Marvel's Daredevil is a hell of a good show
While Daredevil is the sort of property Marvel fans have hoped and dreamed they would see handled by Marvel itself, this latest adaptation from Stan Lee and company's media juggernaut (get it? Juggernaut? See what I did there?) is likely to exceed fan expectations. It's that good.
The character, who debuted in his own series in April 1964 as an attempt to capture Spider-Man's lightning in a bottle a second time, would long suffer as one of Marvel's more problematic properties, with the series' various writers up through the 1980s ranging between wildly different approaches to make him a decent seller.
Indeed, while Lee's original concept of Matt Murdock — a blind lawyer in Hell's Kitchen, New York who, thanks to Wolverine-type super senses and a batlike sonar/radar capability, engages in crime fighting at night — was always pretty ingenious, the character's lack of the sort of earth-shattering flash and superpowers that could be found in so many other titles in the DC and Marvel stables left him as a second- or third-tier character in the Marvel pantheon.
Hornhead's fortunes changed when Frank Miller took over the book in the early 1980s. Miller phased out the attempts at superhero-type stuff and transformed it into a gritty, action packed crime noir. It was the perfect fit for a character with a nearly Hamlet-esque tragic streak who just didn't have the physical capabilities to deal with the sort of extraterrestrial threats heavy hitters like The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The Avengers and The X-Men dealt with or the superbaddies mid-level characters like Spider-Man faced down on a monthly basis.
Daredevil's world was the dark, crime-riddled alleys of Hell's Kitchen, his foes mainly assassins, gangs, junkies and the ever-looming — but very human — Wilson Fisk, New York's "Kingpin of Crime." Under Miller — and most writers since — Daredevil's world became one riddled with shades of grey rather than pure black and white morality, and, while the big double-D may not exhibit the homicidal nature of local contemporary Frank "The Punisher" Castle, the character isn't immune to questionable moral judgements in his personal and vigilante lives on occasion.
In the hands of a good writer, Daredevil presents an opportunity at crafting more complex and humanly nuanced tales than most of Marvel's stable would allow — and this is why Daredevil makes a perfect choice for a long format, mature audiences television project rather than a two hour feature film.
Consisting of 13 hour-long episodes, the series — which takes place in the same consistent universe as the other Marvel Studios films and TV shows such as The Avengers and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — presents the beginning and early development of Murdock's career, both in he and partner Foggy Nelson's law firm and in his nighttime career as a mostly pre-official-uniform Daredevil. Charlie Cox excellently steps into and gets lost in his role as the tortured, inwardly raging Matt Murdock, trying to overcome the seemingly insurmountable crime organizations infesting Hell's Kitchen.
As a TV-MA title, Daredevil dials down the epic nature of previous Marvel productions, aiming and succeeding at creating a gritty, more personal microcosm that exists within the overall macrocosm.
Its nature as a 13 episode endeavor gives it room to breathe in a way those productions can't. Important backstory is revealed incrementally throughout the course of the series rather than weighing down the beginning with yet another franchise origin tale, often within episodes where character development have opened up good opportunities to explore them.
The cast is top-notch, but the series proves to be a showcase for Vincent D'Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket, The Cell, Law and Order: Criminal Intent) as Wilson Fisk. Despite his physical absence from the earliest episodes, once present he's as key to the series as Murdock/Daredevil himself. The series goes to remarkable length to humanize his character, showing as much of his insecurities, frailties and even romanticism as it does his brutal underlying nature. Rarely has a villain been so well fleshed out and realized on screen.
Despite its comic book origins, Daredevil isn't for the kids. Its violence can be extreme with some pretty horrific gore along the way. The story plunges deeper and deeper into increasingly dark and hopeless situations — but they're human situations, not superhuman, and the series has a raw emotional core.
The series does have a few problems, particularly in regards to the cinematography. The first half of the series is dominated by a faded florescent green on dinginess color scheme that's been dreary and rote since the Saw franchise turned out its second film. Likewise much of it was so dark, I thought my TV's settings were off and tried adjusting them for correction. This urban ick color scheme eventually gives way to oranges and reds in later episodes — presumably suggesting the development of Murdock's alter ego — and it was a relief to see it mostly go to the wayside.
Also, given how dark things get in the first 12 episodes, it almost feels as if the finale is too simple and clean for its own good and, while it was good to see the real Daredevil costume finally make its appearance, given how little it's used it feels too long in coming.
Still, given the entirety of the project, the weaknesses are slight under consideration of the whole. We might not have had an awesome suit for most of it, but consider it a tradeoff for excellent character writing.
Daredevil is exactly what it should be in this day and age — a gritty, well-written and performed vigilante crime drama that shines a flashlight on one of the darker corners of the Marvel universe and shows heroism not just on a cosmic scale but a little closer to home. Audiences who only know Marvel properties from Marvel Studios' theatrical releases may find it far too dark, deliberate and violent for their taste, but the fans of grittier Marvel titles such as this will be right at home, inwardly cheering along the way.
Now if we could just get a decent Punisher or Ghost Rider project off the ground.