In a world where superhero movies are reaching the apex of their popularity and market value, it’s easy to dismiss their television counterparts as simply mediocre cash cows that bear resemblance only in costume and tired, regurgitated tropes. Netflix’s “Daredevil,” the whole first season of which was released on Netflix on April 10, is perhaps the first of its kind to go well beyond all expectations.
The TV series is based almost entirely on Frank Miller’s work as a writer and artist for the Marvel comic of the same name in the 1980s. Miller’s “Daredevil” emphasized symbolic violence and the gray areas in debates over good and evil — justice through revenge or through the law. His work elevated Daredevil from a second-tier character to one of the most popular in the Marvel universe. Miller is also known as the artist-writer of the critically acclaimed and thematically similar comic “Batman: the Dark Knight,” otherwise known as the inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” series.
For those unfamiliar with the superhero, played by Charlie Cox (“Boardwalk Empire”, “The Theory of Everything”), Daredevil is the by-night alter ego of Matthew Murdock, a defense attorney in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York. Blinded by a chemical spill during his childhood, Murdock uses the heightened senses he gained from the accident to compensate for his lack of sight. He now has superhuman reflexes, can hear people’s heartbeat to tell if they are being truthful and can determine people’s identity based on their smell. Murdock is joined by his best friend and fellow defense attorney, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), and client-turned-secretary, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). Daredevil faces a foray of criminals from different underground roots: the Yakuza, the Triads, the Russians and Murdock’s ethical opposite, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio).
The showrunners, Drew Goddard (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Alias”) and Steven DeKnight (“Spartacus”) slow the plot line’s progression in a fashion unlike that of other shows and movies adapted from comics. The introduction of Fisk, the series’ arch villain, was delayed for a few episodes. Viewers are not even given his name initially because all of his underlings are too scared to say it. The explanation for Murdock’s powers and abilities are given even later — his backstory is shown in the form of fragments relevant to the present-day plot rather than a lazy prologue. This pace has a bizarre effect on the narrative: The episodes blend together, making the series feel like a 13-hour-long movie rather than a traditional TV show.
The highlight of the series, however, is the gorgeous noir cinematography. Goddard and DeKnight play with the light and the shadows in the dark alleyways and dimly lit basements and factories, where much of the series seems to take place. The lighting effectively makes the audience rely less on its sight and more on its hearing, perhaps a nod toward solidarity with the way Murdock lives.
The fight scenes are brilliantly coordinated. They’re raw, visceral. Daredevil isn’t the hero who effortlessly evades every bullet and remains unaffected by every punch. He’s stabbed, his bones are broken, he’s tazed, and although he continues to fight through it, the audience knows that he’s struggling, that he’s human.
It would be remiss not to mention the stellar acting of Cox and D’Onofrio. Cox smoothly transitions between his day and night personas. As Murdock, Cox delivers as a quietly charming lawyer who has a knack for approaching beautiful women. As Daredevil, he plays the forceful vigilante who isn’t afraid to throw someone off a roof to get the information he needs. The identities exist on different planes, but Cox’s portrayal of them is capable of convincing the audience that the two can exist together. D’Onofrio’s Fisk holds remarkable depth not seen in a comic adaptation since perhaps Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus in “Spider-Man 2.” His personality varies from timid and awkward, when around the woman he is trying to woo, to violently cruel, such as when he decapitates one of his underlings with a car door.
“Daredevil” is the first of a five-series deal between Netflix and Marvel (the second, “A.K.A Jessica Jones,” is coming out later this year) — all of which attempt to focus on the more human aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rather than tackling alien invasions and super-powered Nazis, the protagonists face mobsters, corrupt cops and thugs. These heroes are saving their neighborhood, not the universe, and it’s better that way.
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