Let’s cut right to the chase: Netflix’s thirteen-episode first season of Daredevil is a triumph, a gloriously dark, gritty, adult depiction of The Man Without Fear. Netflix’s Daredevil is the finest super-hero television show I have ever seen. Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. I am hard-pressed to think of anything that even comes close. Only a few episodes in, my wife asked me: how is this show so good and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so bad? Good question!
When Netflix first announced that they would be producing four Marvel TV shows that would eventually connect together, I was excited. But as the release of Daredevil approached, I must admit that my expectations had dimmed. I was troubled by the departure, mid-production, of original show-runner Drew Goddard, a terrific talent (responsible for The Cabin in the Woods with Joss Whedon). Surely his leaving the show spelled trouble? The early images and trailers for the show also didn’t inspire confidence. What we saw of Daredevil — not in costume, but instead in a rather ordinary-looking black outfit — made me fear that this show was embarrassed by its super-hero content and/or didn’t have the production value to depict super-heroes well. The show looked small and it looked silly.
But holy cow was I wrong. Daredevil is an exceptional piece of work, a confident, bold piece of story-telling. First of all, I was very impressed by how adult the show is. There’s some tough language and a lot of truly brutal violence. This isn’t a kiddy, all-ages show like Marvel’s ABC shows (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter). This is a tough show, one far more inspired by the intensity and adult-content of a show like Game of Thrones. (Though of course Daredevil doesn’t go quite that far — there’s no nudity or sex in this show, and not the same level of gore — but I am complimenting Daredevil by putting it in the same league as GoT.) The adult nature of the show isn’t only the violence and language. The whole approach to the world and the story-telling is very adult. Daredevil is a super-hero show, so there are clear heroes and clear villains, but at the same time the show is nimble at presenting us with a complex world filled with moral grays and difficult decisions for our characters. This is not a show in which the heroes always win by the end of each hour. Our heroes take some tough, tough lumps as the show goes on (both physically and emotionally), and throughout I was impressed by this adult, compelling approach to presenting a super-hero story.
I love the concise, finite format of Netflix’s thirteen-episode structure. It feels like the perfect length for the show. There’s plenty of time for us to dig deeply into the characters and situations, and for the show to develop the characters and the world far more deeply than could ever be possible in a two-hour feature film, without the show overstaying its welcome. There is no padding in this thirteen-episode season, no clunker episodes hidden in the middle. The over-all structure of the season is strong and very well-thought-out. This is a story with a very definitive beginning, middle, and end, and it’s very well-paced over the course of the thirteen episodes. There’s strong narrative momentum between episodes that made this show extraordinarily watchable. A number of episodes ended with a great cliffhanger. This was a show that always left me eager to watch the next episode. I am sorry, now, that there are no more and I have to wait a long time for more! (Netflix has announced a second season, but I’m not sure if they plan to launch the three other Marvel shows before giving any individual show a second season. That could result in a long wait.)
The show is gorgeously filmed, bringing DD’s neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen to beautifully grimy life. The cinematography is exceptional. This is a world filled with deep blacks and shadows, a world befitting the street-level crime stories that always fit Daredevil best. I hate to keep whaling on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I compare the brightly-lit, flat sets of that show to the rich, far-more naturalistic world of Daredevil, and the comparison is stunning.
And the fights. Wow. There are some terrifically memorable, brutal fights in this show. I was impressed by the fight choreography and by the show’s commitment to making these fights seem tough and real. These aren’t bloodless, cartoony punch-em-ups. When these characters fight, these fights HURT. (And while one can wonder sometimes how Matt Murdock could even stand up the morning after some of these late-night fights, I was impressed by the show’s attention to continuity and to some semblance of realism in showing Matt constantly banged-up and recovering from his injuries over the course of the season.) The fight at the end of episode two is a show-stopper, an attention-getting announcement that this show was aiming high. It’s a close-quarters fight as Matt walks down a tight corridor, on his way to rescue a kidnapped child. The camera never cuts as Matt and a group of thugs fight in and out of rooms, on and off camera. It’s an extraordinary piece of choreography. I also really loved the fight with Stick in episode seven. (More on Stick in a moment.)
The cast is very strong. The three heroic leads — Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, and Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson — are all great. All three look like their comic-book counterparts, and all three bring a rich depth of character to their performances, imbuing these heroic characters with life. Charlie Cox is great as Matt, both in and out of the costume. He brings an honesty and nobility to Matt that is important, while also giving Matt just the right shadings of darkness and doubt. Our introduction to Matt Murdock in episode one is a speech that he gives in confession, and I knew immediately that Mr. Cox would be great in the role. I was pleased with how integral Karen Page was to this story here in season one, and I loved that the show presented her, Matt and Foggy as a triumvirate of equals, rather than having her just as a hanger-on to Nelson & Murdock and/or as a damsel in distress. Ms. Woll is really great, and I was pleased that her performance and the strong writing kept me just as interested in Karen’s story as I was in Matt’s. As usual for Daredevil stories, Foggy Nelson often provides the comic relief. But I was happy that Foggy isn’t presented as a one-dimensional joke, but as a real-live person with many dimensions. Foggy is innocent and sweet, but he can also take out a bad-guy with a baseball bat. And this might seem silly, but I loved that the show showed us that women were into Foggy! Of the three main hero characters, it’s Foggy who we see in bed with a lover. I loved that! Strong work by Mr. Henson combined with string writing.
