This spoiler-free Daredevil review is based only on the first five episodes. We also have a spoiler-heavy discussion of all the Marvel Universe easter eggs and comic book references that you can read by clicking here.
It’s been quite a year for Marvel Studios. The last twelve months have seen the release of the wildly successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, and the event miniseries Agent Carter, which raised the bar for their TV projects considerably. In other words, Marvel have locked into quite a groove with their relentless sense of pacing, high-octane action, and just the right amount of comic relief.
Marvel’s formula has been working quite well, so why mess with it, right?
Well, whatever preconceived notions you have about what Marvel is capable of, set them aside before you press play on their Daredevil Netflix series. This is such a pronounced departure from everything Marvel has defined itself by since the birth of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” that it’s virtually unrecognizable as what we’ve come to know as a Marvel “product.”
Don’t worry about any of that, though, because Daredevil is extraordinarily good.
Daredevil might just be one of the most elegant entry points for a superhero in live-action that I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen ’em all). Marvel Comics fan-service is kept to an almost non-existent minimum, and the origin story is handled in bite-sized flashbacks, sparing us the usual tedium like first meetings with the supporting cast or a training montage or the part where he says “I’m gonna put on a suit.” You’re dropped right into the thick of things, and it’s pretty easy to catch on.
Charlie Cox is utterly convincing as both Matt Murdock and Daredevil, playing the latter without the benefit of a padded suit of armor, or even a particularly colorful costume. There are no gadgets, no growly vigilante voices, and no flashy representations of superpowers. In fact, his superhuman abilities are never overtly referenced by any character. Yes, he’s blind, and he’s got enhanced senses. But there’s no expository dialogue to clue you in and no visual representation of his “radar.” Even in the middle of a fight (and there are plenty of wonderful fights), all of this is accomplished by subtle audio cues.
We don’t get to spend an awful lot of time with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk in these early episodes, but he’s a masterclass in underplayed menace. D’Onofrio is perhaps less physically imposing than his comic book counterpart (indeed, or even Michael Clarke Duncan in the 2003 film), but he more than gets his point across. Don’t worry, he gets a typically “Kingpin” moment that should silence any lingering doubts, although I can’t imagine there are any.
Every member of the supporting cast does some heavy lifting. Rosario Dawson makes Claire Temple a far more lively, crucial character than you might have expected, and Vondie Curtis Hall is perfect as Ben Urich. There’s also some real magic and apparent spontaneity happening with Elden Henson and Deborah Ann Woll as Foggy Nelson and Karen Page. The bulk of the villainous screen time in the first five episodes comes from Toby Leonard Moore as Fisk’s right hand man, Wesley, who is a suave and nasty piece of work.
The fight scenes are all spectacular, with lots of long shots to make sure you can see every hit. There’s one in particular in an early episode that is handily the most spectacular fistfight I’ve seen in any superhero project, and it should satisfy even the most hardened action movie afficionado. You’ll know it when you see it, and I expect it’s the one that everyone will be talking about in the first hours after the show hits Netflix.
The violence is considerably more graphic than what we’ve come to expect from Marvel, so prepare yourself. As exhilarating as Daredevil’s slugfests are, the way that non-vigilante violence is depicted is another matter (it’s more disturbing), and it’s the first time I think we’ve ever really seen that kind of distinction made. It’s a unique approach, but if this were a theatrical release, Daredevil would be flirting with an R-rating. If you’re one of those folks who wants to see Marvel take on the Punisher one of these days, it’s a safe bet that character can exist in all of his mass-murdering glory within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Even if you feel that you’re beginning to burn out on superheroes, you won’t want to miss Daredevil. Masked vigilantes and caped crusaders may be taking over the airwaves, but even the best of them (Arrow when it fires on all cylinders, the consistently good The Flash) tend to stick pretty close to the weekly formula. That’s not the case, here. While certain elements of Daredevil wrap up in each chapter, there’s certainly no “villain of the week.”
Instead, it’s methodically paced…so much so that it’s tough to tell after five episodes if it will all really pay off in the end. I suspect it will, though. Daredevil isn’t interested in slick sci-fi technology designed by Tony Stark or SHIELD, or the easygoing humor of its big screen or TV cousins. This one has its own street-level story to tell, the Marvel Universe be damned.
It’s beautifully shot (if a bit dark at times), with a look that is far more True Detective than the perpetually sunny Agents of SHIELD. It even feels more cinematic than several of Marvel’s theatrical offerings. The first two episodes, for example, are directed by Phil Abraham, who has several episodes of Mad Men to his directing credit, but who also served as cinematographer on dozens of episodes of The Sopranos, which may help explain this show’s distinctly HBO-ready look.
If this is the level of quality we can expect from future Marvel Netflix series AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders, then I suspect we’re in for a special couple of years. Daredevil is the first superhero TV project that truly feels like it’s aiming higher. Don’t make any other plans when it’s time to start watching.
Mike Cecchini is headed down to Fogwell’s Gym to hit a heavy bag. Go a few rounds with him on Twitter.