Since the late 1970's, there have been many attempts at bringing the Superhero genre to the small screen, some focused on heroes we know and love, others creating new worlds such as Heroes.
Every so often, one show becomes a game changer for the genre, while others falter in mediocrity. In 1978 Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno made the world believe that a friendly, unassuming genius could change into an 8ft Hulk and successfully carried the premise for 5 seasons. While Nicholas Hammond and Reb Brown failed to make us believe in Spiderman or Captain America, banishing the genre as a whole to the scrap heap. Look how many times they tried to make Spiderman or the X-Men into a movie, let alone dream of making a TV show.
Then in 1993 came a curveball when Superman returned to our screens, but in a different format than we were used to. Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman changed the game for Superheroes on TV forever. The FX of the time were as close to cutting edge as TV could do, but spectacle was only a small part of that show. The key to success was that it blended tropes from every other successful show out there. One part sitcom, one part romance, one part drama, it broke the mould and boosted interest in the genre for networks and fans alike.
Other attempts followed but then came another game changer in Smallville, the idea of an origin story, played out over many seasons, never even seeing the actual hero themselves was unheard of. Imagine a show with just Bill Bixby on the run? It'd be the Fugitive. But Smallville took the idea born by Bixby's portrayal, focused on in Lois and Clark and discussed at length in Kill Bill 2, that behind the costume is not only as important, but far more important for the TV market. Not every hero can work on TV for that reason and it's why so many adaptions have failed over the years.
Fast forward and again movies took centre stage, with the X-Men franchise, Spiderman and 2 new Batman movies before Marvel released their first gambit into the world of the movies. Ever since the stinger at the end of that movie where Nick Fury alluded to a wider world we have wondered how a REAL hero would look in their world on TV.
Since then Superheroes are everywhere and every show and movie is out to one up the other. Many have put Arrow or Agents of SHIELD as the game changer, but no... Daredevil is the game changer.
There are some minor spoilers ahead, nothing that will ruin the show or plot points but most stuff is out there anyway if you ever read a comic or watched the Batfleck interpretation (Directors Cut all the way) of the character.
The biggest difference here is the most obvious. This isn't "on TV" but on Netflix, who have commissioned their own "Marvel Netflix Universe" to link in to the whole Marvel set-up. We have 4 more shows to look forward to, each with characters that have not been seen on TV before. Netflix doesn't do an episode a week, it does "binge watching", so 13 episodes out the same day, and it doesn't tell anyone what IT considers success, it might be the number of people who watch all 13 in a weekend for example. But the model is working, with House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black having been not only successful with the viewers but with critics.
Daredevil isn't paced like a network show, some episodes are slower than others but this is not a bad thing. Ever wonder how Matt Murdock can get up for work each morning after being beaten to a pulp? He can't every day and you see this, you see the consequences of the choices people make and these sometimes take whole episodes to play out. Much is made of this being "Season 1" but it could also very easily be a self contained season with no follow up until The Defenders or appearances in the other shows, or it could run for the next 5 years.
Also, perhaps the most important part of this is... THIS IS NOT FOR KIDS!
Little Johnny might want to watch this cos it's Marvel, but this would be hard R as a movie for violence. Nasty stuff happens, bones snap through skin, blood gushes and cruelty abounds. When watching The Winter Soldier I was struck by how much the violence had raised, notably with Cap having "learned" new skills from that helpful Internet. This is a modern Daredevil and as one character rightly pointed out, he has never stopped training. In short, the only thing stopping this being hard R is the lack of F bombs. If you let your kids watch, don't complain it's not like the Avengers.
The smart thing that hits you off the bat is that they are not cramming another dreaded origin story down your throat, not in the traditional sense. Of course you see what happens to young Matt, his father, his Catholic guilt and the gift/curse given to him, but in essences the origin story here is for Nelson and Murdock, the law firm.
The two leads are immediately likeable, notably Elden Henson as Foggy and this is evidenced early when we meet an ex of his. Funny guys really do get the girls. But there's more than jokes to this Foggy, he's almost a polar of the shows villain. He has ambition, wants to improve Hells Kitchen and help people, but he's committed to doing things the right way and is ultimately the moral compass of the show. I make such mention of him as many of the plaudits will go to Charlie Cox. This guy is not only believable as a conflicted, vengeful force but as a great lawyer, which has always been the crux of the character and what sets him apart from so many other heroes alter egos, particularly in Marvel's shows. This guy is no billionaire playboy, god or soldier, even though he has been trained as a warrior, he spends his days fighting for people and his nights fighting to protect them.
