Should you watch Daredevil? You likely will (or already have) if you’re a Marvel Cinematic Universe completist, or you have a love for the character. But if you’re unsure, here are some thoughts on the first three episodes to help you make up your mind.
(Some spoilers for the first three episodes of Daredevil’s first season.)
Start by saying that if you prefer the lighthearted aspect of Marvel cinematic canon so far, this might not be for you. The violence is brutal and the issues being battled out run from corporate corruption to human trafficking. It’s rough. If you have sensitivities to watching assault against women, for example (which happens several times in the first episode), you might want to skip some bits.
The set up is sharp; after all, any New Yorker with basic knowledge of the city will tell you that Hell’s Kitchen isn’t as rough today as it was even 20 years ago, so what is our hero fighting exactly? The show smartly uses the Battle of New York as seen in The Avengers to fuel the premise—the amount of destruction levied all around midtown has provided countless ins for shady people, and someone has got to keep tabs to prevent organized crime and sketchy corporations from taking the whole area and making it their personal piggy bank.
Enter Matt Murdock and his pal Foggy Nelson, two neighborhood kids who are setting up shop at home because they’re good boys. The first episode gives them their first client, Karen Page, who fans of Daredevil will recognize as Matt’s long-standing love interest in the comics. Once that trio is assembled, it’s on to bigger and even badder things, though Foggy exists primarily to provide us with laughs when the show gets too dark to palate. Elden Henson does a fine job at making a character who exists for his one-liners human enough to care about, and it’s clear that while Foggy is used to passing everything off a joke, there’s a reason why he’s Matt’s best friend.
I keep seeing lots of comments claiming that this is like Frank Miller’s run of Daredevil, which I’m not sure is justified. Yes, it’s dark, and there’s a tendency to toss Miller’s name in the ring any time people want to discuss “dark comics being gritty and dark-like,” but it doesn’t actually seem as though Marvel is going too far down Miller’s road; they don’t change Matt’s background and make his father an abusive drunk, he’s not particularly ninja-like, and while Daredevil is a scary dude when he’s fighting bad guys, I wouldn’t say that he descends to the levels of ambiguity in his anti-hero-ness that Miller brought to the forefront. And that’s just as well because the show is dark enough as is without wondering whether or not our hero is truly a good guy, especially in his very first season.
For those who were concerned or confused, Charlie Cox is an incredible Matt Murdock. He is kind but reserved, and that distance has always been pretty key to the core of the character. The anger there is evident all the time, but it’s not an outward rage even when he’s taken on the Daredevil persona. He plays his emotions very close to him, and it works in his favor; the less discernible he is, the more we want to understand about him. The show is also fairly deft on the subject of Matt’s blindness in regard to the people around him—the casual prejudices, ignorance, and micro-aggressions that he encounters day to day. There is an unfortunate Dark Knight problem—Murdock does speak in a growly secondary register half the time when threatening crooks, and it’s really hard to hear that anymore without thinking of Bale’s version of Batman and how often he was maligned/mocked for the choice.
Murdock’s background is precisely the same as his initial origin story, his blindness and subsequent heightened senses the result of contact with radioactive chemicals after saving the life of an old man who was about to be hit by a car. He is raised by single father Jack Murdock, a boxer who wants his son to have a better life. There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance on the flashbacks; without something to ground them in a specific era, the scenes from Murdock’s childhood might as well be in the 1960s, well before this version of the character would have been alive. Additionally, the idea of Jack refusing to throw a fight because he wants to make Matt proud of him and leave the kid with some money to live on feels weird in a modern story—it’s hard to stomach the idea of a single parent leaving his child without a father just so his son can have some cash and think well of dear old dad for once. Maybe if it were clear that Jack needed to get that money to be sure Matt could attend college, or something else was done to explain his thinking. But the idea of dying for the sake your son’s pride is not good parenting any way you cut it, and it’s played as though Jack is doing something heroic, which doesn’t sit well.
The supporting cast work wonders, making the show an intricate enough tapestry to be worth coming back to the well. Vincent D’Onofrio rightly had people excited when he was cast as Wilson Fisk, and he doesn’t disappoint. But the real standouts are Vondie Curtis-Hall as newspaper man Ben Urich, and Rosario Dawson as nurse-turned-confidante Claire Temple. Urich is brought to the forefront as an investigative journalist working for a newspaper that can no longer use men of his pedigree. (Though the line from Urich’s boss about how “the kids are making double what we make working on the blogs” was laughable in the extreme and served only to prove that head writer Drew Goddard clearly knows nothing about “the kids” these days.) Claire Temple is given the singular position of becoming accidentally close to Murdock when he’s in need of a friend, and provides the sort of council and practicality that he desperately needs.
The design of the show is well-done, as is the soundtrack, but it’s the fight choreography that demands acclaim. All the awards. Seriously, there is a fight at the end of the second episode that nearly had me weeping, a no-cut spectacle in a hallway being slowly tracked, and you watch Daredevil take out an entire group of criminals with nothing but his fists, and the boxing influence on his fighting style is perfectly realized, and you just watch the thing happen in real time until about a dozen guys are on the floor. No words. It is a gorgeous thing, one of the best pieces of hand-to-hand fight choreography that I’ve ever seen on film. Another thing that you have to appreciate is the impact of said fighting. Normally, because these people are super human and movie magic does its thing, you watch heroes take hit after hit and land on their feet like cats. Gravity has no effect, momentum is for suckers. But when we watch Daredevil fight, gravity has an impact. Matt kicks people in the chest and falls down because you can’t put all your momentum into one move and land on your tip toes like physics doesn’t apply. It drives home how hard Murdock is working in every fight, which is rare in shows like this.
Mistakes have been made, however; it’s being reported that Netflix did not bother to provide audio descriptions for Daredevil, which are produced to allow audience members with visual impairments to enjoy shows and films. The fact that no one involved thought to get that done when their show is about a blind superhero whose very existence means a lot to people with vision-related disabilities is honestly boggling. Hopefully someone is already on that, and it’s fixed in short order.
All in all, Daredevil is a fascinating offering and addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is unique enough to demand attention and does certain things incredibly well. If you’ve been looking for the grimmer corner of this entertainment empire, this will give you your fix and then some. Where it goes from there will all depend….
Emmet Asher-Perrin has other opinions on the show’s politics that she should probably separate out from a tv review, so make of that what you will. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.