I just finished watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe event of the year. No, I didn't get an advanced peek at Avengers: Age of Ultron or Ant-Man, which are sure to be fine films... well, maybe not that second one. Regardless, I don't think the biggest event in Marvel adaptations will be happening in your local cineplex or illicit streaming site of choice in 2015. After spending around thirteen hours in a rundown slum of New York City, I'm convinced that sometimes, superheroes don't always need huge budgets and lavish special effects. Sometimes, all they really need is a team of writers and producers who genuinely care about them, who have faithfully followed their exploits and understand what makes them tick.
This is why Daredevil might be the most faithful and well-produced Marvel project thus far... as well as a new personal favorite.
Daredevil has never been a character that benefited from a watered-down treatment. Love Frank Miller or hate him (I gravitate towards the latter,) there's no denying that when he got a hold of the character, he was the first to do something with him that actually worked. That is to say, he gave him an entire population's worth of gritty angst and threw him in a cruel, violent world that wanted him to break, die, or some brutal combination of the two. This was, really, the first time somebody had given enough of a damn about Matt Murdock and his world to put some real, concentrated effort into making him not just another run-of-the-mill do-gooder. I mean, you'd think it would be hard to make a blind Catholic man who runs around in a devil costume boring, but before Miller, that's exactly what he was: boring. The controversial creator infused Daredevil's world with a darkness that has lingered throughout the years and has since gone on to define the character.
Then why, in all the years since, has this grim tone not been consistently sustained? And by "grim," I don't mean shitty things happening to women, or brutal violence being lavishly depicted. I mean that signature Miller tone, that one he practically invented before he fully deteriorated into a xenophobic misogynist nutcase. Where everything is bleak and awful, only punctuated by glimmers of biting, sarcastic humor, like a meaner Alan Moore yarn. Nobody else has really been able to nail it, without resorting to cheap shock tactics like giving characters AIDS or killing off women for dramatic effect.
I'm happy to say that, for perhaps the first time since Miller delivered the character defining "Born Again" arc, or since Brian Michael Bendis did a subtle deconstruction of the hero, Daredevil has once again been returned to his element. That is to say, his latest cinematic outing, and the second since the maligned 2003 film, is a brooding, violent meditation on mankind, punctuated by moments of brutal carnage and elaborate displays of martial arts. For the first time, Matt Murdock and his world, the seedy underbelly of the Marvel Universe, has been captured on camera. But that's not all. For the first time, something new has been added to the pot, something that elevates the characters and his heroics beyond the grimy vigilante Miller molded him into: a soul.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Who is Daredevil, even? And why should you care? For one, he's an anomaly in the superhero world. Not only is he a lawyer, something only She-Hulk (long overdue for an MCU canonizing) can really lay claim to, but he's also blind and an expert in martial arts. When we first meet him in this particular series, he's an upstart defense attorney, starting from the ground-up with his longtime friend, Foggy Nelson. Their first case introduces them to Karen Page, who quickly becomes another partner, and from there, they find themselves in the middle of an insidious plot to take over Hell's Kitchen in order to reap a profit. This has given rise to all sorts of organized crime who all want a piece of the pie, and Murdock, endowed with superhuman abilities both learned and naturally acquired when blinded by chemicals, has already taken it upon himself to brutalize criminals and bring them to justice.
That's about as bare of a plot description I can give without delving into spoiler territory, and I assure you, this is something that you don't want ruined. What has been done these first thirteen episodes is nothing short of masterful. The way the writers, directors and showrunner have put together this show is like an elaborate piece of origami being undone by the smallest creases possible. Viewers are drip-fed tantalizing details that gradually work towards a massive, shocking reveal, and then yanked right back to square one. Even as this first season ends on a pretty satisfying note, we're left wondering about several things and wanting more. It's all put together so masterfully, and paced with such skill. That's on top of some truly excellent scripts which are laced with both satisfying, punchy dialogue and surprisingly profound meditations on humanity.
Those meditations are what also make Daredevil work not only as a television series, but as a skillful adaptation. To be honest, the original comic series, after Miller took over, gradually devolved into nothing more than gritty, dark, artificially edgy pap with no soul. Matt Murdock's inner monologues sounded like something an emo teenager would write in his diary while listening to Papa Roach. The plots kept upping the grimdark ante until everybody was either being tortured, killed, hooked on drugs, sexually exploited or some sort of weird combination of the four. It's entirely possible to be dark without resorting to cheap shock tactics and wallowing in despair, but unfortunately, that's exactly what happened as Miller's work turned into the pedantic, meaningless rambles of a bitter, faux-intellectual middle-aged man.
