In many ways, Daredevil feels like the true beginning of Marvel Television. When Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige produced Iron Man, he had almost a decade of experience producing nothing but “lesser” Marvel films at other studios. While Jeph Loeb has extensive experience in television, Agents of SHIELD launched as an auxiliary brand of The Avengers rather than its own fully-formed series.
But with Daredevil, Marvel has created something special: a show with a complete identity, completely separate from the rest of the MCU. It’s an audacious approach, and it absolutely works: Daredevil is not just Marvel Television’s best series, but the best superhero TV series ever produced. It brings nuance and gravitas to its world, and develops a rich cast of excellent characters. It’s not perfect; the season has spikes of enormous quality separated by tedium. And the finale is truly underwhelming. However, Daredevil is still one of Marvel’s most significant achievements. For the first time, Marvel Television feels like it has a series that stands alongside the Marvel films.
Charlie Cox may be one of Marvel’s best leading men, in either film or television. The British actor brings an understated charm to Matt Murdock: cocky but not brash, tortured but not morose. There’s no growing period necessary for Cox; he instantly imbues Murdock with the warmth and wit that characterize the best Marvel heroes.
One of the bravest choices Daredevil made in its first season is letting Vincent D’Onofrio do whatever he wants with Wilson Fisk. D’Onofrio brings such an odd vulnerability to Fisk, a character who could’ve easily been a one-note mafioso. D’Onofrio’s Fisk is constantly searching for his humanity, which he lost somewhere along the road. I’m dearly eager to see Cox rubs shoulders with The Avengers, and to see Fisk comes to blows with Spider-Man.
The rest of the cast is excellent. Elden Hansen nails the hamminess of Foggy Nelson, but never struggles to articulate Foggy’s real pains and betrayals. Deborah Ann Woll brings real tenacity to Karen Page, a character that could’ve been nothing more than a scream queen. Vondie Curtis-Hall is game as the cynical Ben Urich, and often outshines the character as written. Rosario Dawson’s presence on this show is woefully limited, since she brings grace and layers to Claire Temple. Toby Leonard Moore is the highlight of Fisk’s criminal conspiracy, bringing a delightful sliminess to Fisk’s righthand man. And Ayelet Zurer brings beauty and mystery to Vanessa Marianna, and gives her character a hint of something darker lurking beneath the surface.
In Daredevil, nobody gets knocked out by a punch to the head. Goons are not easily dispatched; they get knocked down, get up, and are ready to go again. The excellent Youtube channel Every Frame a Painting exhaustively detailed Jackie Chan’s fight philosophy. The point that resonates most with me is that Jackie is constantly getting the shit kicked out of him, which makes the audience identify with him more. And boy, does Daredevil get the shit kicked out of him. In most television shows, it’s easy to show violence without showing the longterm effects. But Daredevil is fixated on violence as a concept, and don’t forget to examine the impacts it brings to people’s bodies.
Let’s get this out of the way: the best fight scene is the Oldboy-esque hallway fight from the second episode. That’s a no-brainer. But the second? Holy shit what a hard choice. I immediately think of the battle with Nobu and his deadly kyoketsu-shoge. Or Matt’s rooftop foot pursuit of a vehicle. Even the first episode, ending with Matt getting thrown out a second story building, is fantastic. Without question, Daredevil is the best action show in modern American television.
MATT, FOGGY, AND KAREN.
The Matt/Karen/Foggy triptych make up the heart of Daredevil. It’s hard to understate how great these three are together. Cox and Henson have surprisingly stellar chemistry. The two are quick to rib each other, but the warmth and affection is very real. Matt and Foggy were brought together by coincidence, but they stayed together because of a likeminded moral philosophy. Though Foggy complains about their money woes, he’s every bit Matt’s moral equal.
One of the best decisions this season made was ignoring Elektra in favor of Karen Page. Though Elektra is Daredevil’s iconic love, she comes with her own weight and baggage that could’ve overwhelmed the rest of the characters. Karen, though, is vulnerable yet determined. Her rapport with Foggy is critical in building both of their characters, as they bond over correcting injustice. Her relationship with Matt is a bit less developed, but both characters have been through hell in a way that Foggy never has. Watching their relationship deepen is the most exciting prospect of Daredevil’s second season.
In the comics, Wilson Fisk is a character full of complex emotions, motivations, and nuances… sometimes. Usually, Fisk is a cartoon mobster, mostly to be mocked by Spider-Man. He was reinvented as a violent sadist to torture Daredevil, but even then he’s still a pretty over the top “big bad.” But in their Daredevil TV series, Marvel made a deliberate choice to humanize Fisk as much as possible. Our first encounter with Fisk has him on the verge of tears because of a painting. The season finds Fisk in the midst of a midlife crisis, so close to achieving his lifelong dream but filled with a painful emptiness.
But it works too well! By the end of the season, Fisk is positioned as the show’s hero more than its villain. My review of the final episode goes into more detail, but Fisk’s arc is structured like a superhero in its own right. Still, by the end of the series, Fisk is Daredevil’s best character, and without question the most compelling villain of the MCU (sorry Loki).
If The Avengers is a modern, art-deco mansion, Agents of SHIELD is a McMansion living right next door. It’s of the same neighborhood and type as The Avengers, but less distinct and interesting. Agent Carter is one of the older houses that has been carefully maintained for years. Ant-Man is a house that was halfway built before the developer declared bankruptcy, and the bank sold it at a loss while someone finishes it to flip on the open market. All of these houses occupy the same neighborhood, and have the same distinct tone and feel, except Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a houseboat. (this is not a good analogy)
Daredevil is not in the same neighborhood as The Avengers; it might not even be in the same town. It’s a house from the wrong side of the tracks, seedy and gross. When we did our speculative MCU future series a few weeks ago, one of our goals was to show how the MCU could encompass a broad range of genres that feel completely unrelated. It’s very exciting to see that Daredevil has opened the door to a full-fledged street-level Marvel Universe.
