Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m an unreserved fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for the first few episodes of Daredevil’s first season – now streaming on Netflix – I worried I might be experiencing some superhero fatigue. This third foray into episodic TV for the MCU starts rather slowly, introducing its bleak underbelly in grim, gritty and hypermasculine fashion. It’s a drastic tonal shift away from its more upbeat (Agent Carter) and more disposable (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) cousins on ABC, and while immediately superior to both of those shows, I found myself resisting its more realistic language, shocking violence, troubling torture scenes, and tired antihero themes. But I soldiered through these concerns, and while I’m still not enamored of its more problematic aspects, I’m glad I hung in there, because this may be the most accomplished Marvel property yet: a compelling slow-burn with deeper characterizations, a stronger created family, and richer sociopolitical themes than any of the movies.
It’s the story of Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a young lawyer who sets up shop, along with best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), in his childhood neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen in New York. As a child, Matt lost his eyesight while saving someone’s life during a truck accident – but in the process, gained heightened powers in his other senses as a result of the mysterious chemicals that blinded him. Matt is determined to clean up his city, helping the downtrodden as an attorney during the day, but also prowling the streets at night to dole out vigilante justice.
Matt and Foggy’s first client is Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a secretary for a construction firm who stumbles across corporate corruption and lands in hot water. The case ultimately brings her into the firm as an employee, and sets the trio on a collision course with the reclusive Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a crooked developer with his own vision for saving the city. Fisk’s coalition of criminal gangs feeds off the weak and the poor, but for Fisk, strong-arming methods are a means to an end: revitalizing Hell’s Kitchen, which was devastated in the Battle of New York. The horrid criminal means he’s using, however, make him a target for Matt, whose enhanced senses make him hyperaware of the suffering Fisk’s plans have caused. He’s determined to stop Fisk by any means necessary…but soon finds himself at war with his own conscience, as his methods in rising to the task send him into highly questionable ethical territory.
It took several episodes for me to warm up to this series. The first two hours in particular are heavy on the over-familiar trappings of the origin story. I found the pacing ponderous, and tonally it is dark, dark, dark in a way that, as a fan of Mark Waid’s more light-hearted take on the character, didn’t immediately appeal to me. The fight choreography is spectacular, but it’s also unpleasantly ultraviolent. Matt’s propensity for beating and torturing perps to get information is highly problematic in these early hours, and not just because it reinforces the myth of torture’s effectiveness as an interrogation method. It also makes Matt difficult to get behind, especially as it turns out to take several more episodes before the viewer gets a real handle on his motivations. Additionally, Matt presents rather like Batman in the Christopher Nolan movies, which is to say he’s the least interesting part of the show. This problem goes away over time as the slow-build strategy plays out, and Cox eventually won me over in the role, but it was something of a barrier to entry.
With the exception of Matt, the series otherwise nails character right out of the gate: Henson and Woll are terrific, as are Rosario Dawson (as Matt’s nurse friend Claire Temple) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (as intrepid reporter Ben Urich). The early groundwork building these characters pays off later, when the raised stakes of the escalating war between good and evil lends emotional weight to their every interaction. The show doesn’t scrimp on the other side of the conflict, either. Once Wilson Fisk enters the picture, the series spends as much time building the personalities and relationships of the bad guys. This is an area, in my opinion, where the MCU movies frequently drop the ball: rendering the villains as more than cardboard targets for the climactic battle. D’Onofrio’s Kingpin is the most richly realized villain in the MCU so far, and the writers surround him with terrific support from the likes of Toby Leonard Moore, Bob Gunton, Ayelet Zurer, Wai Ching Ho, and others. There’s nothing superficial about Fisk, and nothing pat about his complicated interactions with his villainous colleagues. They’re all handled just as carefully, and occasionally as sympathetically, as the heroes. So much so, in fact, that from time to time you’ll forget how monstrous they are…until they inevitably remind you. It makes for very satisfying characterization, all of its impeccably acted.
Meanwhile the plot is suitably complex and riveting, transcending its superhero noir furniture to render pointed political commentary, much in the way that Captain America: The Winter Soldier did. It taps effectively into the American ideological divide, examining the methods and motivations of its opposing forces, and takes both sides to task for the way they go at each other. Perhaps most importantly, Matt’s early brutality isn’t justified away in the manner that, say, Jack Bauer’s is on 24. He examines his choices, and grows, and alters his path accordingly…which for me, anyway, at least partially redeems the deplorable early viciousness.
Note: this is not your typical Marvel show. It’s much more hard-hitting and upsetting. But its arc is powerful and satisfying, and in the end, I found myself caring more about these characters than any of the bigger name movie heroes. I’m conflicted, thanks to those uncomfortable early impressions, but I’m also fully invested and deeply impressed. I suspect this is just the beginning of a long and prosperous run.