In 2015, it’s almost hard to imagine a time when comic book super heroes were taboo in film. Marvel having not be satisfied with just film has been recently setting their sights on the TV space. Starting first with Agents of Shield, a show about a government agency which often works closely with Marvel’s current heroes. Agents of Shield received a lukewarm reception at best. That reception changed after its tie in with the movie Captain America: The Winter Solider. Marvel has fully realized the value of its shared universe and continues to cultivate it in many meaningful ways. Marvel’s latest cultivation manifested itself in a partnership with Netflix to launch a darker, grittier and more adult-themed series: DareDevil.
DareDevil follows the story of a Hell’s Kitchen native named Matt Murdock. Murdock was involved in a chemical accident at a young age that resulted in his blindness. However, as a result of losing this one sense, his remaining senses all became superhuman. These enhanced senses allow him to perceive the world much sharper than a normal person with all 5 senses. Murdock’s connection to his neighborhood is intense, choosing to initially defend it by day as a lawyer and by night as a crime fighting vigilante.
The show begins with light references to the events of Marvel’s The Avengers, showing us that this is indeed the same world but immediately opening you to the fact that it sort of isn’t. Many people not on-screen were affected by events of The Avengers’ story-line. For the uninitiated, Hell’s Kitchen is a neighborhood in Manhattan that would have been, more or less, right in the thick of the invasion of New York City. The Marvel heroes seem to occupy their own world of shiny armors, weapons and shields, but there is still a bottom level–a place where the heroes bruise and bleed just like the villains do. Hell’s Kitchen is the perfect location for Marvel to share this kind of story. Focusing on an area that isn’t a vague as “the world” or “the city” proves to be a better platform for some inspired story telling. Hell’s Kitchen feels like a place that is hurting and in comes Matt Murdock to ease the pain.
DareDevil in general is a contradicting character by nature. He has strong religious and legal convictions about following the rules and being humane. He then pushes a lot of those principles to the side when he wears his mask at night. You get a character who explicitly believes that his own beliefs aren’t enough, that you can’t cause change with just hopes and dreams. It’s a duality that’s mirrored in the very nature of his powers, a blind man who can see more than everyone else around him. It’s a complex duality and enjoyable to watch being portrayed by newcomer Charlie Cox. Cox absolutely nails this aspect of the character. This season of DareDevil is by and large an origin story and it’s more about Matt Murdock’s journey to becoming DareDevil. A great use of flashbacks helps fill in the pieces to show just what kind of person Matt Murdock is. The rest of the story is built through watching Murdock’s “Work in Progress” version of being a hero. He doesn’t even have his signature red costume for most of the series, choosing initially to wear a makeshift ninja outfit. Being a hero doesn’t come naturally, and you’ll see him take his fair share of missteps–missteps that often show lasting effects in later episodes. DareDevil is closer to man than superhuman and you believe it every time he returns home with more bruises and cuts.
Like any type of super hero program, you’ll be expecting your fair share of action sequences. Current shows like “Arrow” and “The Flash” have set a pretty good standard as far as action is concerned. Fortunately for us, DareDevil delivers on this front. Netflix provides the chip on the shoulder the series needed, allowing it to be more deliberate and violent. This take on action ultimately supports the tone of the show in a meaningful way. It doesn’t hold back; faces are bloodied, arms and legs are broken and some lines are crossed. I found myself asking from time to time, “Is that guy alive?” The fight scenes are really inspired and I gotta believe some of that was in part due to executive producer Steven S. DeKnight of Spartacus: The Blood and Sand fame. The fight sequences push cinematography to some excellent levels. There is an amazing fight sequence early on in the series borrowing from the attitude and atmosphere of Old Boy. It’s a single long take fight sequence of DareDevil fighting Russian thugs in a hallway. It’s unrelenting and a little uncomfortable, but what else would you expect a fight to be. By the end of it all, DareDevil can barely stand, clearly exhausted and battered. I had to include it below…it’s probably going to be one of my favorite sequences for quite awhile.
It can be hard for any series to maintain this relentless tone with just its protagonist and locale. The second half the equation balances out with Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. The Kingpin. Marvel is beginning to get a knack for making its villains as memorable as its heroes, with the best example of this being Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in the Thor movie. Hiddleston made Loki his and he made you remember it. D’Onofrio does the same thing with Fisk and does this by ditching the charm and charisma, opting to hold your attention hostage with cold callousness and intensity instead. Any good villain is more a pleasant shade of grey than black. The character is no doubt menacing, but still manages to dangle a thread in front of you…a thread linked to a host of circumstances and motivations that make him tick as a character. He is responsible for some serious blows to the titular hero, physically and especially emotionally. DareDevil has a hard enough time justifying his actions to himself, but Fisk’s corruption runs so far and deep that his very existence is a deterrent to DareDevil’s goals. He questions the kind of impact he’ll be able to make in the face of such a suffocating entity. The Kingpin is a villain that causes all types of problems for many of Marvel’s finest and you can’t help but feel that D’Onofrio is up to the task. Where The Kingpin will fit in the grand scheme of things in the Marvel universe is yet to realized, but the potential is real.
Marvel has taken its franchise to another level with what it’s accomplished in DareDevil, proving once again that the formula for success with these stories is all about delivery. Successes of series like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and True Detective prove people still want compelling and dramatic adult stories. Marvel could have ignored this subset but instead choose to embrace it. Marvel is sitting on a diverse catalog of heroes and stories and it’s great to see them putting those stories to use. If I had to describe the series in one word, I would use the word focused. It knows what kind of show it wants to be and puts that notion above all else. It never sacrifices tone for charisma, violence for campiness nor scope for longevity. This means a great deal because where super hero content tends to folly is with compromises made to add characters, sell toys or pull in a bigger audience. DareDevil feels comfortable in its own skin and where it’ll integrate into the Marvel universe down the line is a bridge it will cross when it gets there.