Anticipation for this series, the first of Netflix’s Marvel productions, has been high. Even staunch defenders of the Ben Affleck starring film from 2003 have been willing to admit that film didn’t quite have the right tone, and the promise by Netflix that the series would be dark, gritty, and more adult toned than other current Marvel films or shows was embraced well by the fan community. Early news on casting and those first publicity shots confirmed that the show was going to be inspired by Frank Miller’s The Man Without Fear run on the character, which led to confusion from those who only knew the classic red devil costume, but excitement from those wanting a fitting origin tale. The closer and closer the show got to release, the greater the anticipation, which built to such a level that it was highly possible the show wouldn’t live up to expectations. The good news is that it not only lives up to the promises, but it actually exceeds them.
For the uninitiated, this series is a part of the core Marvel Cinematic Universe output, which , means it is set within the same timeline as Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Avengers, Agents of SHIELD, and any future films or shows created by the core Marvel brand (films such as X-Men and Fantastic Four are not a part of this universe being currently under creative control of 20th Century Fox). Whilst set within the same world and time as those fantastical films, Daredevil turns it’s eye on the seedy underbelly of criminal society, and aside from subtle references (newspaper clippings about events on the wall of journalist Ben Urich, or throwaway lines about the incident which caused property damage) the series doesn’t venture into the same territory, and thus doesn’t require any prior knowledge of the films in order to watch. In addition, the show is a lot more brutal than Marvel’s other output, and in the UK it warrants a 15 rating due to the graphic nature of the violence, so it is definitely not for kids.
The whole series is set over a short period of time, the thirteen episodes feeling less like a TV series and more like a 13 hour movie. The origin of the character is explored via occasional flashbacks, and unlike the film we don’t jump in with a fully trained and skilled vigilante, but a rough edged masked man who is still ironing out his skills. As the series progresses we discover more about his abilities, and also meet a plethora of characters who will have importance in defining the hero that he will eventually become (because, after all, we know that he will become Daredevil, crimson mask and all, by the end of it).
A good story needs strong characters, and when it comes to film and television a strong character needs good casting. It is a rare occasion when fault cannot be found in even one member of a cast line-up, there is usually at least one person who you feel could have been better selected. However each and every member of the cast for this series, from the lead roles to the support characters, excels at their duty and truly embodies the characters from the comic series. In the lead role as Matt Murdock is Charlie Cox, who has a charm befitting of the lawyer role, and also convinces as the man in the mask. Thankfully the decision was also made not to add a gruff voice when garbed as the costumed vigilant, unlike the Affleck version (and, indeed, other costumed crusaders on screen). Thus we don’t find ourselves chuckling at strained dialogue delivery, instead Cox gets to really project into the role. In addition, the delivery of his whole role as a blind character is well researched and rehearsed. No strange cross-eyed looks or random staring at ceilings (sorry Affleck, but that was a tad amusing), instead it all seems natural staring ahead into space, never distracting or forced. Around him his close support comes from Deborah Woll as Karen Page, a client with a secret past who Matt helps and then hires, and Eldon Henson as Foggy Nelson, Matt’s close friend and law partner. The trio play well on screen together, and the relationship between Matt and Foggy in particular feels genuine and convincing.
However, the true gem in the core roles of the series comes from Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, a role who could have been played as purely menacing and gruff, but instead is depicted in such a soft spoken and sometimes empathetic manner that you occasionally find yourself rooting for him. Taking this approach works well to help the audience understand how so many people could be taken in by his charm, and how he manages to convince people he is a well intentioned philanthropist and not one of the top men in the criminal underworld. His history is explored in one episode, offering some insight into what drives a man to become such a force, and in addition the burgeoning relationship with an art gallery worker named Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) helps humanise the character. We are gradually introduced to Fisk by name only until the third episode, but when we meet him we see the charming man he could be, and the brutal machine he is.
The rest of the cast, from Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, to Matt Gerald as Melvyn Potter or Scott Glenn as Stick all help round out the proceedings, and fans of the comics will find no fault in the representations of any of the array of characters brought into the very tightly woven series.
The production as a whole is ominously dark not only in tone but in looks, with lens filters casting shadow on scenes, lending well to ensure the show makes clear that this is the gritty underbelly of Marvel society. But there are light moments, and small moments of wit and relief to break the tension. A quick mention must be made of the opening titles. As some folk know I am a fan of a strong opening title sequence, and in recent years shows such as Game of Thrones, Dexter, Hannibal, and the pilot for Man in the High Castle have been amongst the finest examples of title sequences that, regardless of how many times you have already watched them, you always feel you should sit and watch again. Daredevil, with its crimson liquid moulding out a segment of city, with blind justice and Daredevil bookending the piece is a majestic sequence to watch.
All in all, Daredevil is an example of how strong Marvel shows can be without the restrictions that network TV places on episodes and content. Using the Netflix model allows them to delve into darker areas that commercial stations would struggle with, and as a result the show has laid the groundwork for what should prove to be an excellent future in the ‘Defenders’ project.