Whew. Let's step back and take a breath for a moment. Anyone else just getting off a thirteen hour binge of Marvel's Daredevil knows why that's necessary. What a show. I knew right from the minute that Marvel announced the Daredevil tv show that things were about to change. The mistake that studio execs made back in 2003 is that the character lends himself better to long narrative story lines, and not an hour-and-a-half, angst filled mess of feature film. With Netflix's inaugural step into the Marvel universe of heroes and villains, Marvel has shown that they more than understand that.
During Daredevil's initial run in the 60's and 70's, Hell's Kitchen was overrun with drugs and violence. The stories that Stan Lee wrote were socially relevant looks at life in the area at the time. However, fast forwarding to modern day, Hell's Kitchen has been gentrified, like most of Manhattan. To circumvent what would obviously be a major anachronism by portraying the Hell's Kitchen of modern day as not having changed, the showrunners have cleverly utilized it's place within the MCU, and the Battle of New York in particular, as the reason that Hell's Kitchen has regressed to shambles. After an alien invasion leaving so much of the city in ruins, criminal elements have moved back into Hell's Kitchen and claimed it as their own, all headed by a man who is initially known only as the enigmatic "employer."
In fact, besides a few passing references to the Battle of New York and some framed front pages on the wall of Ben Urich's office (showcasing, among other things, Hulk's victory over Abomination and significant moments from The Avengers), the show maintains its distance from the rest of the cinematic universe, instead using it as a backdrop to begin telling the story of the street level heroes, the ones who have to repair the lives and clean up the mess left behind when the so-called superheroes have gone.
The show immediately thrusts you into it, opting to initially skip over the origin story, and plant you firmly in the middle of Hell's Kitchen, after Murdock has already begun spending his nights jumping across rooftops and lurking in alleyways. The origin story does get told eventually, through the use of flashbacks which take place primarily over the series' first two or three episodes, but don't get in the way of the main narrative.
The narrative itself is a very mature one, rather a stark (haha) contrast to the rest of the stories that Marvel has given us so far. This is to be understood, as the show's source material has always held a much grittier tone than most of Marvel's other series (punisher excluded). Being on Netflix means that they aren't afraid to push past the limits of PG-13, not quite hitting a hard R rating, but falling somewhere in between, with violent confrontations between characters a frequent happening, and a rather bleak atmosphere taking center stage. Human trafficking and violent murders are not an unusual sight, and our hero must act accordingly. He doesn't shy away from dropping men off rooves or violently kicking the crap out of thugs to get what he needs, on his way to taking down the Kingpin.
The Kingpin himself is a much, much darker villain than we've ever been offered before by Marvel. A man who truly believes he is in the right, and that his methods, no matter how extreme, are for the better of the city. The show is as much Daredevil's origin story as it is his, and as the show goes on, it seems almost as if he receives just as much, if not more screentime than our hero himself. His violent outbursts are a vivid departure from his usual calm, almost psychopathic collectedness. We're treated to a very well developed villain, who at times you almost feel sympathetic for, and who you feel is a genuine threat to our hero, despite a lack of powers.
At times the show can feel a bit slow, when it takes breaks from the action to follow Karen Page and Ben Urich on their search for answers, or Karen and Foggy out for a night on the town, but it never fails to be interesting. Ultimately, you find yourself wishing that there was more, and thats what any good show should do.
Now lets talk about the casting. Charlie Cox is Matt Murdock. That's just who he is from now on. Back when the Boardwalk Empire alum was announced as the titular character of the series, I was skeptical at best. Having now finished the entire first season, I can tell you that Marvel could not have found anyone better for the role, and has proved to me once and for all that their casting choices should never be questioned. The blind, goodhearted lawyer that Cox brings to the screen has been ripped straight from the pages of the Man Without Fear's titular comic, in the best way possible. From the appearance, to the personality, right down to the facial expressions, the Matt Murdock we are treated to is likable, believable, and easy to relate to, but as showcased by Cox's fantastic acting, he's also a man who quite obviously has a demon inside him (or a devil, if you will).
On the flip side of this, Murdock's Daredevil persona is dark, and violent; he certainly doesn't mince words. Upon first inspection, the man in the mask comes off as a discount Batman, with the show even going so far as to introduce him in a scene that takes place at the docks, amid shipping containers and shadows, very reminiscent of how Christopher Nolan first introduced us to Batman in his Dark Knight trilogy. However, he quickly distinguishes himself as a man who is simply out to save his city, without money, fancy gadgets, or significant detective work. He relies more on brute force than fear and scare tactics for intimidation, not shying away from a little torture to get the information he needs, and in fact comes off as quite similar to Oliver Queen's Arrow. Cox is an intimidating figure in the all black suit, having bulked up quite a bit since his HBO days. He's not a man you would want to run into in the middle of the day, let alone a dark alley at night. An interesting choice made in Daredevil's characterization is the fact that Murdock (and by extension, Cox) puts very little, if any, effort into disguising his voice. At some times it does come out a bit like he swallowed some sandpaper, but that's usually attributed to someone having just pissed him off, and not a regular staple of the character. Cox brings the right amount of anger and depth to the character, without making him feel like a cartoon, and provides a distinct separation between who Matt is during the day, and who he masquerades as at night, without making them feel like two completely different people. And his American accent was pretty good too.
