What a strange beast Daredevil is. The show feels, in many ways, like a throwback to pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe versions of superhero movies, ones where every element of the character’s iconography needs to be explained away and maybe even made a target of some laughs. But it’s also faithful in a way that Marvel Studios basically pioneered, drawing heavily from some retcon work by Frank Miller in the Daredevil: Man Without Fear mini-series, and sprinkling in a ton of nerdy references, characters and in-jokes along the way. It’s a show that would have felt like a revelation maybe seven years ago.
It’s resoundingly okay. There are many good elements - Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock is absolutely exceptional, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk is probably the best villain in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, even if I think he’s lacking as a villain. He’s basically a great character, played with the exact right tonal weirdness by an actor who has lots of weirdness to go around. The action is pretty good (for TV). But there are also a lot of elements that simply do not work, and the show ends up grinding to a halt because of them.
Before I watched the show I was deeply afraid it was going to have a full-on Christopher Nolan tone, that sort of grimdark serious approach that actually makes everything even sillier. I was wrong, and I’m thankful; Daredevil’s actual tone is pretty great, even if I think it’s a touch over-violent in the first half (I never ever needed to see Daredevil stab a guy in the eye). It’s dark in a crime show way, but it also leaves in room for things to expand out and get weirder and more mystical. When Stick shows up or when Madam Gao is suddenly a kung fu master it doesn’t break the world, which is vital - Daredevil technically exists in the same world as Thor, after all. I was impressed with the way the show handled that (after a rough first few episodes), and by the end I felt like the Hell’s Kitchen created in season one was one that could allow Leland Owsley to come back as the genetically enhanced The Owl without seeming out of place.
What I never anticipated is that the show would be so boring - at 13 episodes it’s maybe three episodes too long, and each episode is perhaps five to ten minutes too long. The show exists in a weird middle ground between very episodic - it’s easy to imagine this series being stripped out weekly, and many episodes have characters explaining what happened last episode, which in the bingeverse of Netflix usually is just ten minutes ago - and bingetastic. The show’s first four episodes are a slow burn, which technically makes sense in a binged show - you’re probably committed to thirteen hours on the couch - but which doesn’t work in practice. The slow burn of those first four hours felt like a lot of time being wasted, and I was acutely aware that over the course of the runtime of Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier very little had actually happened on Daredevil. We only get to Wilson Fisk really doing something cool and badass at the end of episode four. The building explosions in episode five feel like they should have come in episode two or three, in order to establish some sort of stakes for the series. It isn’t until episode six that Daredevil really works.
Intriguingly episodes six and ten are the best of the series, and I think it’s because both episodes tighten the focus onto Matt. The structure of the series is absolutely bizarre; instead of using the Nelson and Murdock law firm to bring in cases of the week that can build towards an uncovering of Wilson Fisk’s nefarious plans (basically to gentrify Hell’s Kitchen, which was wrecked in the Chitauri invasion) the show has two plots running side by side. Daredevil investigates the criminal underworld while law partner Foggy Nelson and secretary Karen Page investigate Wilson Fisk’s shell company holdings. The problem is that Karen and Foggy (and later reporter Ben Urich) are investigating things the audience - and Daredevil! - already know. It’s a structure that causes many episodes to feel absolutely flaccid as we watch this duo spin wheels (and keep getting drunk).
Part of the problem is that Foggy Nelson, frankly, sucks. He’s written in a way that doesn’t appeal - instead of the likable guy who keeps Nelson and Murdock afloat he’s a slacker nerd who skeezes on women all the time - and the performance by Eldon Henson is like nails on a chalkboard. He never gets the tone right; he’s the comedy relief, but Henson plays that relief so broadly that this already unlikeable character becomes intolerable. He’s not helped by the fact that his plot goes absolutely, completely nowhere; by the end of the series it was clear that if you cut most of the Foggy And Karen Investigate scenes from the series it would be much tighter and better. Deborah Anne Woll as Karen Page is better, but this take on Karen Page is way too informed by Frank Miller's retcon of her as a junkie and amatuer porn performer. I don't think Karen needs to be troubled in this way - to have a dark past - to be interesting. The show disagrees.
So let’s look past the dismal Foggy and Karen dead weight - everything else in Daredevil is pretty good. Cox is just terrific, and this iteration of Matt Murdock - ladies man, but not a sleaze - hits the exact right note. In fact Cox is so fun and bright as Matt Murdock I sort of hated when he got into costume. I would have liked to see Daredevil be a touch lighter, as he was before Frank Miller distorted him (and as he has been in the most recent Marvel comics). I was shocked to find that I didn’t hate the ninja suit - in fact I prefer it to the final, bad costume (what’s with all the black patches? He looks more like bike daredevil Johnny Blaze than Daredevil). Cox is so good that, if they can get him in a reasonable costume, I would love to see him share screentime with the Marvel movie heroes - the first character to originate on TV about whom I can say that.
