It could have been a passing curiosity like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but Daredevil isn't only a great superhero TV drama, but it's a great drama period.
DaredevilCast: Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rosario Dawson
Air date: 2015-04-10
Netflix really put their chips on the table by releasing Daredevil the same weekend as the Season Five premiere of Game of Thrones, and in the eternal war of watercooler-ready cultural capital, the only reason they'd be so bold is because they feel that they had something special on their hands ... and they do indeed.
Landing at a curious time in the television landscape where DC Comics is starting to pick up good will with their character-driven efforts Arrow and The Flash (although the less said about Gotham the better) and Marvel's own Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is starting to pay off after finally breaking through the predictable "monster of the week format" part way through its first season, Daredevil is cut from a different bullet-resistant cloth altogether. Starring Boardwalk Empire's Charlie Cox as blind lawyer Matt Murdock, the show follows Murdock and his friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson of Mighty Ducks fame) as they start up their own law firm in Hell's Kitchen, although Murdock, whose other senses have been trained to near-superhuman levels, goes out at night and seeks vigilante justice all his own, often fighting back the forces of ruthless business magnate Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) in a struggle for the heart of the city. (Note, this character is best known as the Kingpin, but in one of the show's several well-thought-out decisions, he is never referred to as such.)
This may sound very by-the-numbers (and, to neophytes, remarkably Batman-esque), but the show carries off the premise remarkable style. Created by The Cabin in the Woods helmer Drew Goddard with Steven S. DeKnight serving as showrunner (both alums from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), let us now break down the three absolutely extraordinary ways that Daredevil managed to become not just the hands-down best superhero drama on TV, but also one of the best new overall dramas this season.
The Format: TV-MA and Episode Length
Make no mistake: Daredevil is a violent, violent show. Although it never gets overly gratuitous in a Sin City kind of way, there are still people being beaten to death with bowling balls, committing suicide by running their heads through metal spikes, and an unfortunate someone who gets their hand sliced clean off, which is to say nothing about the show's vivid depictions of spousal abuse and pedophilia. Although Marvel has established itself as a mostly family-friendly brand, Daredevil creates a world that is much darker, much bleaker, and one wherein casual actions lead to real world consequences, resulting in more than a few surprising deaths.
Yet, part of the reason why any of that doom and gloom works is because the show gives all of these elements time to breathe, with every episode carrying an average run time of 57 minutes. If this were a network show, Murdock's confession with his priest right near the start of the season would no doubt have been shaved down, as would a flashback sequence of Murdock and Foggy drunkenly stumbling around their college campus at night that only serves to show the warmth that exists between the two. The show really stretches its legs in the comfort of the format, allowing some scenes to go on longer than you'd expect, rewarding those who actually have attention spans and laying the character-driven groundwork to make us care about the people involved in its numerous and often-astounding fight sequences.
Said fight sequences are quite brutal, featuring a lot of hard-hitting punches, a lot of daring choreography, and often a good amount of blood. As with any great superhero, Murdock isn't perfect, and sometimes he barely escapes his beatdowns, often needing the assistance of nurse Claire Temple (a barely-used Rosario Dawson) to help sew him back together. Yet it's not just the unpredictable outcomes of these fights that give them weight: it's the stakes at hand, and Daredevil works because sometimes it is not afraid to go incredibly dark. The fact that Murdock is able to tell the story of the first time he became a vigilante in order to stop a man from molesting his own daughter is significant: a traditional network would have a very hard time letting it go to air as is. Yet, this being Netflix, not only is that scene kept, but it genuinely enhances our understanding of the character, as it was an act that horrific that finally instilled him to go beyond the means of the law to seek justice.
Furthermore, given the fact that the writers had a guaranteed amount of episodes to work with, they could set things up early on to result in some pretty astounding payoffs, chief among them the reasoning why Fisk, at the tail end of Episode Three, wishes to buy a mostly-white painting that is referred to as "rabbit in a snowstorm". They bring this element back two other notable times, and the payoff of it is incredible, and only shows just how meticulous the showrunners were in crafting the season's story.
Again, it's one thing for your show to simply gain a TV-MA designation; it's another to use that license to help enhance the world the characters live in. The show might get to be a bit much for the squeamish at times, but that's the key phrase right there: "at times." Daredevil still shows restraint with these dark matters, seeking to tell the story first and foremost, coloring in the more brutal aspects only when it feels necessary. Well-played, Daredevil. Well-played indeed.
It didn't take long after the first episodes premiered for fans to begin complaining about how annoying Elden Henson was as Murdock's right-hand man Foggy, the show's too-obvious comic relief right from the get-go. No, Henson isn't going to win any awards for his work here, and there are more than a few times when he he undershoots some really great one-liners that the writers came up with, but love him or hate him, his presence is damn-near essential into the show, as without him, Daredevil would be relentlessly dark and potentially cross over into the realm of the overly self-serious. Sure, Henson may be core ensemble's weak link, but it could've been so much worse.
Directors of film, TV, and stage will often tell you that casting is a majority of their job, and outside of Bog Gunton's usual old-man schtick as businessman Leland Owlsley (you never once believe him as a man who is genuinely running multiple underhanded operations) and Domenick Lobardozzi's near-cartoonish interpretation of Wilson Fisk's abusive father, Daredevil has a damn-near flawless cast. While D'Onofrio's Fisk at times speaks in a gruff manner that feels ill-fitting of some of the contexts he finds himself in, he nonetheless nails the character, finding a real empathy for the conniving businessman's struggle while proving unafraid to kill most anyone who gets on his bad side. His rage genuinely comes from a point of pain, and while some may not be wrong in arguing that they soften up his character perhaps a bit too much, his moments of shocking brutality still hit with a punch, never cruel for the sake of it, as he expounds upon during one notable mid-season monologue.
