Review: Daredevil (Netflix, 2015)
I recently reviewed Jessica Jones and it seemed only fair to give Daredevil a review too.
Great superhero show that borrows from police procedurals and organised crime dramas like The Sopranos in an order to create tension, drama and believable realism in a dark, gritty and action filled New York setting. With its visceral, consequence ridden violence, Daredevil attempts to show what superhero vigilantes would be like if they actually existed in the real world, never once hiding the emotional and physical wounds their actions cause.
Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, is a lawyer by day and a vigilante by night. He lives a life focused on justice, and, with the irony only a comic book can use straight-faced, just as justice is blind, so is he. Unlike the majority of Marvel’s other superhero properties on the big and small screens, Daredevil is less concerned with the grand epic battles of superheroes deciding the fate of the world in an orgy of cinematic violence and destruction, and it centres itself on individual struggles, believable conflicts, and the everyday crime and grime of the big city.
Set in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York, shortly after the events of Avengers (2012), Netflix’s 13 episode Daredevil is part of the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe but holds itself apart. Like its sister show Jessica Jones, it will also (presumably) be connected to Netflix’s planned shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Coming to Daredevil after seeing Jessica Jones certainly removes some of the power and impact of the series, but despite some strong similarities they seem to be two very different shows. Jones was a compelling drama based in a detective noir vein that explored abuse, whereas Daredevil is more an organised crime drama that can’t resist action and a good scrap.
Charlie Cox plays Matt Murdock, the titular Daredevil, a vigilante who stalks the streets and rooftops of his neighbourhood at night in order to stop the crime and corruption plaguing Hell’s Kitchen. If this were not arduous enough, by day he is an attorney who has recently left a high price law firm in order to set up his own practice with his childhood friend Franklin ‘Foggy’ Nelson (Elden Henson). The central antagonist for the series is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin, a businessman and crimelord, with the main arc in the first season centring around Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page, who discovers some evidence of Fisk’s criminal empire and becomes a target whom Murdock must protect.
While there are several other supporting actors who, for the most part, turn in some great, believable performances, the weight of the show really rests on Cox and D’Onofrio’s shoulders. Cox portrays Murdock as a deeply conflicted man. On the one hand, as a lawyer he has a chance to pursue justice through due process and the law. To take criminals down and put them in jail. To be part of civilisation and help society heal itself. On the other hand he sees how justice is routinely suborned and manipulated by the wealthy, the corrupt, and the criminally well connected. His answer to this is to take the law into his own hands, to do the things that the police are unable to do, to fight for the heart and soul of his city, his neighbourhood and the defenceless, and ultimately become a vigilante outside the law.
Despite Cox being English his American accent is surprisingly convincing (well, at least to my untrained ear). But that is the least of his accomplishments in the role. It is a tough sell to convincingly pull off both the civilian role of the lawyer as well as the masked vigilante crime-fighter, and yet Cox manages to make both personae seamlessly match. Coupled with this is Cox’s compelling character performance in his character’s moments of introspection and self-doubt, particularly in regard as to how his violent street fighting justice runs in conflict with his character’s Catholic beliefs and his role as a lawyer. Cox also manages to convey both the vulnerability of being blind in a sighted world, but also how his disability does not define him. Certainly there are a number of knowing moments when Cox plays up Murdock’s blindness and the audience knows he has a ‘radar’ sense of the scene in front of him, but for the most part Cox and the production team seem to genuinely try to portray his blindness with sensitivity and realism. It is a surprisingly complex and nuanced role for those expecting the usual caricatures of superheroes and their melodramatic soap-opera personae.
As Daredevil there is a visceral realism to the scrapes and fights that he finds himself in and actively seeks out. Each fight, each punch and kick, has a hard meaty content to it, so that every blow lands with a believable primitive weight, and part of that is due to the damage that his character takes over the course of the series, emotional and physical. While many superheroes seem to be able to fight from morning to night without any real sense of damage or repercussion, Daredevil is visibly worn and exhausted by his conflicts and the evidence of his beatings mounts episode after episode, from cuts and bruises to cracked and bleeding knuckles. Even more compelling is that these physical scars and markers are accompanied by emotional damage, both to Murdock and those who are close to him. The price he pays for his heroism is steep, and to the credit of the show and the character, we see him questioning it and flinching at the cost.
An additional note in relation to the action and fight sequences concerns the brilliant choreography that reflects both Daredevil’s brutal, raw and yet effective fighting style, and the physical toll that such intense fighting exacts. The show is also very careful to try to avoid boring repetition when it comes to the fight sequences and experiments with different styles of shots and approaches to keep the action feeling fresh and inventive. As a result the action never feels as tired and samey as say 40 minutes of Superman throwing yet another villain through a building. It really is rare to see superheroes this human, this weak, and this fragile.
Opposite Cox is D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk. The reveal of Fisk, while telegraphed and hinted at in the first few episodes, is delayed until the viewer is really committed and has had a chance to identify with Murdock and settle into the storyworld created. This means that a great deal of anticipation is built up around D’Onofrio’s eventual introduction, and he doesn’t disappoint. As far as comic book villains go he is one of the most believable and realistic villains around. He has no superpowers, no special abilities and doesn’t seem hell bent on world destruction or domination just for the hell of it. D’Onofrio presents Fisk as a cold, calculating business man who has understandable goals, understandable motivations, but is undeniably morally reprehensible in his choice of methods in achieving those things.
D’Onofrio plays Fisk beautifully as a true villain, not a cackling baddie, and if anything he initially underplays him. It is such a relief to see a character actor unafraid of leaving the audience wanting more take the role of a villain. Fisk is presented as tightly controlled, soft spoken and is all the more chilling because of it. There are constant hints of the depths of his rage and power that leak out at the edges of the performance, and because he refuses to chew the scenery his power is that more palpable. It also adds weight and power to those moments when he does indulge his rage and anger. He is the Tony Soprano of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and like Gandolfini’s Soprano, Fisk is not entirely without sympathy, even if he is the bad guy, commits evil, and is a brutal murderer.
A fantastic strength of the show is that Fisk and Murdock are set up as mirrors of each other and the show is at pains to show the viewer just how similar the two men are. They are both criminals who break the law to get their own way, and aren’t afraid of using violence to enforce their will and vision of the area. They are both locals who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and want it to be better. But while Kingpin is focused on the future with his grand plans of re-development and gentrification funded by organised crime, Daredevil stands for a more conservative, and perhaps nostalgic, approach that fights for the rights of the everyday citizen. They are two sides to the same coin, and yet the audience is never in doubt as to who is the villain and who is the hero, even if the characters themselves are sometimes unsure.
When people talk about superheroes becoming grittier and more realistic, they usually mean darker, more violent, and aimed at an older audience, and yes Daredevil is all those things, but it is also more mature. Psychological realism, fear and tension, trauma and repercussions for violence all figure in this show that borrows far more heavily from award winning HBO dramas than it does from colourful capes. Daredevil is superheroes for adults who want more from the stories than disaster porn and sociopathic quips delivered while killing nameless bad guys. Daredevil is about good storytelling, compelling characters, gripping drama, and believable action. Watch it and you will see that the potential for superhero stories far exceeds what has so far turned up on the big screen.