Review: Netflix’s Daredevil by Jerry Whitworth
Over the weekend, Netflix released the first in a series of Marvel live action adaptations that will collectively form the Defenders subset of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (tying into the films and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in Daredevil. Following the adventures of Matt Murdock who works as a lawyer for the needy during the day and as a costumed vigilante by night in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Daredevil was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett in 1964. As a young man, Murdock was involved in an accident which robbed him of his sight but enhanced his other senses to a superhuman level. Following the death of his father at the hands of a gangster, Murdock dedicated himself to battling evil. His rogues gallery was largely composed of Spider-Man villains and criminals arguably modeled after Batman’s infamous foes, the character largely wouldn’t attract a large audience until his series was nearly canceled in the 1980s when it was put under the direction of Frank Miller. The creator made the rather standard story of the series into something dark and moody which became its hallmark ever since. The character would previously be adapted for live action in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk and a 2003 feature film starring Ben Affleck in the lead. The following review will include SPOILERS so be forewarned.
Premiering with thirteen episodes, Daredevil feels like a mash-up of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (especially Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), CW’s Arrow, and Joss Whedon’s Angel with a dark and visceral feel of True Detective set in a Shakespearean backdrop. Watching the series in nearly one sitting has a very strong effect of Hamlet as Daredevil (Charlie Cox) wages a war in the shadows against the powerful Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) over Hell’s Kitchen as many bodies litter the ground in their conflict (by the end, you almost need a scorecard to see who survives). Possibly the most notable impression left from watching it is the depth of character much of the cast is provided. When the series focuses on action, it does so completely (offering a buffet of combat, from American gun battles to Hong Kong martial arts to a scene familiar to Oldboy‘s hammer sequence), but much of Daredevil involves character development. Matt Murdock is a conflicted man, torn between two father figures in the no-nonsense, deadly assassin Stick (Scott Glenn) and man of God, Catholic priest Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie). Wilson Fisk is a man trying to deny the beast stirring inside him as he balances his burgeoning romance with Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) with being a cold, calculating mastermind (who initially played something of a fool around his associates) and the angry, petulant child that hears his father’s voice in his mind calling him a “…fat, little pussy.” Perhaps the biggest surprise in the series is Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), who in the comics was a damsel in distress that ended up a heroin-addicted pornographic actress who sold Daredevil’s secret identity to a drug dealer. In the Netflix series, however, it very much chronicles her relationship with Murdock and his law partner Foggy Nelson (Eldon Henson) as she becomes arguably the strongest character in the series with a dark, mysterious past yet revealed.
Both visually and story-wise, Daredevil is very dark. The initial conflict we see Daredevil involve himself in revolves around the Russian mob trafficking humans, kidnapping women and children to be sold into slavery. The other factions under Wilson Fisk are not much better as his Japanese associates intended to use a small child as a weapon called Black Sky (who is later murdered in cold blood off-screen by Stick) and the Triad have illegal immigrants blind themselves to manufacture and transport heroin around the city. In order to draw Daredevil into traps, the Russians would kidnap a boy and the Japanese murder a kindly, elderly woman who sought the legal services of Nelson & Murdock earlier (when Fisk appears to be faltering in his responsibilities, his allies attempt to secretly assassinate the woman he loves in order to refocus him). When Matt Murdock goes into what drove him to adopt a mask, he reveals a father molested his daughter which Murdock’s super-hearing forced him to endure as the authorities were powerless to stop it. Daredevil himself is brutal in his war on crime, torturing to gain intel (like driving a knife into one crook’s head), throwing criminals over ledges and putting them into comas, and snapping bones so hard they tear through the skin, but at least he lets his targets live (though, at the end of his fight with one assassin, the villain commits suicide by driving his own head eye-first into a sharp piece of metal). Fisk, on the other hand, is even more brutal and is sure to kill his enemies, his first fight ending with him brutally decapitating someone with a car door (it’s later shown as a child he beat his father to death with a hammer and his mother dismembered the body with a saw in front of him). In one episode, Nobu (Peter Shinkoda), the head of the Japanese faction in New York, dons ninja garb and tries to kill Daredevil, hooking him in the guts with a kyoketsu-shoge and drags him doing what one might assume significant internal damage. By fight’s end, the ninja burns to death as Fisk comes out of hiding and nearly kills Daredevil with his own bare hands. Even the humor is dark as Leland Owlsley (Bob Gunton), the flying-criminal the Owl in the comics, is thrown to his death by a great height.
Daredevil’s look in the series seems very reminiscent of his appearance in the television film The Trial of the Incredible Hulk dressed in all black with his eyes covered (though, the character Wildcat may also have some influence). In the final episode, he finally adopts his traditional red costume which looks something of a cross between the 2003 film and the character’s armored suit from the 1990s. A number of Easter eggs are in the series including cast members like Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), Claire Temple/Night Nurse (Rosario Dawson), Melvin Potter/Gladiator (Matt Gerald), Stone (Jasson Finney), and a thinly-veiled shout out to Elektra Natchios (with a possible cameo by Bullseye as a cop-killing sniper). Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) appears to have been a fairly prominent fixture of the MCU as he wrote articles on the Battle of New York (from The Avengers) and Duel of Harlem (from The Incredible Hulk), the former the catalyst for Fisk’s rise to power by filling a vacuum left by the conflict. Matt Murdock’s father Jack in his final boxing match fought a young Carl “Crusher” Creel who appeared in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as the Absorbing Man (Brian Patrick Wade). The series sets up a number of threads that can be played up in a possible second season, most notably the emergence of the Hand. Nobu, the head of the Japanese faction, dressed in garb similar to that of the Hand and Stick continuously made mention of a coming war with Matt intended to be a soldier for his cause. There are also teases to the mystery behind Karen Page’s past and the identity of Matt Murdock’s absent mother. Not to mention, the secret instructions Wilson Fisk left his fiance Vanessa before his arrest. There is also, of course, Daredevil villains appearing in other series like Mr. Hyde/Calvin Zabo (Kyle MacLachlan) in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Purple Man/Kilgrave (David Tennant) in A.K.A. Jessica Jones which leaves the door open for their transition. An entertaining and engaging series thus far, one can assume the mostly character interactive nature of the first season could give way to significantly more action in a second season should the Hand, Chaste, Elektra, and Bullseye become involved. Daredevil’s showrunner, Steven DeKnight, has also teased an interest in bringing Daredevil’s frenemy the Punisher to Netflix.