In the first minutes of Daredevil, a masked Matt Murdock fights down three men. It's not effortless. He’s not an Asgardian or even Captain America. But each blow comes with the speed and precision of someone more than human. The fight is hard and intimate — bones crunch and blood splatters — in a way that takes a toll. It’s the kind of spectacle you wince at. By the time he’s punching his last victim, over and over again, you might think, "God, he’s never going to stop is he?"
From the very beginning, the show, Marvel’s first Netflix series, is preoccupied with questions of morality. But more than anything else, it’s a show about how far things need to go before they get better. Set in a bombed out New York, the city, we’re told early and often, is in desperate need of saving. Corruption has crept its way into every corner of life — law enforcement, commerce, even basic things like housing — and how to root it out is at the show’s core. But Daredevil’s morality can’t easily be defined as good versus evil. When your protagonist is a blind vigilante who beats down thugs as much for sport as for a higher purpose, you’re talking about evil versus lesser evil, or about doing abject, unforgivable things for the greater good. In its uncompromising depiction of that struggle, Marvel manages to make this series great.
The series’ conceit, in blurring the line between hero and villain, isn’t especially novel. The mild-mannered professional by day, crimefighter by night trope invites immediate comparison to The Dark Knight trilogy and shows like Arrow. But Daredevil shines in the execution, which is as inspired as it is dark, darker than anything Marvel or DC has so far depicted onscreen.
This is a world where the Avengers failed us
It manages that first by being bloodier than anything audiences have seen out of the Big Two so far, verging on the edge of Sin City territory. This show is gruesome. The bloodletting is relentless here; at one point, a character slams his own head through a wall spike just to make a point. But what really sets this apart from Nolan’s films and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that Daredevil shows how superheroes fail us. The Avengers saved the world, but the New York they left behind is still scarred for it. Crime took root in the wreckage, and heroes like Iron Man are nowhere in sight. Matt Murdock is the kind of hero that environment now needs: the first street-level hero willing to get his hands dirty. And the blood he and those around him spill is a constant reminder of how morally compromised his part of the city has become. This is what the world is like with superheroes in it. This is how things go too far. It’s as cruel as it is compelling, adding weight to the proceedings without leaning so much on older stories as to prevent the story from standing on its own.
Some background. Daredevil follows Matt Murdock (Boardwalk Empire’s Charlie Cox), a man born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen watching his neighborhood crumble around him. The Sin City resemblance is no accident; the series draws from Frank Miller’s run on the character in the 1980s and ‘90s, and it was Miller who effectively made gritty, morally gray superhero stories stick. His acclaimed 1993 miniseries Daredevil: The Man Without Fear is the principal inspiration here, as we see Murdock’s origin as well as his birth as an anti-hero. A childhood freak accident involving radioactive chemicals (ever the source of Marvel magic) destroyed his sight, but enhanced the rest of his senses to superhuman levels. He can hear, smell, taste, and feel what we can’t, and his "view" of our world becomes that of a world on fire. Thus christened, Murdock becomes the city’s protector, doing double duty as a lawyer and a masked vigilante as he fights to take down the criminal element plaguing New York.
Charlie Cox plays a good man capable of doing terrible things
As Matt Murdock, Cox brings a quiet charm and Catholic guilt that makes him immediately sympathetic. The character simmers when he’s onscreen, only boiling over when he lets rage consume him as the masked hero. This is a good man capable of doing terrible things, and he’s good at what he does. He’s joined by a stellar cast that all embody some moral struggle that exposes how broken New York has become. Elden Henson plays Murdock’s best friend and legal partner Franklin "Foggy" Nelson, an essentially good lawyer still smarting from the pair turning down a lucrative position at a corrupt law firm. True Blood alum Deborah Ann Woll plays Karen Page, a victim of the show’s core criminal plot whose past on the show is likely as checkered as her troubled past in the comics. Rosario Dawson plays Claire Temple, a night shift nurse who stitches Murdock up despite witnessing his penchant for violence. And Vondie Curtis-Hall plays Ben Urich, probably the most storied investigative journalist in all of Marvel, as he wrestles with how to help bring the city’s darker influences down without getting himself or those he cares about killed.
But the real highlight here is Vincent D’Onofrio’s take on Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime. In the past, Fisk has been portrayed as a fearsome crime lord only posing as a legitimate businessman, serving as the arch-enemy of superheroes like Spider-Man, the Punisher, and especially Daredevil. Here, he’s Murdock’s twisted reflection. They want the same thing — that is, to make their city a better place. But, where Murdock wants to stamp out crime one punch at a time, Fisk wants to dismantle the underworld from the inside, even if that means dirtying his hands with drugs and human trafficking.
Who really serves the greater good?
Who’s really serving the greater good? In its first five episodes, the show offers no easy answer outside of our knowledge that we are watching a show called Daredevil, and the titular character is supposed to be our hero. But D’Onofrio makes Fisk charming in his way — in one early episode, we see him fumble awkwardly on a date with a woman he admires. And Fisk states outright he takes no pleasure in his criminal activity, while we can only wonder as to how much pleasure Murdock takes in ripping his enemies apart.
With so many new superhero shows on television, Daredevil successfully raises the bar. As Marvel’s crop of TV projects have evolved from decent (Agents of SHIELD) to excellent (Agent Carter), Daredevil pushes the envelope by going down dark paths the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t gone down before. This isn’t about aliens saving planets. It’s about one man taking on mass murderers with his bare hands. Marvel and Netflix have three more solo series scheduled for the near future, all leading up to The Defenders crossover miniseries. That this can be more compelling than what we’ve seen in theaters bodes well for what Netflix has coming next.
Marvel's Daredevil premieres on April 10th on Netflix.