Daredevil is an odd duck of a superhero. Beginning life as a lame Spider-Man knockoff, he only really took off when Frank Miller got his mitts on him, nearly 20 years into his existence, turning him into what we can now recognize as the prototype Frank Miller character. People have complained about Miller’s interpretation becoming the default version for years, but without Miller, he wouldn’t be well known enough to merit even a small live action production, much less the two big ones he’s gotten.
Of course that might be one of the reasons I was more than a little nervous about this TV adaptation. Veering too close to anything Frank Miller wrote is, these days, a little like Icarus flying too close to an insane sun. But, veer too far away and you’ll just wind up back at the lame Spider-Man knockoff door. That’s a thin line to walk, even for a studio like Marvel.
The plot is concerned, naturally, with Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a lawyer who was blinded in an accident as a child. Growing up he found that his other senses have heightened to the point where he can use them as radar, allowing him to both see and kick ass. And naturally, when he finds that acting within the law can’t solve all the problems, he decides to use his heightened senses and kung fu fighting prowess to fight crime, in a black mask and…I guess sweater?
Aiding him on the legal side of things is Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) his college roommate, and fellow founder of their law practice, Nelson & Murdock. They are eventually joined by the defendant in their first ever case, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), as their secretary. But, even as Matt works to clean up Hell’s Kitchen (yes I know, more on that in a minute), a new crime boss named Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) begins trying to take over the neighborhood, with a multicultural group of criminals.
I’m not usually one to talk about a work’s influences, unless it becomes vital to understanding why I do or do not like a particular work. But in this case, it’s very hard to avoid how completely enamored this show is with the Christopher Nolan Batman films, Batman Begins in particular.
Much of the show’s aesthetics and directing, the way it’s shot, framed and especially the way the fights are choreographed borrow heavily from the Nolan films. And you know what, that’s fine. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are both great films, and Daredevil is one of the few characters I think could survive a dark and gritty reinterpretation. I just wish the show was more committed to that goal.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s mostly a good show; it’s well acted, well directed, mostly well written (more on that later). But it suffers from some fairly major issues, the biggest of which are the moments where the aesthetics of being a gritty crime drama begin to conflict with the aesthetics of being a superhero story. The show never fully figures out how to reconcile those two disparate parts, and the clash causes problems for the entire season.
There are other issues too. While the series is clearly heavily invested in making some good villains (something Marvel has lacked), Fisk’s backstory is tiresomely predictable (even if he is well written and D’Onofrio gives a great performance) and his murderous row of fellow crime bosses trips over the line of archetypes into cliches and begins to stumble towards stereotypes. And while the scenes where they borrow heavily from Nolan are good, a lot of the fight choreography could use some work.
But as I said, I do like it. Charlie Cox is pretty damned great as Murdock, even if he loses his ability to sell ‘Blind’ when we can see his eyes (dunno what is it, maybe that his eyes move too much?) and he manages to find that sweet spot where I can buy him both as the out-of-costume lawyer and the increasingly violent vigilante.
The writing is at its best when it’s emphasizing the interactions between the characters. While the Murdock/Nelson/Karen interactions are engaging enough on their own merits, the really interesting ones are between Fisk and Vanessa (Aylet Zurer), his love interest. It’s weird enough to see a villain with an honest-to-god love interest, but even weirder (and more interesting) to see a villain awkwardly trying to woo someone, despite a major lack of social skills. It’s an interesting was of presenting Kingpin, especially since the story seems to be as much his origin story as Daredevil’s.
Aside from that, there’s not a lot to say about the character. Ben Ulrich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) are both interesting in conception, but they both skirt along the lines of getting enough screen time to become fully realized characters (especially Claire). Only a couple of Kingpin’s sidekicks seem to have had any thought put into them, although I do like Leland Owsley (Bob Gunton), who rivals Mike from Breaking Bad for ‘Old criminal dude who has no time for anyone’s s**t.’
I was all geared up to complain about the way the show frames Hell’s Kitchen as being a craphole, when it hasn’t been that way for a decade. But the show manages to find a quick and dirty hand wave, talking about how the neighborhood has gotten worse since…well since the Avengers dropped a space whale on it. It’s not a lot, but it’s nice to see the show pay attention to details and acknowledge both the older films and that the world of the comics has not kept consistent with the real world.
Unfortunately, all the good will bought from good character work and direction can’t sustain it forever, and it began to lose me towards the end of the season. Regular dips into the “Foreshadowing for future Marvel projects” are always annoying, but when they’re so vague as to be useless without an encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel history, they begin to test my patience. And while I doubt want to spoil, I can honestly say that the show’s ending is silly and cheesy enough that it does not fit with the rest of the series.
Still, it’s not all bad. Solid action, solid character works and mostly good writing mean that Daredevil is head and shoulders over the only other Marvel TV project I’ve seen, Agents of SHIELD (no I haven’t seen Agent Carter; yes I know I should). If you go in with expectations it’ll be another Winter Soldier, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you can keep your expectations in check, you’ll probably enjoy it. It’s not perfect, but who is, besides the Coen Brothers?
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he doesn’t care enough about the Ben Affleck Daredevil to try and make a comparison.
– good action and direction
– pretty solid character work
– good acting
– absurdly vague foreshadowing can get old
– gets a little silly towards the end
– a lot of it is either cliched or predicatable