Is this the greatest live-action release in Marvel history? We revisit the Man Without Fear to find out ahead of Season 2.
Daredevil, at least until recently, could be the most underrated superhero in all of Marvel canon. The Stan Lee/Bill Everett creation didn’t get much love on his debut in 1964, and for years, the blind wonder was very much a B-lister whose book was always under threat of cancellation. It wasn’t until Frank Miller redefined the character with an earnest seriousness in the 80s that he started to become a beloved name for comic collectors. For most people, though, there was only the infamous 2003 motion picture with which to judge the big M’s rival to Batman. That ill-fated adaptation was, for the time, a somewhat sincere attempt to translate Miller’s beautiful grit and Catholic guilt, but somewhere along the way, all of the material’s edge was removed and replaced with something more cookie-cutter. Family-friendly, even. It gave DD and his alter-ego – saintly lawyer Matt Murdock – the reputation of being campy and ridiculous.
Boy, are those days over!
Thanks to the wondrous freedom of Netflix, Marvel’s Daredevil couldn’t be more in-sync with the modern comics or Miller’s vision if it tried. Don’t forget that this is a book with liberal violence, loads of sex and even an arc where a valued supporting character sells out our hero’s identity for heroin! The Man Without Fear’s best stories are grim morality tales occasionally enlivened by balletic punch-ups, and show creator Drew Goddard absolutely nailed it. This thirteen-episode first season coalesces to become, in my opinion, the best product of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe so far; a gutsy, adult rendering that manages to honour the source material whilst becoming something grander in the process.
The world of Daredevil is built painstakingly, but the showrunners never smash us over the head with exposition. Consider that it took twenty-minutes to tell Murdock’s origin in the 2003 film, and here, it is summarised in a flashback before the main titles even kick-in. This matter-of-fact representation only underscores how painful and tragic Murdock’s accident is, and that grounding extends to the treatment of his resultant powers. We only get brief flashes of how he perceives the world, allowing us to fill in the blanks for ourselves. That all but makes the ridiculous elements easier to swallow. In that regard, the decision to hold-off on the all-important costume until the finale was a stroke of genius; we care about Matt long before the red-and-black duds make him a mythic figure.
There’s also something to be said about filming in New York – the character’s home – and not a cushy soundstage in Burbank. They make a lot of noise about DD being a “street-level hero,” and that ethos is lived up to. There’s no perceptible artifice in this Hell’s Kitchen. Whether it be a rooftop, dive bar or alleyway, it is all recognisably and quintessentially NYC. Think about the cityscapes in various other comic shows, which are very often Vancouver doubling for the US, or even digital renderings entirely, and the impact of Daredevil’s world on the finished product is made abundantly clear. It all feels real. Yet it never becomes pretentious like, arguably, the latter two Nolan Batman films. Any verisimilitude just makes the fantasy and bone-crunching violence all the more impactful.
Oh, yes, the action. Daredevil is very much a crime drama, sure, but the fisticuffs are pure graphic novel nirvana. This is summed-up best in the now-classic showdown in episode two, in which Matt clears a corridor full of scumbags in one long, unbroken take. It should seem self-consciously showy or perhaps a thinly-veiled attempt to replicate the likes of The Raid or even Oldboy, but it tells us all we need to know about Matt’s hyper-senses and what he has to go through. This isn’t an effortless skirmish but a draining assault that leaves our hero temporarily dazed before he summons the will to deliver the final blow. Like his dearly departed boxer of a dad, Murdock can be out for the count, and that fills every encounter with tension.
While the above sequence grabbed all the press, the thirteen episodes have plenty of memorable set-pieces, from Matt fighting his wayward mentor, “Stick” (a fantastic Scott Glenn), to him bouncing across rooftops with superhuman grace in a suspenseful pursuit. The latter sequence, for me, is perhaps the most convincing realisation of a superhero’s acrobatics ever put to celluloid. Daredevil is not at all heavy on action, but because each sequence evolves organically from the labyrinthine plotting, each has a weight the cinema releases can never match.
