Why Netflix’s Daredevil is the Best Marvel Studios Production Yet
Matt Murdock is not blessed with superhuman speed or strength, he can’t fly and doesn’t possess magical abilities. Hell, he can’t even see (in the traditional sense anyway) having been blinded as a child. He’s a man with acute environmental awareness, a keen intellect and years of physical conditioning and combat training. His desire to protect those he loves and his city from the criminal element that plagues it motivates him to don a mask and beat those he deems worthy of his fists to a pulp in the pursuit of justice. This is usually the part where the unfamiliar ask, “So he’s Marvel’s answer to DC’s Batman then?” And that’s usually about when I go on a rant pointing out everything wrong with that statement (which I’ll spare you here).
Daredevil is a very human character not only with regards to his abilities – ninja-trained though he is – but also in regards to his struggles. He’s a man wracked by Irish-Catholic guilt, tarnished relationships, personal loss and suffers recurring failure. Murdock constantly struggles to keep his meager law firm afloat, is always on the wrong end of a beating, guilty of making poorly calculated decisions or failing those he tries to protect – pretty much the farthest thing from billionaire Bruce Wayne’s always-prepared-for-anything Batman. Through it all though – even after being dragged through every imaginable form of torment – Matt Murdock still picks himself up, tries to fix his mistakes and make those responsible pay. He’s as flawed and genuine a character as they come; and that’s why he’s always been my favorite costumed hero (sharing a given name also doesn’t hurt).
Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix marks the character’s first return to live-action since 2003’s theatrical flop, and boy was the wait worth it. The series absolutely nails the intimate nature of Matt Murdock’s crime-fighting life – both working cases as an attorney-at-law and as a masked vigilante scrambling on rooftops and beating the truth out of criminals in dirty back alleys. With the supersaturation of theaters with superhero films, studios have become clever in their approach towards new properties and sequels – abandoning the traditional hero’s tale and origin story – imbuing each new release with a style and tone borrowed from the wide gamut of film genres. If the The Winter Soldier was Marvel’s spy-thriller, Guardians was their sci-fi action-comedy and Iron Man 3 was their Shane Black movie, then Daredevil is Law and Order: MCU. It is as much a compelling crime procedural as it is a superhero origin tale.
The opening five minutes of the first episode are a perfectly convincing interpretation of the printed series and faithfully captures the visual tone and writing style of the comic books from the Frank Miller era and onwards. The audience is quickly introduced to the idea of “the devil within the Murdock boys” without having to preface his heroics with some intricate and beleaguered backstory. We are given reason enough to accept his vigilantism though, and the mystery of how he came to this point in his life is an element of mystery that reveals itself over the course of the season. The plot is subtle, intricate and slow to unfold, with much of each character’s history and motivations being unveiled gradually throughout this first season. The writers clearly took their time here, allowing the audience to truly sympathize with each new face – both the virtuous and villainous.
It’s this dedication in transition from page to screen to do each character justice that really sets Daredevil above other superhero adaptations. Charlie Cox’s internal struggle as budding crime-fighter Matt Murdock is relatable, as is Elden Henson’s affable Foggy Nelson. The pair are immediately recognizable as old friends thanks to Nelson’s humorous resentment of Murdock’s “handicap.” His pithy jabs at Matt’s possible abuse of the charm his “disability” affords him with those of the female persuasion set a quick tone for the series and create an “oh, this is just how I am with my friends”-type of vibe that contrasts the ensuing, brutal heroics of Matt’s alter ego. Really fucking brutal.
The complete underwhelming nature of Daredevil’s “super powers” are highlighted by the series’ residence in the greater supernatural world of the MCU. The action is visceral in its Jason Bourne-esque choreography… if Jason Bourne was constantly bloodied, broken and on the verge of collapse. Daredevil is an underdog in his lonesome and exhausting fight against an entire crime syndicate. The “grittiness” being attributed to this series isn’t only in the ruthless bone-breaking Daredevil inflicts on his enemies but much more so in the physical and emotional pain and suffering Murdock himself endures. Shit gets really dark. Like really really dark. Not just with the brutality of the combat, but in the unsettling and disturbing nature of the crimes committed and in the telling of Murdock and Fisk’s tragic backstories.
The series’ villain, Wilson Fisk A.K.A. The Kingpin (though he is never referred to exactly as such), is treated with the same level of attention and development as the series protagonists. After a few episodes of mystery surrounding his identity, his true nature is revealed in almost equal measure as Murdock’s. Through a convincing and humanizing genesis, Fisk is successfully made out to be the most sympathetic and compelling antagonist in any superhero movie or series I’ve ever seen. Sure, Magneto was in a concentration camp, Loki feels slighted for his birthright, we watched as Harvey “can-we-trust-him” Dent lost everything and went a little mad sometimes, but D’Onofrio’s Kingpin of crime is the Walter White of the MCU.
The early introduction of Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page into the mix is handled with greater finesse than possibly any other female character in a Marvel Studios production. She’s no wounded bird or damsel in distress in need of rescuing – though she is, admittedly, rescued by the pair of attorneys from legal prosecution at the outset. Neither is she ever treated as a forced romance or emotional foil or made to be used as leverage against our hero. She is our hero. She is fucked the hell up but she is not without reason or accountability and – despite her initial, terrifying circumstances – Karen never seems the victim and Woll never portrays her as one. She is a character of drive, determination and strength who propels the series’ plot as much or more than any who punch and kick their way towards resolution. She’s likely the single strongest female character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Daredevil benefits greatly from the series format – fitting the mold more of a thirteen-hour movie than a serialized plot. It manages to establish a grounded, dirty world in which we sympathize with these heroes who have suffered so much that – after so much failure and loss – their ultimate victory is that much more fulfilling. Even Daredevil’s heightened senses, remarkable martial abilities and
even his eventual donning of the iconic red suit are all easily accepted and fit the world that has been created. The series does suffer intermittently when events and dialogue turn to the overly melodramatic, but you won’t find any of the cheeseball gratuitous drama common in other series adapted from comic book sources (I’m looking at you Agents of SHIELD, Smallville, Arrow and Gotham). All of the series’ drama stems from its rich characters and plot development. Marvel’s Daredevil is a revelation of what level of quality a production can attain with these comic book superheroes when characters are treated with the respect and intelligence that their rich histories deserve.