mature sensibilities. That isn’t because of the blood-letting or torture or occasional curse word, but also because of the show’s character.
Daredevil opens with a minimalist take on the chemical barrel-starring accident that leaves young Matt Murdock blind and screaming. Just when you think the House theme song is about to bust in, they cut to waxy, red-soaked credits that focus on two figures: Daredevil and Justitia, the blindfolded lady with her sword and scales. Two icons of justice who can’t see.
Thankfully, that’s about all you get in the way of a superhero origin story. Whenever the older Matt Murdock – with his newly-formed (read: impoverished) law firm and nighttime hobby of beating criminals to a pulp – gets into trouble, his mind flashes to memories of his father. Battlin’ Jack Murdock is the shitty dad we all always wanted. He loses boxing matches for a living, but he pushes Matt to become something better; to hit the books instead of the mat. His son learns about sewing up facial wounds, working hard, and how to apply pressure. But as for his superpowers, the show is sparse on wasteful exposition, and instead of a drawn-out history we get illustrative flashbacks spread evenly throughout the main story.
Charlie Cox plays Matt Murdock as a blend between Jim Halpert from The Office and Christian Bale’s Batman. He’s a truly low-profile superhero who operates mostly through gut intuition, the ability to hear if people are lying and the ability to punch people until they give him the information he needs. At his side is best pal and business partner Foggy Nelson, a nice loser brought to sidekick life by Elden Henson. Henson gracefully adds levity to his scenes without getting anywhere near hammy. Eventually we get to meet Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll, showing sizeable range) who goes from innocent client to volunteer secretary, and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson, making all things better as usual) who goes from good Samaritan doctor to willing do-gooder accomplice.
The flipside is the underground component, which is fairly boilerplate. The usual suspects are all here, including the Russian mob types, the Chinese drug queenpin, and the corporate entity that seems to lord over them. It’s all a little generic, but it’s early days.
Still, I can’t help wondering after seeing this incarnation if the only thing making Batman more interesting than Daredevil is The Joker. I’m hoping that Kingpin turns out to be a far more engaging figure than I remember him from the comics or the Affleck movie, and with Vincent D’Onofrio in the role, the promise is certainly there. Plus, the show boasts some serious patience when it comes to revealing the big bad. The show is more than happy to let us all watch the fuse burn.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t already explosions. The fights are a highlight. They complement the character interactions – which usually aim for learning who Matt, Karen, Foggy and Claire really are – by injecting adrenaline into dirty veins. The action proves itself early and often with striking, street-level choreography that’s accented with a few balletic moves. It then proves its genius in the second episode when, reeling from broken ribs and a stab wound, Matt’s hallway brawl with some Russian red shirts isn’t glossed over with action movie magic. It’s filthy. Matt never strops struggling through real pain. People get hurt, and they stay hurt. Especially our hero. As a bonus, there are strong visual nods to both The Matrix and Oldboy as Daredevil busts skulls to get to a kidnapped boy.
If you’re wondering about connections to the greater MCU, there are (at least) three.
- New York City is being reconstructed after the events of The Avengers. Fat government contracts abound.
- Murdock’s powers operate with a kind of science-magic that makes sense if you don’t think about it too hard.
- Foggy and Matt take on a case in the third episode, representing a thug version of Joss Whedon.
Exactly none of the quality of the show is surprising. Creator Drew Goddard is one of the best genre technicians working today, and he’s near the top of his game here despite altering his usual flair slightly. This isn’t the run-and-gun chaos of Cloverfield or the meta cleverness of Cabin in the Woods. It’s a showcase of Goddard’s ability to look beyond the fantastical properties of the plot and sink deeper into characters who live in the darkness. If people were praising Iron Man for being “realistic,” wait until they get a load of the lo-fi Matt Murdock.
The language is also excellent. Rich and oily without being a greasy noir avalanche. For the most part, it emerges naturally by placing forceful, intelligent figures with different agendas into the same small space. As a result you end up with lines like, “Used to be if you killed a man you sent his wife flowers,” “What did that get us? Dick with a side of who gives a shit?,” and my new personal favorite phrase, “Non-binding moral obligation.” Legal-ese at its worst/finest.
The smartest, most chilling bit of writing comes when Matt makes a closing argument for a mob-protected defendant (Thug Whedon) whose case they’ve taken on to keep their office doors open. The entire episode swings around the question of morality, and in the closing argument, Matt locks tight how his client has to go free because of the facts. He’s doing a too-good job of clearing a professional criminal, sullying his own name in the process by allying with the palm-greasers.
Then he slyly comments that his client may very well meet a different judgement of his own making outside the courtroom walls. The jury is suddenly being spoken to by the executioner.
As you might tell, Daredevil shouldn’t be confused with a procedural. Matt doesn’t get into the clues too much; he mostly punches and threatens his way to information, ending conversations by telling people to get the hell out of Dodge.
Yet at the core the show is the classic, immortal question of how to remain just in an unjust world. How do you dig your hands into the mud and pull them out clean? In the introductory three episodes, Matt still looks a bit like Zorro with his black do-rag mask, Foggy and Karen are building a friendship, and the roots of criminal conspiracy are beginning to blossom. The show is strong and has the potential to get even stronger as it explores that eternal superhero conundrum.
Like I said, I meant to watch three episodes, then couldn’t stop.