(Caution: This review contains minor spoilers for season 1)
On Friday, Netflix released their highly anticipated series Daredevil, the opening salvo in an upcoming assortment of Marvel fare arriving on the platform in the coming year. The show’s 13-episode debut follows newly anointed lawyer Matt Murdock in his vigilante quest to right the wrongs not sufficiently addressed by the criminal justice system. As superhero premises go, this one is strongly in the vein of Batman or Arrow, except our protagonist does not start out as a rich playboy. Just the opposite, in fact. A long-time resident of New York’s infamous Hell’s Kitchen, Matt is the orphaned son of a down-on-his-luck boxer; he is blinded by a mysterious chemical substance as young child and this accident leads to the development of his ‘superpowers.’
Although essentially blind in the traditional sense, his other senses are significantly heightened in the wake of the accident, and he uses them to aid in his nighttime crusade to stop criminal activity and protect the innocent. Like most superheroes, he leads a double life, and his more benign one is populated primarily by his work colleagues and friends, Foggy Nelson, his law partner and college roommate, and Karen Page, their very first client turned firm secretary. Our main antagonist is Wilson Fisk, a mysterious criminal kingpin whose fundamental motives ironically are not totally dissimilar to Matt’s.
Both men want to revive their city from the poverty, violence and corruption which plagues it. But while Matt thinks the garden can be purged of its weeds, Fisk is of the opinion that it must be totally burnt to the ground and rebuilt from scratch. Firmly ensconced in the larger Marvel cinematic universe, the show takes place in the wake of the aftermath of the Battle of New York (from the first Avengers film). Tonally and narratively, however, the series is much grittier and a lot more down to earth than most of its film and TV compatriots. Daredevil boasts about as much realism as any superhero narrative can reasonably hope to, and honestly the thing about the show that required the most suspension of disbelief for me was the fact that no one ever batted an eye at the name “Foggy Nelson.”
The series is also highly conventional in the most literal sense of the word. It is the classic superhero yarn almost par excellence. Admittedly well-written, well-acted and aesthetically solid, its major downfall appears to be its total earnest adherence to the norms of its genre. Despite the maverick quality of its name, Daredevil takes no big risks and does what has been exhaustively done before, granted with a great deal of skill and production quality.
Perhaps its’ most successful intervention so far is the writing of resident head villain, Fisk. The episode which examines his traumatic backstory – “Shadows in the Glass” – is among the first season’s high notes, and his unconventional romance with art dealer Vanessa was probably the most compelling subplot of the whole series. Not cartoony in the least, Fisk is a somewhat Machiavellian powerbroker who is simultaneously terrifying, and also seems genuinely morally conflicted about his own path. His narrative is brought to life with unparalleled skill by Vincent D’Onofrio, and he frankly steals the show right out from under Charlie Cox’s admittedly agile feet.
For his part, Cox is completely satisfactory in the role Murdock, but he really only shines in conjunction with Elden Henson’s Foggy and Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple. Henson is perfectly cast in the role of the slightly dumpy side-kick and he and Cox do share a chemistry that grounds the show in their delightful, heartfelt friendship. The episode where they have it out over the disclosure of Matt’s nighttime extracurriculars – “Nelson vs. Murdock” – is another very solid highlight of season 1.
To my very great surprise, I also found Matt’s romance with Claire to be thoroughly engrossing. Superhero romances are reliably bland, underwritten and entirely uninteresting, typically used as the most perfunctory of narrative devices to assure the audience our hero is, indeed, heterosexual. Yet despite the fact that Matt and Claire’s relationship in season 1 follows a fairly conventional path – she is a nurse who tends to his wounds on the down low – Dawson brings a je ne sais quois to their precious few scenes together that kept me totally enraptured in spite of myself.
She and Cox share an electric on-screen chemistry that I am praying gets way more screen-time in season 2 because damn. Her character also deserves to be way more fleshed out in her own right, and for both reasons, I strongly hope she returns as a series regular, rather than a recurring guest star, when season 2 gets the go-ahead.
Which should be in about 5 to 10 minutes.
As superhero series go, Daredevil is simultaneously very good and ultimately nothing special. It seems committed to simply doing the genre, rather than using the genre to do something more. To the extent that it is a disappointment, that is the basis of its major failings. It has all the right pieces and it certainly is capable of greatness, but it needs to do more than just excel at ticking boxes on a list of superhero genre clichés. It also might benefit from not taking itself quite so seriously. To wit, in the first few episodes there is a running gag about how Fisk does not want anyone to use his real name, desiring to be referred to obliquely through euphemisms. And everyone watching was clearly waiting for a Voldemort reference that ultimately never materialized because the show apparently thinks it is too good to make a Harry Potter joke.
Sorry, Daredevil, I don’t care how gritty or noir or angsty you think you are. No one is above a Harry Potter joke, and you’d do well to remember that next time around.