Matt Murdock, born and raised in Hell's Kitchen, was blinded in a traffic accident at age nine. Twenty or so years later he's still a blind resident of that neighborhood. He sets up shop as a defense attorney with his law school buddy Foggy Nelson. They plan to do their best to help make their city a better place. But at night, Matt goes the extra mile towards that goal; he dresses up like a modern-day Dread Pirate Roberts and fights crime more literally -- with his fists.
|A disability is finally totally convincing as a viable superpower. I kid not.|
So blindness isn't technically his superpower, but if it weren't for his loss of sight he never would have had superhuman abilities in his other senses that more than compensate for his loss. He listens to heartbeats to know if someone is lying or not; he can smell cologne several floors up from the wearer; if he tastes copper he knows there's an open wound in the room, and, he can even tell what's around him, down to the smallest detail, by just standing there and letting his senses put together a picture of it. No turning necessary. It's all incredible, yet never unbelievable.
And the perfect vehicle for this realistic, lower-powered hero is a Netflix series. They weren't restricted by a typical TV-14 rating boundary, and the TV-MA result is as dark and violent as is appropriate for a blind vigilante fighting crime in the dark corners of New York City -- very, on both counts. (Besides the violence the show would probably get a PG-13.) Sometimes the gore element goes over the top for my personal taste, but for the most part, this show's action -- brutal as it is -- is the element that set it apart, and into the category of "Best TV Shows I've Ever Had The Privilege Of Adoring." The second episode clinched that title, after the jaw-dropping climactic 3 minute battle that was filmed in one continuous shot. We immediately went back and re-watched that scene.
|And then we watched it again. Then we speculated on how it was done. (Here's a pretty interesting article on the scene that confirms our theories, and makes me even more impressed, if that's possible.)|
Before this, the one thing DC had on Marvel was its signature darkness, but now, Daredevil's epic, deliciously dark tone makes even the blackest DC offerings look like My Little Pony. Okay, not that much, but it certainly does make Arrow look like a soap opera. Daredevil doesn't skimp on the drama, but the drama is sensible, emotionally relevant and involving, never contrived, and not reused over and over until staleness turns to full-on rot, like many TV dramas like to do.
Really, it feels wrong to compare this show to the likes of Arrow or Agents of SHIELD. As good and fun as those shows can be on their own, they crumble into practically nothing when beside the high quality of Daredevil. While Daredevil can be compared side by side with any Marvel movie, and come away impressively unscathed. There are only two things that give away Daredevil's status as a TV show: the episode format (more like a mini-series in flavor but still), and the camera work -- that is, there are no super expensive shots from cranes or huge CGI shots. Practical effects and practical filming is used, and I wouldn't change that if I could. It has a beautiful, striking, gritty character, with lots of hard lighting, silhouettes, wide shots and immaculately focused close-ups.
|In a word; contrast. Beautiful, beautiful, gritty contrast.|
Charlie Cox is the portrayer of the black-masked hero, and the subject of those close-ups. Cox's casting was the first thing this show did that piqued my interest, because the only thing I'd seen him in before was Stardust (review). A super fun movie, and his performance in it was charming, but I never considered it to be a role requiring any special talent, so news that he was going to be Daredevil was unexpected. And unexpected is a very good thing.
I was very curious to see if he could pull off a dark and brooding Marvel superhero, and he didn't -- because Matt Murdock is way more than a brooder. Cox goes beyond the typical character mantra I assumed he would take, and did his part to help create a complicated, three-dimensional, film-quality character. He gets ten hours of development instead of two, so things do move along slower, but it doesn't matter; he earns our approval and affection almost immediately, and grows steadily from there. He has all the darkness and intensity that comes with the required "devil inside," but he also has that signature Marvel-hero charm, and a gentle and compassionate side that constantly fights for that perfect balance. He's a fantastically complicated mess of deadly fury, kindness, and idiotic bravery.
Matt's real person, charming and friendly side is most prominent when he's around his friend and business partner Foggy. Foggy is played by Elden Henson, who I recognized as the memorable but mute member of Katniss' propaganda team in Mockingjay. He does even better when he gets to speak. He is the main source of comic relief, which there is more of than you'd think would be welcome considering the dark tone of the show, but it always is welcome, and is never silly or overdone or distracting of the darkness. Foggy and Matt's dynamic together is easy and fun, and watching them work as lawyers is good enough to be its own show, without all the vigilante-type crime fighting.
Then Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page makes the third. Karen is Nelson and Murdock's first client, then she becomes their assistant, and fits right in with the dynamic of the other two. Foggy and Karen may be unaware of Matt's nightlife, but they get their time in the drama too. Toby Leonard Moore, who became an unexpected favorite, and Rosario Dawson and Vondie Curtis-Hall round out the rest of the supporting cast I think needs a mention, though there's never a trace of bad acting to be found in the entire lot.
|Matt and Foggy doing lawyer stuffs.|
With a few exceptions, the episodes seem to split the attention on the hero with attention on the villain, Kingpin, or Wilson Fisk, or just "my employer" to his many servants who are forbidden to speak his name. He is played powerfully, with mesmerizing idiosyncrasy by Vincent D'Onofrio. Most of what is disturbing and overly violent in the show revolves around him. He is one of the more unsettling superhero villains out there, but has a strangely sympathetic aspect to him. Not so much to make you actually sympathize with him, but maybe feel like you could... if he wasn't so incredibly evil and disturbingly creepy.
|There's never a trace of bad acting, as I said, but this guy stands outs even more.|
Daredevil practically reinvents how to tell a secondary superhero story, and the method is simple; tell it like it's a primary superhero story. They deserve nothing less. Netflix gave this series a chance to be something different, and break out of the mold, and that is exactly what it did -- to memorable, mind-blowing, bar-raising results. So much so that they outdid themselves too early, and slid back to end the show at a lower, more traditionally Marvel point; which was still great, but less exceptionally different than earlier episodes. Credit for the overall outstanding creativeness can and should go to every unique aspect, and every person involved, but mainly I think it should go to the writing.
The writing is what guides the rest of the show, and leaves behind the typical campiness of Marvel and the overly serious melodrama of DC for a bold and sensible seriousness that's not afraid to go deep into the dark, and leave behind some scars. The story it gives us is often daring, with a smart, complex, and steadily paced plot line that doesn't actually feel like it's being made up on the spot for a compelling change. It sets that rich, meticulously dark tone, provides a balance of high-quality comedy for the darkness, and serves us with action sequences that are awesomely jaw-dropping, painfully grueling, and immensely satisfying to watch.
|Daredevil is changing things. In the Marvel Universe, and in ours.|
Superhero movies and TV shows have been around and popular -- extremely popular -- for a long time now. They're all around us, and it's easy to wonder if we're witnessing the peak of their super-powered high; if they've nearly reached their potential for wonder, exciting action, and real-life moral dilemmas. Daredevil, the first of its kind in a world full of its kind, reminds us that there are many more stories out there like it; that don't fit in a cookie-cutter shape, and are full of involving plots, exciting action, and magnificent heroes, waiting in the unexplored darkness for a chance to save the day.