By contrast, Daredevil wisely steers clear of such pitfalls by taking the dark world of Miller's work and infusing it with a sense of optimism. Yes, people die and get tortured. Women get kidnapped. Good people get screwed over. But there's never, at any point, a sense of hopeless desolation that overwhelms the viewer. Even when Murdock falls to his lowest points, other characters exist to provide a less bleak outlook on life. You never believe, for a moment, that everything is going to entirely fall apart beyond a state of repair. There's a lot at stake over the course of the story, yes, and some really bad shit happens to every character at some point, but there's always a loophole, something that you know will let them all live to fight another day. To me, that's what makes mainstream comics such an enduring artform: no matter how bad stuff gets, there's never a sense that all is lost. Daredevil not only brings in the stuff that worked from Miller's run of the original series, but infuses it with a much-needed light to counteract all the darkness. Because of that, I feel that it's actually an improvement on the franchise as a whole.
Speaking of the franchise as an entire entity, I'm not sure I could pick a more perfect cast to bring the major players to life. Charlie Cox plays Matt Murdock like a man who uses snark and bravado to mask his deep-seated fears and inner demons. Deborah Ann Woll instills Karen Page with fierce optimism and resilience, never stooping to the frightened victim Miller and other writers made her out to be. And, in a surprise twist, child actor Elden Henson takes the comic relief character of Foggy Nelson and not only nails that part of his personality, but manages to layer him with some complexity on top of it. The main trio of characters, occasionally accompanied by a stellar Rosario Dawson, serve as the beating, ferocious heart of Daredevil, and they keep pumping narrative blood into the series until the final few moments.
That said, one actor steals the show every time he's onscreen, and that's Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin. Kingpin is a character that, for all intents and purposes, has historically been a bit one-note. He's rich, he's evil, he hates superheroes. Pretty simple stuff. But here? He's a neurotic megalomaniac with a shadowy past, a broken man whose temper can shift from docile to heinously violent in a split second, a hopeless romantic whose biggest fear is himself. D'Onofrio's complicated, brilliant take on the character is, irrevocably, better than anything I imagined it could be, simply because Kingpin really hasn't ever been that interesting. Now, going back and reading some of the older Daredevil stories, I find myself reading Fisk in D'Onofrio's voice, and wishing for some of the much-needed nuance he provides to the sociopathic one-percenter. The actor, who's been out of the limelight for a while now, deserves any sort of award imaginable for his masterful, frightening performance here. It's some of the best acting I've ever seen, frankly.
When the fantastic acting takes a backseat to heroics, though, Daredevil does end up stumbling in some areas. Not because the impressively choreographed fights are boring, or because they lack frenetic intensity. The problem with them is that they feel at odds with everything else on display and, frankly, aren't edited in or together very well. When you spend 20 minutes watching characters interact and clash and uncover shocking revelations, it's a bit of a jarring tonal shift to go into a 10 minute martial arts sequence. Again, I don't dislike the fighting sequences, and their execution is uniformly pitch-perfect, outside of dragging on a bit too long in some instances. But sometimes, there's an elaborate, flashy chop-socky segment when all the scene really calls for are a few well placed punches and kicks. I understand that martial arts was a massive part of the Miller Daredevil runs, but I also think it worked a little better on the page than it does on screen.
That minor gripe aside, the action sequences that aren't extended martial arts brawls are tightly shot and kept me on the edge of my seat. In particular, the final two sequences are so brilliant that I wish the show had been more full of moments like them. At the very least, things never get boring, and just when they threaten to with another drawn-out fight, the script takes back over and amps up the suspense again. But then, when the biggest problem with your comic book adaptation is there's a tad bit too much action, you're doing pretty good.
"Pretty good" doesn't do Daredevil justice, though. Because, my issues with some of the more action-heavy parts aside, what Marvel and ABC have pulled off here is nothing short of incredible. Really, truly incredible. Ever since Iron Man debuted in 2008 (has it really been that long?) I've been worried that some of the darker, more sinister parts of the Marvel Universe would be left untouched, or worse, made more palatable for younger audiences. As luck would have it, that fear was unfounded. By smartly tapping into the medium of internet television, one of the most iconic mature comic properties has been given the cinematic treatment it deserved: brooding, introspective, and very, very violent.
Strictly for the older set, Daredevil is nothing short of an astonishing achievement for Marvel. Not only does it capture the essence of the source material, it expounds upon it in new, novel ways and somehow manages to improve upon what was already there. And, when you get right down to it, it's just damn good television, and one of the best things Netflix has put out... and certainly my personal favorite.