Throughout the entire first season of Netflix’ “Daredevil,” the obsessive comic book nerd in me kept scanning outdoor scenes for The Avengers Tower. I don’t think I saw it once. But that didn’t affect my enjoyment of a serial crime thriller that was so often fantastic.
And I think that sums up the program nicely. This is only a putative part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. References to the fantastical larger universe of Marvel’s comic book movies are perfunctory and vague. The intergalactic invasion of the Chitauri lizard-men, engineered by the Norse God Loki, is referred to only as “the event” — even though the destruction in New York is part of this season’s plot setup. Characters like Iron Man and Thor are referred to dryly by a secondary bad guy who doesn’t even mention their names. And other “comic book connections” tend to be minor, obscure, and sparing for a 13-episode season. I actually gained the suspicion here that the screenwriters for this brutal crime drama were unconsciously embarrassed that their show was part of the MCU. Yes, I do know that Netflix will soon launch other related shows, for less iconic comic book characters such as Luke Cage and Iron Fist, and that this incarnation of Daredevil seems fated to join something called “The Defenders.” (Ugh.) But that thankfully hasn’t happened yet.
Even the comic book elements of the Daredevil mythos seemed to me to be underplayed here. His unusual powers (they don’t even feel like “superpowers”) rarely take center stage. His villains aren’t garish. He’s only nicknamed “Daredevil” via a news article in the final episode; nor does he don anything approaching his trademark costume until then. Wilson Fisk, our Big Bad, is never once referred to by his comic book appellation, “The Kingpin.”
And you know what? All of that works just fine. The Hell’s Kitchen we see in “Daredevil” might seem like a universe unto itself. But, given this show’s quality, even a diehard comic book fan like me can concede, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It ain’t broke. I’d rate Season 1 at a 9 out of 10. In many ways, “Daredevil” is far superior to anything else in the MCU. This show’s distinguishing characteristic isn’t that it’s dark. It’s that it’s a well written, well directed, and usually quite well performed crime-thriller.
It has surprisingly three-dimensional, truly interesting characters who are rendered in depth and detail. This includes a few bad guys, by the way, who might have a knack for winning over viewer loyalty just by being so good at being bad. (Most people would point to Fisk, but for me, Wesley was the guy you hate to love.) Many characters are so well written and played by their actors that they seem 100 percent “real” — particularly Ben Urich and Karen Page. This is the single MCU property with the most compelling characterization and, yes, I am including the “Iron Man” films in this comparison.
Yes, everything you’ve heard about this being Marvels darkest onscreen outing is correct … and THEN some. The story is not just thematically dark; the story is itself brutal. This seems to be a corner of the MCU in which the harshest consequences result for characters at every level. Daredevil doesn’t just “take a hit” here; he gets cut up, bloodied and scarred — so much at several points that he requires the services of a (regrettably plot convenient) off-duty emergency room nurse.
Far worse is what happens to ordinary people who are heroic themselves. No good deed goes unpunished in this nasty niche of Marvel’s world. Defenseless people are shown no mercy by the story’s stronger protagonists. The murder of one beloved character is all the more chilling because we witness their fruitless attempts to defend themselves despite a complete absence of special powers or training. It’s … actually a bit worse than what we saw in that paragon of gritty superhero films, Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy.
And the crimes and criminals themselves? Yeesh. An early scene in the very first episode gives us a chilling little glimpse of human trafficking, with sobbing, kidnapped women loaded into the back of a dockside shipping container. Not long after, we witness a father being beaten in the street before his son’s eyes; the child is then snatched. The running theme here is that ordinary human evil can be more terrifying than dimension-hopping lizard-man armies or tyrannical Norse gods. Sure, this theme is something we’ve seen plenty of times before. But here, it’s just done so damn WELL.
The fight choreography was frikkin’ SWEET. It was fantastic enough to be comic book violence, but gritty and consequential enough to be real-world violence. I kept trying to figure out where a stunt double might be filling in for Charlie Cox, who portrayed Daredevil. I couldn’t. He’s … not doing his own stunts, is he?
The acting was usually quite good. Deborah Ann Woll consistently stole the show as Karen Page — the script here beautifully elevates Karen beyond her pretty pathetic comic book incarnation. (A caveat — I was reading the “Daredevil” comics in the 1990’s, and am using those as a frame of reference here; of course they might have changed significantly since then.) Karen often seems to emerge as much of a primary protagonist here as Daredevil himself. She’s got far more at stake, personally, and Woll expertly gets that across to the audience. And she’s a complex character, playing the fool for Foggy Nelson, being the the darkly driven de facto apprentice to Ben Urich, and occasionally being manipulative and ruthless in ways that our other protagonists never could. What a great improvement on the original source material. (Hint — comics are not a medium known for its feminist sensibilities.) Woll, who I remember hitting it out of the park in her psychopathic role in HBO’s “True Blood” (2008) outshines every co-star.
Nearly every other cast member was perfect or near perfect. Vondie Curtis-Hall needs special mention here for truly bringing Ben Urich to life on the big screen for the first time. His turn as the aging, jaded newspaper reporter was flawless. Urich, to me, will always be the greatest reporter in comics. (F&*$ Peter Parker and those Daily Planet pretty people; Ben was the real deal. Who cares if he was past mid-life? He was the only character in the comic books who spoke and proceeded like a real journalist.)
There were really only a couple of forgivable weaknesses that affected my enjoyment of Season 1.
First, the narrative structure … seemed “off” somehow. I see the basic underlying story here as ultimately being an deeply personal battle between two men: Daredevil and the Kingpin. (This is despite the way that Karen and Ben delightfully distinguish themselves as prime movers in the plot.) I …. never really sensed any momentum here. For a while, Daredevil and Fisk have minimal information about each other. We see Matt Murdoch in skirmishes with many underlings; these seem episodic and without greater consequence. Then … Matt quite accidentally meets Fisk for the first time, when he tries to “get a sense of” his enemy by … meeting his girlfriend? Huh? I never really got a sense of these two primary characters moving toward each other until the last episodes. Oh, well … the comics were kinda like that. But I do hope that future seasons are more tightly plotted, with more consistent tension.
Second, there really seemed to be multiple problems connected with the character of Foggy Nelson. I do think that Eldon Henson performed quite poorly in the role. Maybe he was just miscast. He doesn’t once come close to the performances of his co-stars. I also think the script did absolutely nothing to make Foggy a likable character. He’s immature, self-absorbed, and ethically rickety. His jokes fall flat; his flat “banter” with Karen is grating (and makes her look like an idiot). He’s … downright irritating. Why would Matt want him as a “best friend” or business partner? Why would anybody?
Third, I occasionally would like a more specific nod in Hell’s Kitchen to the larger Marvel universe. Maybe a truck passes by with the Stark Industries log. Maybe a kid passes by with a Captain America t-shirt. Maybe a couple of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents investigate Fisk’s employees in connection with offshore partners who are alleged to have super-powered henchman. Just something small — it wouldn’t spoil the “real” feel of our dark drama, and it would place our protagonists’ lives in a larger context.
All in all, though, “Daredevil” was surprisingly superior to what I thought it would be, even with all of its glowing press. See it.
One final note — if you’re a fan of both superhero comics and AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” then Season 2’s casting has a wicked cool surprise, if you haven’t already heard about it. Head on over to The Internet Movie Database to see who is playing whom. You’ll smile.