After a lackluster movie in 2003 (which is much better if you watch the Director’s Cut), Fox couldn’t figure out what to do with the Daredevil franchise. After failing to get a sequel/reboot off the ground, they relinquished the character’s film and television rights back into the loving embrace of Marvel Studios.
On April 10, the Daredevil franchise made its official Marvel Cinematic Universe debut as a Netflix Original series. Is it good?
I’m assuming that like me, all of you have binged the entire series since last weekend. Because of that, we will be looking at the entire 13 episode season as a whole rather than recapping/reviewing each one individually. There will be lots of spoilers, both for what happened and speculation regarding what might happen down the road.
So with that out of the way, let’s dive in into the most important part: The story. Casting, cinematography, and special effects don’t amount to much if they aren’t working to serve a good narrative. Fortunately, the series’ writers really hit things out of the park on this aspect.
For starters, they used the classic Miller/Romita Jr series Man Without Fear as a basic template. From there, the story unfolded with a beautifully deliberate pace. From the very first scene of episode one, we’re shown how Matt’s early years would be constantly linked into his present day origin story—not just shoved out of the way so we could get to the costumed shenanigans.
We’re also given constant reminders of the narrative’s themes. This isn’t just the story of how Murdock becomes Daredevil. It’s the tale going to war with the forces that took his father from him via a battle with the demon inside himself.
But Matt’s story isn’t the only one that’s important. Kingpin/Fisk, Karen Page, Foggy, and Ben Urich all have battles of their own, both internal and external. By the end of 13 episodes, none of these characters are the same as they were when the series started, for better or worse.
But aside from all that esoteric stuff, the good ole nuts & bolts plotting is also top notch. Despite the series taking place in a New York that was recently invaded by aliens…and populated by god-like super powered beings (and actual gods)…the crimes taking place in Hell’s Kitchen represent the everyday rot which makes the world a wicked place. Daredevil may have superpowers, but he is still very human, fighting on the side of David against the Goliath forces of (very well) organized crime. Even better is the fact that his nemesis, Wilson Fisk, isn’t rubbing his hands together while thinking new ways to be evil. Fisk believes with every fiber of his being that he’s on the side of angels. That makes the conflict between him and Murdock even more titanic—and sometimes even a little grey.
I also liked how they briefly touched on the mystical nature of Daredevil’s world without delving into it too deeply. Things like The Hand will obviously become a larger part of things down the road, but it was a wise decision to quietly plant the seeds like this in the first season. Plenty of other seeds for great potential plot threads (Gladiator, The Chaste, The Owl, etc.) were laid down throughout the season, as well.
We’ll cover the main ones here along with a few of the key extras.
Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox)
Cox effortlessly pulls off Murdock’s righteous core, dashing it with just the right about of disarming charm without making him come off like an ass. He’s just as believable as a lawyer as he is a masked-vigilante cracking heads. Credit also needs to go to Skylar Gaertner for his portrayal of Murdock’s younger self. Often times, the flashback/kid parts in superhero movies can come across as vapid or completely unnuanced, but Gaertner gives his time on screen just as much weight range as his adult counterpart.
Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson)
One of the few things that the 2003 Daredevil movie did well was John Favreau’s portrayal of Foggy. You have to have just the right mix of being a loveable goof while also possessing a sharp mind. Henson may have had an unfair advantage compared to Favreau in getting 13 episodes to create his character, but he squeezes every last one of them for maximum effect.
Nowhere is this more apparent than after he finds out Murdock is Daredevil. His anger, confusion, and occasional bits of humor are not just spot on for Foggy—they’re spot on for how anyone would deal with such an insane revelation about their best friend. He asks many of the questions that fictional characters in his situation typically gloss over…and he doesn’t like or accept all of Matt’s answers. Foggy may be loyal to a fault, but he’s not a doormat, either.
Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll)
I used to be a big True Blood fan (until things spun off the rails after Season 4), so maybe I’m a bit biased, but Woll’s work might be my favorite on the series. Much like her comic counterpart, Karen Page is at times exceptionally vulnerable. Other times, she’s 100% badass. Page is clearly terrified of the forces coming after her, but as the show progresses, her dogged determination to fight back is not only organic and believable, but a lot of fun to watch.
I also thought she stole the show a bit in the chemistry department. Sure, Matt and Foggy are supposed to be best friends, but Woll plays off both characters in subtly different ways that quickly establishes the important role she plays in both their lives. Through Foggy, she sees the good still left in the city. Through Matt, she sees a way to fight for it.
On her own, Woll’s portrayal of Page is just as good if not better. If you’ve read the comics, you know she’s hiding something. This aspect of her character would have been really easy to play up for cheap interest points. Instead, Woll carefully edges Page’s past into the story, setting up a deceptively explosive reveal. Couple that with the usual great range that Woll shows in all of her roles, and Karen Page might (surprisingly) be my favorite character in the series so far.
Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio)
D’Onofrio is a fine actor, but the way his character was written just didn’t do it for me. When I think of the Kingpin, I think of a man who is in complete control of everything. Here, however, Wilson Fisk constantly seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown…which might actually be a little more realistic, but definitely made him feel like less of a threat.
I did like how they explored his past and his human side, giving him motivations that were surprisingly well-intentioned. But between his tantrums and constipated speeches, I really didn’t think he was all that great a villain.
James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore)
This guy, on the other hand, was absolutely terrifying. Fisk’s consigliere is a stone cold sociopath, save for an unrivaled sense of loyalty to his boss. When he’s not constantly reigning in the Kingpin during one of his many tantrums, Wesley effortlessly handles business, intimidation, and murder with ruthless efficiency. While I loved the scene where Karen shoots him, I do wish he’d stuck around and lived for next season. This was one villain who didn’t need any superpowers to be scary…and speaking of characters that shouldn’t have died…
Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis Hall)
Seriously, Marvel? You find the perfect Ben Urich and then you kill him?
I get that we needed to see how ruthless the Kingpin was (since him bashing a guy’s head in the car door apparently wasn’t enough), but this was a bad move. Hall was somehow able to take the clichéd old school, overworked/disillusioned reporter character trope and give it a surprisingly fresh spin. We actually got to see him fight an internal battle over chasing the story vs. his own safety (rather than just blindly chasing the story, personal life be damned). We got to see him mentor another character’s growth (Karen Page). He even had believably antagonistic/friendly relationship with his editor. There was also just something about Hall’s presence that made the narrative that much better. The audience knows all the bad stuff the Kingpin is up to, but watching Hall as Urich unravel it piece by piece one of the best parts of the show.
RIP, Ben Urich. You deserved way more than one amazing season of work.
Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson)
While I loved her chemistry with Charlie Cox, the way she pushed back against him (and reprimanded him for taking some stupid risks) was even better.
Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer)
Zurer had an uphill battle to climb with this role. She had to play an incredibly smart woman who somehow falls for a man with clear anger management issues and a past that can at best be described as shady. She never really sells why Vanessa Marinna overlooks all these things and falls for Fisk, but once that part is out of the way, you really do believe that she loves him.
There were plenty of other great performances throughout the series, from Scott Glenn as asshole sensei Stick to Matt Gerald as the unhinged Melvin Potter. Overall, I don’t think any of us could have asked for a better cast.
There are really only two complaints you can make about how Daredevil was made.
1.) The lighting guys probably could have spent a bit more time on set.
2.) Still not sure about that costume (although it is admittedly more practical than a red leather body suit).
Aside from those minor quibbles, though, the entire production of this series was superb.
First of all, let’s get the obligatory embed of the amazing fight scene from episode 2 out of the way.
Let’s be honest about something: People often times tend to get a little too giddy about tracking shot sequences. Just because something is filmed in one take doesn’t make it incredible. What makes this fight scene stand out isn’t just the excellent camera work—it’s also the elegantly brutal fight choreography, which was present throughout the entire series.
And lighting issues aside, the cinematography for the whole season is beautiful. Despite Daredevil being a much more confined series compared to the rest of the MCU, sweeping shots of Hell’s Kitchen and the rest of New York give us a wonderfully rich sense of scale.
Music is another area where the production exceled…or the lack of music, actually. Superhero stuff tends to be incredibly over-scored (and I’m saying that as a musician, by the way). Daredevil went in the other direction and kept things generally quiet, waiting for just the right moment to hit us with John Paesano’s rhythmic and ominously beautiful tracks.
Is It Good?
There’s an argument to be made that people like me aren’t a good gauge for a series like this. We’re fans of the comic, so we were already predisposed to liking it. On other hand, the argument can effectively be made from the opposite end: Comic fans are going to be too hard on the series compared to the casual viewer due to their attachment to the source material.
I’m honestly not sure how someone who isn’t a fan of super hero movies would react to this series. I would like to think it’s different enough from the standard fare that anyone who enjoys compelling plots, great characters, and exciting action sequences could enjoy it.
But as someone who DOES watch a lot of superhero movies…and reads hundreds (thousands?) of superhero comics each year…I think that Daredevil might very well be the best on screen iteration of any established franchise that we’ve seen so far. This wasn’t just a bunch of set pieces and quippy dialogue strung together with a high end budget—it was a gut wrenching story, effective on both an emotional and visceral level. It explored themes that are both modern and timeless, all under the shadow of one of my all-time favorite characters.
And yes, it was a hell of a lot of fun, too.