The 3rd part of the team is Karen Page, who unsurprisingly is at first a damsel in distress but quickly becomes not only integral to both Matt and Foggy's lives but a resourceful, dangerous force of her own. This isn't some dame getting curious, this is a woman being driven but unhappily oblivious to the consequences.
Soon it becomes clear that Wilson Fisk who later is known as Kingpin is behind everything our team are fighting and this is perhaps some of the best casting. Vincent D'Onofrio is not 7ft and 400 pounds, but he makes you believe he is every bit as powerful and complicated as the comic character was. This is a guy with something to lose, something new to him and ironically his allies throughout the show are spot on. He's changing and not for the better.
The supporting cast are strong, again picked for the best actor for the job. Rosario Dawson is great as Night-Nurse/Clare, who is clearly important going forward. She is that person heroes can go to to get help when they need it, even if it's not them doing the asking. Vondie Curtis Hall is Ben Urich, the one good reporter left and although his subplot is a little perfunctory at times the performance is enough to make it seem important.
On the villainous side we have the ever watchable Bob Gunton, I don't think it's obtuse to say there is some irony in his character here. Leland "The Owl" Owsley is basically Andy Dusfrene from Shawshank Redemption, only he's guilty as sin and happy about it. Toby Leonard Moore does very well as Wesley, the trusted lieutenant to Fisk and as Vanessa, Ayelet Zurer is perhaps the best on the cast. She's smart, sexy and it's easy to see why Fisk would fall for her and she'd become so important to the overall story from a chance encounter.
My only disappointment was Scott Glen as Stick. The performance was fine, the character suitably cynical but he felt shoehorned in and rushed. If you're gonna cast someone of that level, give them more than one episode. Indeed at times characters do seem to disappear completely for several episodes and that is disappointing.
So why is this a game-changer?
First off there is no getting around that no Superhero show or film has dared to go this realistic. People die horribly, are maimed and face very real consequences. These are portrayed seriously, far more than in The Dark Knight. While Matt won't kill like Bruce Wayne, doesn't mean he doesn't want to or come very close to it. If there was EVER any doubt that The Punisher couldn't work on the small screen this dispels it. Just as The Winter Soldier raised the bar on violence for Marvel's movies, which was then reflected in Agents Of Shield this has now set the tone for all of Netflix's outings. When we see Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, they're not going to be any less gritty than this. Some very nasty subjects get touched on in this show and that will continue in Jessica Jones, where in the comics she is forced to live with The Purple Man as his "wife" by mind control. Netflix isn't scared to go to these dark places and ride the storm of any parental complaints. Shows like Gotham skirt those places, or just go in enough that you know there is corruption in the police or human trafficking going on. Daredevil puts you front and centre into these and it's not fun.
This is the first property not sold on either wide appeal or kids, it's sold on it being "This is Marvel and Netflix together" and that alone will get a lot of casuals to watch. Nearly every show Netflix has put out is good if not great and this is arguably the greatest yet.
This is also perhaps the most beautifully filmed hero show yet. In one episode there is a Scorsese-esque sequence of 5 minutes or so, pure fighting. SHIELD flirts with this kind of thing but doesn't pull it off. Even the theme and opening credits are memorable, to the point where you'll not tire of seeing them even after 13 of them. In many ways this is more like Hannibal than Agent's Of SHIELD in how it's shot, the imagery at play.
The biggest reason this is a game changer is that it shows what can be done with the genre with the leash off. Deadpool being rated R? I wouldn't be shocked if Fox got a peek at this show and realized it'll be ok to do that. Marvel itself has it's two facets, the kid friendly like Guardians Of The Galaxy and arguably Spiderman in the not too distant future, but now they are also catering for those who want things a bit more grown up and cerebral along with blood and violence. It's still not Game Of Thrones, there's no real sex going on in this show for example but now Marvel, DC and even Disney all know it's OK to aim for older audiences, we could be seeing some very interesting takes on properties going forward, who is to say we can't get a more grown up Star Wars show for example? Or another crack at Blade or even Lobo? One thing is now sure, TV is the new Movies when it comes to heroes...
As for Daredevil, I hope there is another season for sure, we need to see Elektra, Bullseye and a lot more. I am almost sad I watched it all now, knowing it's probably gonna be 2 years before we see any more. But I guess that's what they were aiming for.