Because Netflix doesn’t put time limits on their episodes, Daredevil was never under any obligation to hit a specific time, like most network shows. This opens up the writers and editors to add smaller plotlines and deepen scenes. However, there’s about as much plot per episode as a typical episode of Agents of SHIELD. Instead of adding to episodes, it simply made scenes longer. There are more redundant lines, more reaction pauses, and just more fat that ought to be trimmed away in editing.
It seems like Daredevil’s writers felt obligated to hit the 50 minute mark for each episode, whether they needed to or not. Only one episode of Daredevil is less than 50 minutes: Condemned, which is the best of the season.
Marvel was under contract to deliver thirteen episodes of Daredevil to Netflix, yet somehow that feels like far too much. It’s a strange problem for Marvel Television; SHIELD’s first season was twenty-two episodes, but could’ve been told in thirteen. Agent Carter was a mere eight, but could’ve been told in five. Daredevil is thirteen episodes, but they’re thirteen slow episodes. It feels like the content of the season could’ve been a much more compelling 7-8 episodes.
As strange as it is to say, Daredevil should’ve taken cues from its sister series, Agents of SHIELD. After spending its first season mired in wheel-spinning, waiting for Hydra, SHIELD decided to use its second season to tell two smaller stories instead of one large one. The first half of SHIELD focuses on its war with Hydra; the second half looks at the coming of the Inhumans. It’s made SHIELD much more gripping and serialized. Perhaps Daredevil’s first seven episodes should’ve focused on Wilson Fisk, and its final six on a new, different storyline.
It’s damning that Daredevil’s final episode is almost completely standalone. I can’t imagine rewatching this season and being anything less than frustrated during any scene with Ben Urich. Urich’s investigation of Fisk prompts most of Karen’s action for the season, but it culminates with zero impact on the finale. It’s wheel-spinning of the worst kind, the type that informs neither character nor plot.
Ultimately, the ending is so dissatisfying because Wilson Fisk isn’t developed as a proper villain. His ultimate plan for Hell’s Kitchen is to gentrify the neighborhood, removing low level crime, knocking over crumbling buildings and erecting a gleaming new future. Perhaps to a native New Yorker, Fisk is the worst type of villain, but to me I didn’t understand what made him so evil. By the time Fisk killed Senora Cardenas (an obnoxious stereotype of a character), it was too little, too late.
I think the ending would’ve been better had Daredevil and Fisk teamed up against an even greater villain. That would’ve let both characters realize they have the same objective, just with different goals. However, the show built Fisk up as the ultimate lord of crime while developing his character as a sensitive brooding idealist. It created this strange dissonance where Matt hates Fisk for reasons that I still can’t really understand. Why is Fisk the target of Matt’s ire, when his international conspirators are far more violent?
Did you know that Daredevil’s black suit comes straight from the comics? Did you know that the it also looks like shit? Daredevil’s first season draws from Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, a five-issue comic miniseries that has been stretched into thirteen episodes of television. The black suit is cheap and bland, lacking any kind of memorable feature. I get that the whole first season is an origin story, but that actually diminishes the show. In the comics, Kingpin’s iconic foe is Daredevil, not The Man in Black.
I honestly think the black suit was partially designed by the stunt team, because the only fight with the red suit is the worst of the series. It’s clear the show had to give Daredevil his first proper outfit, but it’s so stiff that poor Charlie Cox can barely move his head. The final fight with Kingpin is edited almost incoherently, likely to hide how inflexible the suit is. The show’s creative team has a few months to redesign the suit, hopefully creating an iconic outfit that stuntmen can actually fight in.
Let me clarify: I love how bloody Daredevil the TV series is. I don’t love how bloody Daredevil the character is. Superheroes are at their best when they stand for something, not just against something. There are numerous scenes where Daredevil beats information out of a street-level thug, but only three where he throws himself into proactively saving the innocent.
I would be hard-pressed to pick my favorite scenes with Matt, Foggy, Wilson, Karen, Leland, Wesley, or the others. But with Daredevil, his two best moments are simple: when he carries the child through a hallway of broken men, and when he puts out the fires, saving the blind Chinese slaves. The fact that there are only three moments of Daredevil saving people in the season is discouraging. Matt Murdock is a great character, but Daredevil is still sorely lacking.
Daredevil is as important to Marvel Television as Iron Man is to Marvel Studios. This is Marvel’s first MCU TV series that shows it doesn’t have to live in the shadows of The Avengers. And like Iron Man, Daredevil is setting the tone for an entire brand within the MCU. AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist will all follow Daredevil’s lead, exploring different facets and tones of the street level MCU.
And, of course, it will influence the next season of Daredevil, announced a couple days ago. Instead of Steven DeKnight, the show will be lead by Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, and I couldn’t be more excited for the change. Ramirez and Petrie wrote the two best episodes of season one, Condemned and The Ones We Leave Behind. Petrie also wrote more than a dozen episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m hoping these two will bring Daredevil’s second season away from the (at times oppressive) bleakness of the first season and into more adventurous storylines.
But beyond the future, Daredevil is still a riveting thirteen hours of television. Once you accept that the entire season is an origin story, it goes down a bit easier. The first half is stronger than the second, where it becomes a show more about Wilson Fisk than about stopping Wilson Fisk. Yet all the same, Daredevil still brings charming characters to dark depths, and features some of the best action ever produced in a television series. Daredevil is unlike anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, yet remains quite distinctly Marvel.
4 out of 5.
Thanks for reading our coverage of Daredevil! If you’d like, you can check out our individual reviews below.