I like that the show uses Matt’s Catholicism as the central motivation for the character - the self-sacrifice that underpins so many of the pagan-like Catholic rituals shine here, and in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming or silly. Matt is a self-flagellating superhero, a guy who is putting his body on the line in order to atone for the intense violence in his soul.
Sometimes his willingness to take a beating gets to be too much. Daredevil loses every fight with such predictability that his final battle against Kingpin has no weight. The show needed to make Daredevil better at his job so that at the end when he is struggling against Fisk it has meaning, as opposed to ‘Oh, this is the guy who lost to an old man with a stun gun and who barely outfought a tailor, no wonder he’s having a hard time with this big dude.’ It was weird to see almost every fight Daredevil got into ending up with him pretty badly banged up; some people seem to be interested in the whole ‘first day on the job’ hero narrative, but I hate it. I want to watch people be excellent, and I want their defeats to have meaning, not be routine.
D’Onfrio’s Wilson Fisk is extraordinary, and he’s actually the most sympathetic character on the show… which is kind of a problem. He feels more like the anti-hero of an AMC series than the villain of a superhero show, and Daredevil doesn’t make his villainy villainous enough. In the penultimate episode he kills one of Daredevil’s pals with his bare hands, but that’s too little too late. Also, his evil plan is basically to gentrify a neighborhood, but he’s doing it with, frankly, fairly standard techniques. It isn’t even until Daredevil gets involved that Fisk feels the need to kill an innocent to make his plan work; he’s happy to just buy out tenants from buildings he surreptitiously let get shitty. This is an okay villain for a police procedural, but for a show about a guy with radar sense it feels lacking.
But again, the problem is the villainy, not the villain. Fisk is an awesomely complicated character, and I loved his journey. I loved that a lot of his problem isn’t Daredevil but the fact that his associates don’t like him being in love and neglecting the business. Ayelet Zurer - Superman's mom in Man of Steel! - is extraordinary as the Lady MacBeth-ish Vanessa, a woman who has depths of darkness I hope get explored in future stories. Her chemistry with D'Onofrio is terrific, and you can understand why this worldy woman finds herself drawn to this weird, stunted man. I enjoyed Fisk's rise, even if I think it was sketched poorly (when he holds the press conference and everybody covers it, despite Wilson Fisk being a ghost, I rolled my eyes). I loved the way that D’Onfrio played him as a naive babyman, a guy who truly thinks he’s doing the right thing. In standard action movie terms Kingpin and Daredevil in this show are mirror images of each other, two guys going outside the law to do what they think is best to save their neighborhood. I think it’s weird that I empathized with Fisk more than Murdock; some people have said this show should have been Kingpin, and I honestly suspect that’s the series Steven DeKnight would have preferred to make. It would have been cool.
Without big stakes - there is no ticking clock on Fisk’s plan, a lot of his villainy seems street-level in a mundane way - and with so much of the running time given over to Foggy and Karen being useless, Daredevil ends up feeling distended. I couldn’t imagine actually bingeing this show, and I fell asleep TWICE during episode nine (which has a non-linear ninja fight that is incorporated into the show in a way that is simply incompetent and without rhythm). I was wrong about Daredevil - it’s not an overly grim n’ gritty betrayal of the wonderful Marvel tone. It is, however, a victim of having too many episodes and too many minutes and too much dedication to a decompressed storytelling style. It’s also a victim of being afraid of its own central character - the full costume doesn’t come until the last minutes of the last episode, and Daredevil doesn’t even get his name until literally Matt Murdock’s final scene. The show avoids showing up radar sense except for one small moment (I actually wonder how many newbies truly understand radar sense, which I don’t think was well explained despite having THIRTEEN HOURS to do so), which feels like an attempt to devalue Daredevil’s superpowers. He’s not Batman - he’s an actual powered hero, and I wish the show had been more willing to go that way. Hearing heartbeats and fighting while blind aren’t the most interesting parts of Daredevil’s power set - his 360 degree situational awareness and his other heightened senses (he can count the grains of salt on a pretzel with his tongue!) are really great and could have been fun to explore at some point. Matt's work as a lawyer also would have been fun to explore - I always liked the dichotomy of Matt/Daredevil fighting for justice in different and not always compatible ways. They handwave at that in the finale, but I wouldn't have complained about more cool courtroom scenes, especially with cameos by interesting supervillains on the stand.
As the first Marvel/Netflix show Daredevil gets basically passing marks from me. It’s okay. I hope that the other series don’t go for this same decompressed style - I don’t want Iron Fist discovering K’un-Lun in episode ten of his show. We’re now in a post-Age of Ultron MCU, one where colorful figures fighting swarms of robots and aliens are fairly common. We’ve left behind that point where the costume and the name need to be justified. The world is weird - let the shows lean into that.
In the meantime: I can’t wait for Kingpin to meet Spider-Man.