Superhero comic books can be immensely diverse. Just because your lead character is decked out in primary coloured spandex doesn’t mean you should be pigeonholed to only telling one type of story catering to prepubescent boys. Case in point: Daredevil. Yes, the character has done his fair bit of camp technicolour swashbuckling, but under the guidance of such vaunted comic book storytellers as Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev, Ed Brubaker, Joe Quesada and Kevin Smith (yes, that Kevin Smith), Daredevil became a neo-noir character drama tinged with grim stoicism, blurry morality and mafioso operatics. In short, exactly the type of story you don’t see Marvel Studios producing on the screen, big or small, today. And yet, due to an unexpected collaboration between Marvel and Netflix, here we are with exactly that.
Drawing mostly on Miller’s iconic stark and dark take on the Man Without Fear, Marvel’s Daredevil is a dramatic departure from the over-the-top wire-worked cheesiness that saw 2003’s Ben Affleck-led Daredevil movie turned into a 103-minute long internet meme. This time around, Boardwalk Empire‘s Charlie Cox dons the patented sunglasses and white cane by day as down-on-his-luck blind lawyer Matt Murdock, and the vigilante mask at night as… Well, not Daredevil. Not yet, at least.
Donning what can only be described as a DIY ninja outfit put together with items from a sport utility store (don’t worry, it gets better), this “The Man in Black” is still very early in his masked vigilante days. Stepping into the post-Avengers chaos of New York – as well as the corruption that comes along with rebuilding it – Murdock is looking to clean up the streets of his beloved Hell’s Kitchen.
And that’s it. No, aliens in the sky, no Nazi super soldiers, no otherwordly demigods. Just that ol’ vigilante favourite: Beating up drug-dealing thugs with your bare hands and whatever blunt objects you have in your vicinity. Of course Murdock has some distinct advantages in the thug beating department though: the very same childhood accident involving a truck of toxic waste that robbed him of his sight, also enhanced the rest of his senses to superhuman levels. Coupled with an array of martial skills taught to him by mysterious mentor named Stick (Scott Glenn), he is a kung-fu fighting sight to behold (pardon the pun).
Not that you’ll behold any of that origin story right away, as executive producers Steven S. DeKnight and Drew Goddard take an unexpectedly measured approach to the story, teasing out details over time as characters and plot threads are given ample breathing room to develop organically. This means it lays on the character drama a lot thicker than you would expect from the same people who give us poppy spy capers like Agents of SHIELD, but with its absolutely fantastic writing and directing, this slower approach never feels boring at all.
And even if you were in danger of nodding off for whatever reason, you’ll soon find your eyes ripped wide open in sheer amazement at the incredible fight sequences staged throughout the show’s 13-episode first season. Boasting amazing fight choreography that flawlessly pulls off the task of being martially impressive with flips and flying kicks, but with a desperate scruffiness to it all so as to actually not appear choreographed, the result is just jawdropping – particularly in an Oldboy-inspired single take corridor fight in the second episode that is right up there with the best you’ll see in the movies. And its brutal.
Playing within the less restrictive confines of Netflix, Marvel is able to bring in a level of bloody violence that they just can’t do on ABC or in their family friendly movies. Despite DeKnight’s Spartacus heritage, this is not stylized cartoonish arterial sprays though, but rather the gut-wrenching realism of what happens when skilled fighters try to dismantle each other limb from limb. Paired with this macabre action, the characters also regularly drop some S-bombs, meaning that this is definitely not a kids show.
As both Murdock and his alter ego, Cox is brilliant – as believable as a morally conflicted young lawyer as he is in a tooth and nail scrimmage with a ninja. And surrounding Cox is a support cast that rises to the occasion with him, firing on all cylinders: Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Murdock’s jocular law firm partner and best friend; Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, the fledgling law firm’s traumatized first client turned secretary; Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, Daredevil’s reluctant “night nurse”, who gets swept up in events when she finds him bleeding in her dumpster; and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich, a veteran reporter trying to reclaim his former spark as a public crusader.
And then there’s Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk aka the Kingpin. Despite it only being Daredevil’s name that adorns all the posters, in some ways this is actually even more of an origin story for one of Marvel’s most famous comic book villains. Whereas, some wardrobe adjustments and moral quandaries aside, Matt Murdock is well on his way to becoming the horned hero we know, this is not the Kingpin we know.
This a broken, emotionally volatile man-child who can barely approach an attractive woman in public, but has no qualms with decapitating somebody with a car door (I did mention this show was violent, right?). Thanks to the attention and guidance of said attractive woman – the incredibly charming Ayelet Zurer’s Vanessa – he is slowly inching his considerably intimidating bulk closer to the version of the character we know, but there is still a maelstrom of conflicting emotions buoying his criminal rise that makes him one of the most intriguing characters to ever inhabit the MCU. And D’Onofrio completely sells it, simultaneously tragic, sympathetic and occasionally nightmarish.
But that depth is not exclusive to D’Onofrio, as both the characters and the world that they inhabit constantly feel like a living breathing microcosm. A dirty little corner of the otherwise far shinier MCU where you won’t find thunder gods and billionaire tech gurus, but an assortment of characters tearing each other’s lives – and bodies – apart in a quest to impose their vision of this city that they truly love (if a certain a skull t-shirt wearing, gun toting vigilante were to drop by, it would totally not be out of place).
Many fans were initially disappointed with Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, expecting a TV version of the movies we have come to love and feeling irked when they got something slightly different. With Daredevil, Marvel is doing some completely and totally different, and yet, in a way, this is the closest they’ve come to meeting those initial expectations as what we have here is essentially an immaculately produced, gripping and gritty crime drama movie, complete with its three act story structure, simply decompressed into 13 one hour-episode chunks.
In essence doing what Chris Nolan did for Warner Bros with his Dark Knight trilogy when he decided to finally treat a promising comic book property with the respect and maturity that it deserves, Marvel prove with this (Blind As a Bat)man Begins-styled origin story that they can do so much more than just Hulk jokes and talking raccoons. And what they’ve done is breathtaking and simply not to be missed.
Marvel’s Daredevil is out now on Netflix.
Last Updated: April 14, 2015
Blood Emperor Trevor
April 14, 2015 at 11:08
I would’ve finished watching this last night if it weren’t for Eskom. DAMN YOU, ESKOM!