Daredevil: Into The Ring

Posted on April 11, 2015

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Charlie Cox in “Marvel’s Daredevil” on Netflix.


The debut of Marvel’s Daredevil (and that will be the last time we use the corporate prefix when referring to the title of the show) on Netflix represents something of a sea change for the world that’s come to be known (through – once again – corporate branding) as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU for short. For the first time, the interconnected fictional reality that includes such tucked-away corners as The Guardians of the Galaxy and Agent Carter, not to mention The Avengers and related films, has gone totally street-level. And in doing so, manages to reignite the genre of street-hero storytelling by differentiating itself from the work of its predecessors (and in some ways, partial influences), The CW’s Arrow and the Christopher Nolan Batman films. There are no square-jawed millionaires vowing to ease the suffering of the unfortunate. This is one man of limited means, in the neighborhood he’s lived in all his life, trying to clean up the messes that have sprung up around him.

But it may not be an immediately recognizable neighborhood. They call it Hell’s Kitchen, but it has practically nothing to do with the highly gentrified neighborhood in New York City that bears the name. Matt Murdock lives in a world cast only in sickly shades of yellow and green; an endless succession of flickering fluorescents, rain-slicked streets and tarps flapping on scaffolding. We’re not sure if “stylish” would be the right word to describe this show, but it definitely has a style. Bladerunner without all the flying cars and robots. There is not one well-lit scene in the first episode, a decision that not only establishes a strong visual style but one that makes sense given the lead character’s blindness. As for why this version of Hell’s Kitchen seems perpetually stuck in a ’70s crime movie, the explanation given – and in fact, one of the cornerstones of the show’s entire setup – is that the neighborhood was decimated by the alien invasion in the Avengers movie, causing a bunch of unscrupulous developers, business interests and crime lords to move in and carve it all to pieces. It works surprisingly well, all things considered, but any time someone mentions the Avengers, it’s a bit jarring.

While Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne fight an endless succession of clownish psychos and imperious megalomaniacs, Daredevil opens with our hero saving a small group of women from being abducted for human trafficking purposes and promised only a bucket for their needs. This is isn’t just street-level, it’s practically gutter level. So much so, that the first episode rarely ever feels like a superhero story at all, even though there are hints of enhanced abilities and a bare bones, mere minutes-long “origin” that hints as to how those enhanced abilities came about. But the show de-emphasizes these elements somewhat, either by moving quickly past them (as in the opening origin story) or being very subtle about how they’re portrayed (such as when Matt can tell whether someone is lying or not). The costume looks like it can be bought in a sporting goods store and the episode waits until the final minute before we get the obligatory superheroic “standing on a rooftop and listening to the city” pose. We get the impression that the show isn’t at all embarrassed by its more comic-booky inspirations, but that it’s taking its time before indulging all of them.

But we should get to the parts that didn’t land as well for us, lest we sound like total fanboys here. For one, the dialogue could charitably be called stylized in a comic booky kind of way, but at less charitable moments it struck us as clunky and slightly over-wrought. Charlie Cox did a wonderful job portraying Matt Murdock as someone with smooth, quiet confidence, some deep emotional damage, and a barely hidden sense of moral outrage that can be frightening in its intensity – but even he couldn’t make that opening confessional monologue sound entirely natural. The Consortium of Evil People are a collection of ethnic and racial cliches and the unseen crime lord’s un-named right hand man needs to tone down the smarminess considerably. He’s about ten seconds away from twirling an imaginary mustache in some of his scenes. And while we enjoy the show’s sense of identity and style, it does tend to distract us every once in a while as we pause and ask “How did an alien invasion strip half the paint and install all these drop ceilings and fluorescent lights all over this neighborhood?”

But some of these criticisms strike us as minor and most come across as first-episode roughness that could easily smooth itself out over time. Besides, any minor deficiencies tend to get quickly forgotten during the action sequences, which are superbly rendered.  The word “stunning” is used to describe well-executed fight choreography so often it’s a bit of a cliche, but honestly, there’s no better word to describe the action here, which left us literally open-mouthed at times. It’s so refreshing to see fight sequences that aren’t chopped up by a million edits, obscuring what’s actually happening. The fight scenes here are shot in long shots and long takes, allowing all the amazing moves to unfold as if we were sitting several yards away and watching it live. Instead of a lot of visual trickery to portray the violence – some of which is brutal – the show relies on the sound to provide enhancement (again, which plays into the lead character’s way of experiencing the world). Each fight sounds like a succession of fists landing on slabs of meat. And on a visceral level, each fight is epic in its own way as Murdock takes almost as much punishment as he dishes out. The results had us holding our breath throughout and restraining ourselves from fist pumps every time he prevailed. It’s too early for us to make declarations as to its standing among other shows of its type, but with this episode at least, Daredevil is staking its claim to the top of the heap of TV superhero dramas.

We’ll continue reviewing the rest of this season, sprinkling our reviews around our Mad Men and other TV coverage, but you can expect several reviews a week. 

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