The blind Hell’s Kitchen lawyer Matt Murdock has a tall order to fill in the eyes of a mainstream audience with his new Netflix series Marvel’s Daredevil. Even though it’s been over a decade, the bad taste left behind by Ben Affleck’s Daredevil still lingers for a lot of people, and Elektra is even more infamous then that. Plus, this is the first of a planned series of Netflix Instant Marvel television shows that are building to a Defenders miniseries, and as the first installment of this lineup, Daredevil has a lot of world building to do. Suffice it to say, April 10th at midnight was a milestone that had almost as much expectation attached to it as Avengers: Age of Ultron. As of yesterday, I’ve finished my binge watch of the whole show and have even watched a few episodes twice, so I can confidently say this: not only is this the best of Marvel’s television series, but I think that it’s the best superhero television show in years.
Marvel’s Daredevil fits the origin of blind lawyer-turned-vigilante Daredevil into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Barring flashbacks that set up many of the character’s tortured histories or past relationships, the series primarily sets itself in a New York City roughly two years after the climax of The Avengers. Turning down jobs at a prestigious law firm, best friends Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) start their own law practice in Hell’s Kitchen so they can take on cases for the neighborhood’s less fortunate. At night however, Matt Murdock dons a black mask and prowls the streets of Hell’s Kitchen as a vigilante: progressing down the path towards becoming the superhero Daredevil. Murdock faces his greatest challenge however as an elite group of mobsters led by the enigmatic Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) step into Hell’s Kitchen to forge a criminal empire in the wake of New York’s destruction. Much like Murdock, Fisk is motivated by the need to save his city but seeks to do so by razing it to the ground and rebuilding it in his own image of “perfection.” Both on the streets and in the courtroom, Murdock pursues Fisk and faces the challenge of protecting not only his friends and city, but his own humanity.
Marvel’s newest television hit embeds itself firmly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as its darkest, most personal entry: encapsulating the greatest elements of prolific Daredevil writers Frank Miller and Mark Waid. It’s astonishing to comprehend how Matt Murdock and Rocket Raccoon can exist believably in the same universe, but this new incarnation of Daredevil fits in splendidly. It starts off as a response to The Avengers: painting the picture of a post-Avengers New York that is just starting to move past the battle with the Chitauri. The superheroes we all know and love exist, but their problems are not those of the common man; street crime doesn’t receive their attention in the way that malevolent demigods do. Through breathtaking noir cinematography and a muted color palate, Daredevil sports an urban Tartarus as its landscape, where super powered heroes are never around and the little people who stand up get repeatedly crushed under the weight of corruption. From the onset, this is one of the show’s greatest strengths: working with the preceding Marvel universe and expanding it in an intimate way that we haven’t seen before. It lends itself to a very refreshing atmosphere that drips the alleyways of Hell’s Kitchen with gritty anguish and gorgeous pulp.
While the urban crusade of Daredevil spans an impressive number of characters and factions, the series is a duel between two flawed and tortured men at its core: Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. Of all the hero-villain relationships that the MCU has given us, I don’t think even Thor and Loki’s Shakespearean tragedy of a familial history can match the tainted reflections between Murdock and Fisk. Much of that has to do with the performances of both Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Nofrio, who manage to electrify even their briefest of scenes. In regards to the former, Cox demonstrates an impressive amount of range as he balances the tragic burdens of the vigilante persona while painting a charismatic but flawed Murdock during the day-to-day. As for the latter, D’Nofrio manages to steal just about every scene he’s in: crafting an intense Emmy-worthy performance that is equal parts sinister and sympathetic. Combined with the superior and complex character writing concerning the two, Daredevil is a battle between two Hell’s Kitchen boys crippled by the loss of their respective fathers. While the circumstances are decidedly different and inform the differences between them, Murdock and Fisk have each stared into the darkness that lingers within the city’s soul and desire nothing more than to improve it. However, their methods couldn’t be more opposed as Murdock sees the city’s potential to rise above itself while Fisk can only contemplate a cancer that must be surgically aborted at all costs.
While this fundamental character difference takes center stage, the supporting cast is every bit as interesting as the leads, contributing greatly to the psychological depth and entertainment levels of the series. Both Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk manage to surround themselves with a colorful cast of compatriots that are written so well, that even the minor characters are interesting. For Matt Murdock, he is aided primarily by law partner Foggy Nelson and their secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), who starts working for them after Murdock rescues her in the pilot. Like Murdock, they are people who have been exposed to the criminal rot scarring Hell’s Kitchen yet manage to persevere regardless. They support Murdock but not blindly (heh): they question him and even come into conflict with him out of concern for Murdock’s own well-being. As such, they imbue Murdock with a great deal of humanity and in particular, the friendship between Murdock and Nelson is a very touching and genuine one. On the other end of the spectrum is Fisk’s inner circle: an impressive menagerie of underworld bosses that never fail to entertain. Everyone from the dickish sycophant Leland Owlsley (Bob Gunton) to the mysterious and calculating Madame Gao (Wa Ching Ho) transcend the realm of henchmen: providing fleshed out and entertaining rogues for Fisk to rule over. They add a genuine threat level to the show while allowing for a lot of amusing and revealing banter between themselves and Fisk. Bolstering this is perhaps the most vital subordinate in Fisk’s empire: his right-hand man James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore). Normally a character steeped in slick pragmatism, this incarnation of Wesley is poised greatly as the Foggy to Fisk’s Murdock: believing in Wilson’s dream and willing to perform any despicable act his employer might require. This devotion makes him a force to be reckoned with and one of the few people who might truly understand what haunts Fisk’s psyche.
Now I purposefully didn’t delve too much into certain areas of the series for a number of reasons. I avoided talking about any of my nitpicks with the pilot’s structure or certain little plot points in the series as a whole because they are frankly minute and hardly a detriment to the show’s enjoyment factor. While I explored the look of the series, I refrained from exploring the absolutely stunning martial arts fight sequences because they should be experienced and not recollected. And while this is a great show about a superhero, talking too much about Daredevil’s costume or his hero persona doesn’t match the show’s intent. For me, this is Marvel’s Dark Knight in the sense that this is a crime story that just happens to take place in the MCU. At its heart, Marvel’s Daredevil is a psychologically gripping war between two bastard sons of a fallen city who sacrifice everything in their separate quests to save it. As such, forget whether you’re a Marvel fan or not: if you are a fan of crime fiction in general you owe it yourself to check this out. It’s a gripping, psychologically complex crime-drama with some spectacular acting, creative fight scenes, and enough visual panache to make just about any viewer ecstatic.