While Deborah Ann Woll finds a nice balance as victim-turned-crusader Karen Page and Vondie Curtis-Hall's old school reporter Ben Urich strikes all the right notes, let's not forget the sometimes-smug, sometimes-intimidating face of Toby Leonard Moore as James Wesley, Fisk's second-in-command who oversees a vast majority of his criminal empire. He's charming when he needs to be, clearly enjoys himself when he gets to dirty up his hands a bit, and extremely empathetic during the times when Fisk is at his lowest, often keeping his lips tight when we can see he wants to say so much more. There's a really great moment after Fisk's girlfriend (Ayelet Zurer) is hospitalized after being poisoned and Wesley and Fisk sit in the waiting room, Fisk starting to say something very emotional to his long-serving confidant before turning it into a simple thank you. The look of masked validation on Moore's face sells it all, and is one of many great little moments peppered throughout the season.
Also, while there are a good amount of smaller guest stars that turn up for that sweet sweet Marvel money, special credit also goes to veteran actor Scott Glenn for dominating Episode Seven, "Stick", playing the titular mentor to Murdock with sass and gusto.
Of course, absolutely none of this would have worked had Murdock himself had been miscast, but Charlie Cox, with his dry vocal fry and sharp delivery, absolutely nails it. He erases all memories of Ben Affleck's dreaded take on the character from 2003 within the first episode, his struggle of wanting to do right even if by his own means is palpable, heartfelt. He wrestles with some tough decisions while in character, and during Episode Ten ("Nelson v. Murdoch") when Foggy discovers the true identity of "the Devil from Hell's Kitchen," the two navigating their friendship feels like a real challenge for the normally level-headed Murdock, Cox playing it like a man genuinely frustrated with discovering he has more emotional limitations than he previously thought. Although it's unknown just how much of the stunt work was done by Cox himself, the more ass-kicking Daredevil sequences are so fluidly sown together, with Cox's anger so immediate, that we as viewers still buy the character outright and can forgive him for the few times when he seeps into some more obvious Bale-as-Batman vocal tics.
After the season's half-way point, Murdock visits the art gallery where Vanessa Marianna is at, herself now publicly known as the mysterious love interest of Wilson Fisk. When Murdock walks in, there's a moment when his senses zoom in a guard standing near the door, closing up his vest, Murdock able to detect that he has a gun on him, the gun making a distinct sound as it closes next to the man's chest. This is one of those small moments that the show does a great job of setting up, focusing on a minor detail which emanates a great sense of danger, Murdock now unsure if he's been made as the mysterious masked man and if his safety is compromised. The way the camera zooms in, the way the foley work makes that extremely-specific sound shine as all the other background noise turns into a dull sheen -- this is some top-level editing on multiple fronts.
One of the many flaws of the 2003 Daredevil film was when they showed the way that Murdock "sees" the world, his extra senses giving him a sort of visual sonar that allows him to make out the shape of a room. It was a silly gimmick (to say nothing of his abilities to do super-parkor for some reason), and with the TV series, they only rely on those sounds that Murdock focuses in on: Wesley's watch when he's in the courtroom, the cane tapping of a blind woman on her way to a drug ring, and many people's everyday heartbeats, Murdock's built-in lie detector (note how a heartbeat actually is the last thing you hear of the show's theme song). All of these little hints and whispers give us a great insight into Murdock's world, the audience feeling the danger or the excitement right along with him. So much care goes in to all these little moments, and it always pays off, the effect never once feeling overused or redundant.
Yet once again, we come back to those stellar fight sequences. There's at least one per episode (though often more), and they are directed and cut with care: there's not quick-edits or intense closeups which only force the viewer to kind of put things together themselves, no. These are broadshots, cut together so there's an actual momentum to them, clear and concise but never once lacking impact. Although the sequences do get somewhat repetitious as the show goes on, they're still eye-candy nonetheless, and they are the result of a creative team that truly cares about what they're doing.
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While even the most diehard of Marvel fanboys can still admit that Daredevil isn't a perfect creation (kinda weird how Wilson Fisk just says he's going to save the city at a press conference and everyone pretty much believes him on the spot), it's still a remarkably potent action-drama, mature and meticulous in a way that few other Marvel properties have been since the Iron Man-lead launch of the MCU back in 2008. The plot moves, twists, and surprises, the action sizzles, and the show has more philosophical tangents and actual weight to its conversations than one would expect, as the morality of evil, the nature of victimhood, and the power of family are all topics that are debated with few clear-cut cookie cutter answers (special hat tip to all these scenes between Murdock and Lantom, a wise Catholic priest played with cool intelligence by Peter McRobbe).
Ultimately, one glorious binge viewing establishes Daredevil as the best superhero show on TV hands down. What surprises is that that title isn't enough: it also proves to be one of the best overall dramas of a television season that's already packed with several. This show will reintroduce the character to a lot of people in a new way while simply introducing him to a whole gamut of people who have never heard of him before. By the end of those 13 episodes, all you'll want to know is when you'll get to see him again.