Let's move on to the supporting cast. Elden Henson plays Foggy Nelson, the other half of Nelson and Murdock, and Matt's best friend. Henson does a good job of making Foggy a likable enough character, although its clear he is placed there as the show's comic relief. This is where the show falters a little bit, as Foggy's character seems to stick out a little within the darker tone of the show. Indeed, he would be right at home on Agents of Shield, but here it feels like he's a character that the writers wrote in for a previous, more light-hearted version of the show, which can at times be a little hard to swallow against the backdrop of everything else going on around him. That being said, Henson still plays an otherwise enjoyable character, who brings some much needed light to a decidedly dark series, and how well he fits in may well be more of a fault of the writers than his own.
Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page was fantastic. She's introduced to us as Nelson and Murdock's first client, but quickly becomes their friend and secretary. Page transforms from a fearful, traumatized victim, afraid to go outside and expose herself to the city's "dark corners," to a noticeably stronger, more self assured young woman, determined to bring down the criminal element plaguing Hell's Kitchen. A veteran of HBO's "True Blood," Woll handles this gradual growth in character with amazing ease, and makes Page's eagerness and greenness to help New York Bulletin reporter Ben Urich find a story both entertaining and believable to watch. She brings such an interesting and in depth take on the character to the screen, that coupled with Vondie Curtis-Hall's Urich, she makes for some of the most entertaining moments of the series, even though those scenes usually lack our titular masked vigilante. The subplot surrounding her, involving her sometimes overzealous attempts to assist Urich in uncovering evidence that could bring down Kingpin and his criminal empire, could almost stand as a show on its own, as the damaged naivete that Woll brings to the role of Page foils nicely with Hall's Urich, and at sometimes even feels like a master/apprentice type dynamic.
That being said, Hall's Ben Urich is yet another well cast character. Though not entirely true to his comic origins (Urich in the comics was a chain-smoking, no nonsense reporter who would stop at nothing to get his story, whereas the Ben we're given in the show is a much older man, who it is constantly hinted at used to be very much like his comic counterpart, but has begun to get disillusioned with age), Ben's character envelops the viewer in the idea of what it would be like to witness the events that transpire in Hell's Kitchen from the eyes of an everyman, a reporter. At many points during the show, I felt more than a little bit of inspiration was taken from Phil Sheldon, the reporter and main character of the absolutely amazing Marvels miniseries from 1994. Hall gives a fantastic performance, as a man trying to hold his life together, while trying to do something meaningful with his position at the fictional New York Bulletin, instead of opting to simply write the kind of fluff pieces that keep papers afloat in the digital age. Hall plays what would come off as simple world-weariness from another actor as a legitimate struggle of morality, and you really feel for his character, right to the end of his respective arc.
Rosario Dawson, perhaps best known for her role as Mimi in the theatrical release of Rent, plays Claire Temple, an amalgam of her namesake and the character Night Nurse from the comics. She's responsible for patching Daredevil up whenever he's in need of it, and their first meeting in the show comes after she has fished him out of a dumpster. She's also an early love-interest for Murdock, although truth be told, this doesn't really seem to be headed anywhere. The always talented Dawson plays her with a respectable toughness, standing in judgement of Matt's actions, while still supporting his endgame. Personally, I felt she was criminally underutilized this season, and am hoping we get much more of her to come in future seasons, but the character was handled well, and Dawson provided the character with very relatable qualities which make it easy to see just how she can be one of Daredevil's major tethers to why he does what he does.
Finally, we have the Kingpin. While not (as of yet) referred to as his criminal name in the show, the Wilson Fisk that Vincent D'Onofrio brings to the screen is menacing and sympathetic all at once, and is strides beyond Michael Clarke Duncan's Kingpin, who was arguably the best part of the 2003 movie. Eagle-eyed viewers will recognize D'Onofrio from his long run as detective Robert Goren on Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Besides looking the part, D'Onofrio brings a gravitas to the role that allows him to steal every scene he's present in. From the scenes where he's calmly delegating orders to his underlings, to the ones where he loses his cool and goes absolutely insane, Fisk is an incredibly fun, interesting character to watch, and you find yourself waiting just as much for the scenes of him as you do for the scenes of Matt kicking ass. At the beginning of the series he is shrouded in secret, referred to only as the enigmatic “employer,” who's goal is to make Hell's Kitchen a better place, no matter the cost. By the end of this season however, D'Onofrio gives us a man who is no longer Wilson Fisk, but the one and only Kingpin of Crime, having been beaten down and growing to hate the city because of his failures.
The show, touted as "the rise of the first Defender," feels like just that. It introduces long time fans and new viewers alike to a side of the Marvel universe that we've never seen before. A darker, grittier backdrop to a universe that was, up until now, fairly light hearted. Much like the first Iron Man film was a huge stepping stone (arguably the biggest) for Marvel Movies, introducing us to a universe which would continue to expand in both a narrative sense and physical size as more heroes and worlds are introduced, this show is another major stepping stone for Marvel, both character-wise and in terms of format. Yes, we've gotten Marvel tv shows before, in the form of the excellent Agents of Shield and Agent Carter, but this is the basis of something bigger. While the Shield series were building on the already existing mythos in order to expand upon it, Daredevil is building something of it's own. Daredevil is the first in a series of Netflix-exclusive shows meant to build the side of the universe that deals with the heroes out on the streets, the ones who arguably do the hard work, a group of series which will culminate in The Defender's miniseries. In that sense, Marvel's Daredevil is the Netflix series' answer to Iron Man, kickstarting something which will culminate in a major teamup which, like The Avengers before it, will likely change the landscape of the MCU. If that is indeed the case, then Daredevil was one hell of a way to kick off this new phase for Marvel.