But, of course, the true stand-out of Daredevil is Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk. Again — sorry for repeating myself! — a strong performance by an actor is combined with the show’s strong writing to present us with a wonderfully rich, memorable depiction of this great Daredevil villain. I love how much attention the show gave to the character of Wilson Fisk. He was every but as much a lead of the show as Matt, Karen, and Foggy. Perhaps more so! I love how long the show takes to even allow us to see Fisk for the first time. I love the slow, careful way in which we peel back the layers of his psychosis. I love that it’s Wilson Fisk, the villain, who gets the romantic story running through the season, rather than any of the three heroic leads. Mr. D’Onofrio is incredible in the role. It’s a very unexpected version of this villain. Mr. D’Onofrio’s Fisk is almost childlike, a man who doesn’t know what to do in most social situations, who hides himself away — both physically and emotionally — from others as much as he can, and yet also a man capable of incredible evil and violence.
I also hugely loved Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich! I was pleased that Urich, the intrepid reporter involved in so many classic Daredevil stories, was such a central part of this series, and I absolutely adored the quiet, understated work of grizzled Mr. Curtis-Hall. This Ben Urich is a reporter who has seen it all, whose best days appear to be behind him, and yet who cannot resist the lure of a story he knows to be important. This Ben Urich would have been at home on The Wire, and that is high praise indeed.
There’s a rich cast of actors filling out the rest of the show’s ensemble, and there’s really not a weak link among them. I loved how deeply the show dug into the Daredevil lore to fill out its universe. I never in a million years would have guessed that Vanessa would be such an important part of this Daredevil show, and yet there she was. I loved that we saw Leland Owlesley and Wesley. I yelped in delight when I realized the thug who DD beat up in episode one was Turk, and I was glad that he kept popping back up in the show in subsequent episodes. I was equally joyful when I realized that Melvin Potter was involved in the story! These are wonderful, classic Daredevil characters and yet they’re from deep in the mythos. Their inclusion in the show proved to me that the makers of this show really loved Daredevil, and that made me very happy.
Speaking of digging deep into the mythos, let’s talk about Stick. I did not expect Stick to make an appearance in this show — I thought that’d be getting too involved in some of the weirder, more complicated aspects of Daredevil’s backstory from the comics, elements that wouldn’t fit well with this more naturalistic, street-level show. And yet, to my delighted surprise, there Stick was in episode seven, played perfectly by Scott Glenn. Genius casting choice. I loved seeing Stick, and I think he was handled absolutely perfectly in the show. We got lots of fun hints to the wider world of backstory, without sidetracking the show. There was a lot there for the comic book fans to enjoy without being confusing to the newbies. I loved the final scene of that episode — staged to perfectly emulate a scene from Frank Miller & John Romita Junior’s The Man Without Fear — and the way we got a tantalizing hint at a bigger story going on beyond the edges of the show. And I loved that we never returned to that in season one. That’s perfect, to leave that scene as a taste of what we might get to in future seasons.
I also love that this show didn’t give us Elektra. That would’ve been too much for season one. I trust that we’ll get to Elektra in time.
I like that this show is set in the same universe as the Marvel Studios movies, while still being able to be its own thing, both stylistically and narratively. We hear mentions of the “incident” that trashed New York (clearly the alien invasion from The Avengers), which sets the Daredevil story firmly within that cinematic universe. But then Daredevil is able to go and do its own thing. That’s the perfect balance. Also, I love that the destruction of New York is used to cleverly explain why Hell’s Kitchen in the show is back to being the crime-ridden dump that it’s always been depicted as being in the DD comics, despite the wealth-filled, clean-cut look of those blocks in real-life New York today. That’s very clever.
The show really only makes two mis-steps in my mind. Some SPOILERS here so skip to the next paragraph if you want to remain free and clear. Number one, I was unhappy with the fate of Ben Urich at the end of the show. I have written about shows that I fell in love with when they killed off a character at the end of their first season — 24 and Game of Thrones — but it didn’t work for me here. Those two shows “made their bones” for me by killing off a character — but Daredevil had long-since proven to me that this was a visceral, adult show. I didn’t need them to kill off a character I liked to drive that home, I was already on-board. And that’s also part of the problem: I liked Ben Urich too much on the show, and the thought of not having him involved in future seasons is a letdown. Also, Ben is so important in so many Daredevil stories from the comics that I think his absence will really hurt future seasons. How can we eventually tell the Elektra saga without Ben? Sigh. Number two, the show bungled the reveal of Daredevil’s final red-and-black super-hero costume. Bottom line: the costume is just terrible. And I think the people making the show knew that, because they keep the costume pretty well-hidden in shadow when we finally see it in the final episode. But what glimpses we get make clear that it’s all wrong. The helmet in particular is the worst — the way it frames Charlie Cox’s jaw is all wrong, it gives his jaw a weird look. And the whole head-piece is too big and unwieldy. DD’s head looks way to big in the costume. It’s surprisingly silly. This needs to be corrected for season two.
But other than those two quibbles, I deeply loved this show. What a thrill it was to see a super-hero show taken so seriously, and executed with such a high level of craft.
Daredevil is a tremendous accomplishment, hugely raising the bar for all future television super-hero shows. I am hugely excited for the new wave of Netflix shows, and as I wrote above I deeply hope we won’t have to wait too many years to get a season two.
Netflix’s Daredevil succeeds on pretty much every level. I loved the ride, and I can’t wait for more.