Yet none of this would mean anything without a sterling cast of characters. Charlie Cox effortlessly handles the lead as Murdock, and is perhaps the most uncanny hero casting in the MCU this side of Downey Jr. We first meet the grown-up crimefighter in a confesstional booth, and that right there sets him apart from a thousand other tight-wearing crusaders. Cox seems to have let this key character trait inform his entire performance, speaking with an almost-priestly sorrowfulness that seems entirely genuine. The Brit some may remember from Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust is utterly convincing as both a well-read, altruistic lawyer with a heart of gold, and as a brutal vigilante smashing goons into pulp.
The familiar supporting players are also well-chosen. His loyal legal partner, Foggy Nelson, was always inserted into the book for a bit of comic relief, and his humour here is needed to stop things from becoming too dour. I wasn’t sure Elden Henson was the right choice at the start of the season, but to the writers’ credit, he is allowed to grow beyond mere quips and buffoonery, and Henson really makes him a three-dimensional friend for Murdock. He is the heart and soul of the show in many ways, later transforming into Matt’s moral barometer (you always need one of those).
Likewise, True Blood‘s Deborah Ann Woll is fantastic as the perpetually-unlucky Karen Page. Longtime readers will know that Miss Page has quite the tortured history, and Woll has more than enough drama to handle. She isn’t just a potential love interest for Matt – the most-laid superhero in all of comics – but a courageous heroine in her own way who tackles corruption head-on. Along with Foggy, she’s that reason for Matt to keep fighting for their neighborhood. A neighborhood shared by nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), another strong female role who unwittingly becomes Murdock’s medic, confidante and handy connective tissue for Jessica Jones.
Towering above them all is the single greatest villain in any Marvel product ever (seriously, you can keep bloody Loki). Casting Vincent D’Onofrio as the hulking Wilson Fisk was a stroke of genius that pushes this show over the edge into a total classic. You remember The Kingpin from the comics and cartoons, right? Despite a gargantuan physique, his evil was usually over-the-top and about as threatening as a paper-cut. Well, D’Onofrio took all of that and went even further to present us with an antaoginst as flawed and as scarred as our protagonist. Fisk might be dirty, but in his own way, he’s also trying to save Hell’s Kitchen just like Matt. His way just so happens to include drugs, money-laundering, and chopping off a mobster’s head with a car door (that’s how you do it, Vinnie Jones). Old Gormer Pyle turns this monster of a manchild into a fearful figure and, in his doomed relationship with Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer), actually gains our sympathies. I’m honestly sad for the guy when it all boils down to a duel with our horned crusader. That’s the greatest mark this kind of story could ever leave.
Can the second year possibly top it? It’s frankly hard to imagine another thirteen instalments as perfectly-written and as expertly-paced as this, but Frank Castle’s entrance will surely provide a threat just as challenging as Fisk’s. Even if the hype gives in to disappointment, there’s something most people will be able to agree on: in genre terms, the first season of Daredevil is a total masterpiece.
Thank you, Marvel.
- The black costume that was shown upon reveal takes great inspiration from Frank Miller’s Daredevil comic book storyline “The Man Without Fear”, which was an alternate retelling of Daredevil’s origin in a limited run series.
- In the comics, the paper Ben Urich works for is The Daily Bugle, but in the show, the newspaper he works for is the fictional New York Bulletin. Marvel did not yet have the rights to Spider-Man or the Daily Bugle at the time of production.
It’s mentioned that Matt grew up at St. Agnes’ Orphanage. Skye from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also stated that she grew up at St. Agnes’ orphanage.
Charlie Cox was Joe Quesada’s first choice for the title role, going back even before Marvel regained the rights to the character. Once hired, Cox only had about a month to gain twenty pounds of muscle.