Marvel Television’s biggest curse has been living in the shadow of The Avengers. Although the blockbuster film has attracted lots of attention to Marvel Television’s offerings, most of the comparisons have been unfavorable. For all its second season improvements, Agents of SHIELD is still limited in scope by its budget, telling stories about aliens with superpowers yet taking place on backlots with flat lighting. And as much as we love Agent Carter, the show is filled to the brim with doomsday devices yet the stakes somehow always seemed oddly low.
And this isn’t to undersell Marvel’s ABC shows to make Daredevil look better in the next paragraph. I’ve come to really love both SHIELD and Agent Carter, but they both come with very distinct flaws. I’ve been worried for awhile that these flaws are endemic with Marvel Television, that they are not run with the same focus on quality that defines its parent company Marvel Studios. For Marvel Television to establish their own identity, they need to figure out a way to exist independently of the Marvel blockbuster films, to justify their existence as though The Avengers never happened.
Daredevil does exactly that. The first episode is maybe 25% of a superhero show: most of this episode is detective work, focusing on the conspiracy surrounding a construction company’s suspicious financials. It sounds a lot drier than SHIELD’s alien doomsday devices, but it’s far more compelling. The scale is smaller, which is the real strength of the show: Daredevil is not a TV show about saving the world, but about saving a few square blocks of a single city.
Daredevil is a show directly affected by The Avengers, with a Hell’s Kitchen ruined by the Chitauri invasion three years ago. Yet the show never tries to emulate or remind you of its blockbuster older brother. Instead of referencing the events of The Avengers with the well-established moniker “The Battle for New York,” Daredevil simply calls it “The Incident.” Even when making a direct reference, it diminishes it. This first episode makes it very clear that this is not a show about world-shaking events.
And that’s not to say there’s no world-building. Daredevil’s first episode lays a lot of pipe for what’s coming next, but all of the lore it adds to the MCU are in service of the very human characters at the heart of the show: the triptych of Matt, Foggy, and Karen.
Matt Murdock is an excellent lead. Instead of the sarcastic rogues or cynical spies that characterize most of Marvel’s other heroes, Matt is a man full of empathy. He practices law not to prosecute criminals or defend the powerful, but to protect the innocent. Future episodes will fill in his backstory, like where he was trained, why he wears the mask, and why he doesn’t use guns or kill his enemies. Yet Matt lands in this first episode as a fully formed character, and like the best Marvel heroes, he comes part-and-parcel with daddy issues.
In a world where Marvel decided to develop Daredevil as a movie instead of a TV series, it’s just as easy to imagine Charlie Cox leading that film. Cox is given a rather rough monologue during a confession at the beginning of the episode, but damned if he didn’t sell it. He’s subtle and dry, with emotive body language and expressive eyes. After seeing this episode, it’s easy to imagine Cox rubbing shoulders and trading barbs with Downey, Evans, and the other Marvel A-listers. Oddly, by trying so hard to be unlike The Avengers, Cox and show creator Drew Goddard established a character equally worthy of them.
Deborah Ann Woll is absolutely heartbreaking as Karen Page, the innocent woman at the heart of this episode’s conspiracy. Karen is mostly a damsel in this episode, with her most kickass moment fending off a jailer before she’s able to scream and draw attention. Woll really sells Karen’s vulnerability, and she has pretty solid chemistry with Cox and Elden Hansen. It’s going to be heartbreaking to watch her character move to her inevitable conclusion.
The rest of the supporting cast is fairly well-rounded, but no one is quite on the same level as Cox and Woll. Foggy is the opposite of Matt, getting a ton of great one-liners, but Elden Hansen is a touch too over-the-top at this point, though he has great chemistry with Cox. The thugs and villains in this episode are pretty one-note; by far the highlight is Leland Owsley, who gets my favorite line of the episode: “Every time one of these guys punches someone through a building, our margins go up 3%. We should be celebrating.”
Daredevil is the first Marvel Television show that seems confident with its budget. I’d put it at about the same level with BBC dramas like Sherlock or Orphan Black. So, not quite as cinematic as HBO, but definitely more polished than a typical network series or something on the CW. The cinematography is uniformly excellent; there’s some downright beautiful shots in this episode. Director Phil Abraham and his DP understand that just because a scene is set at night, it doesn’t have to be dark. The sound design is also wonderful; in the episode’s first big action scene, a group of women shriek every time a blow is landed. Unlike most other superhero properties, where violence is incidental to the plot, Abraham and writer/creator Drew Goddard seem most interested in exploring the physical toll violence takes on people’s bodies.
And the chilling ending montage definitely shows the toll that crime takes on people’s souls. The embezzlers remain free, their tracks thoroughly covered. A warehouse full of slaves as blind as Matt sift and weigh drugs. Their criminal owners, managers of an Asian drug cartel, make plans to expand into New York City. The human traffickers that Matt stopped at the beginning of the episode are arming up with heavier artillery. A man is murdered in his home, framed as a suicide to be found by his horrified daughter. And in all the chaos, Matt hears the voice of a kidnapped child shrieking into the night.
It’s a great montage showing how much of an underdog Daredevil is; if Matt can barely hold his own against one criminal thug, how will he bring down an entire criminal empire? I’m eager to finish this review and hit “Next Episode” to find out.
4.5 Blind People out of 5. Didn’t you know that blind people are God’s mistake?
Welcome to our Daredevil reviews! I’m reviewing these as I watch them, so you might already be ahead of me. The plan is to upload at least one review a day until I’m done with the first season. All of our Daredevil reviews can be found here.
I’m not sure the opening titles do anything for me. It seems really similar to Hannibal’s, and I’m not sure the wax/blood motif speaks to something specific about Daredevil. It seems more like Marvel saying, “Let’s show them how bloody this show is going to be!”
Is Matt Murdock the first person to say “Jesus” in the MCU, expletive or no?
Earlier this week, Agents of SHIELD had its heroes shoot a car salesman to steal a Jeep Rubicon. This episode, a criminal uses a Microsoft Tablet to extort a security guard. Is it just me, or is Marvel a little hostile toward its product placement lately?
My favorite bit of world-building was Matt being able to afford his apartment because it’s flooded by a nearby billboard. That’s a small, subtle detail that’s focused on building the characters.
Did anyone notice that the episode ends with a (c) 2014 notice? Or were you all too busy letting Netflix autoplay the next episode?