Carrying on the Mighty Marvel tradition, Netflix rolled out a 13-episode series this past spring, adapting street-level hero, ‘Daredevil,’ with the same care and creativity afforded to the Marvel studio brand on the big screen. Perhaps the most interesting, and possibly alienating, factor about this series is the TV-MA rating it received for putting its’ hero, blind-lawyer-by-day Matt Murdock / alley-avenger, ‘Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ by night, through a veritable gauntlet of some of the most intense hand-to-hand combat committed to screen large or small. This aligns with the comic-book representation, as throughout the comic’s history, Daredevil gets his ass handed to him regularly and suffers intense psychological attacks at the hands of long-time arch-nemesis, Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin. What is unexpected is how extremely jarring this is to witness in the pain-stakingly choreographed fight scenes on display here.
The titular hero is played by Charlie Cox (best known for HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’) with the right balance of charm, vulnerability, and steadfast dedication to the character’s cause. Thankfully, not much time and effort is spent on his origin story (blinded as a boy saving an old man from a chemical spill in the street), and his heightened senses are represented subtly, as opposed to overblown special effects. The scenes dedicated to Murdock’s backstory serve to create a fully formed character, revolving around the mature and caring relationship he had with his father Jack, a low-level boxer caught in the corruption of the sport, the intense relationship he had with his blind, spirited mentor, Stick, and the creation of the rapport he has with his best friend and business partner, fellow lawyer, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson, nailing the easy comedy that comes with familiarity).
The main story kicks off by presenting the scenario that the battle of New York, captured in the first “Avengers” film, has left behind opportunity for corruption in the rebuilding of the city. Murdock and company’s home base, Hell’s Kitchen, was hit especially hard by the damage, and therefore has the biggest void to be filled by a criminal element looking to take advantage of abandoned warehouses and new construction deals. Looming at the center of it all is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, a man of the shadows orchestrating his rise to power, hiding behind various real-estate holdings. One of these holding companies employs Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), and she is put in a compromising position that causes her to cross paths in the series premiere with both the lawyer friends and Murdock’s alter ego. Woll does a nice job inhabiting a character that becomes an important foundation for this new partnership between Murdock and Nelson. Also doing nice, nuanced work is Rosario Dawson, playing the Night Nurse, a hardscrabble city denizen who develops a relationship with Murdock by keeping him alive after his rough exploits.
Throughout the course of the series, D’Onofrio’s Fisk becomes the most compelling villain Marvel Studios has come up with yet. The Kingpin is presented here as a calculating strategist, blunt instrument of violence, and human being scarred by circumstance. In many ways this portrayal is even more fully formed than the comic-book version, who remains an important cog in the criminal machine of Marvel’s NYC and a formidable foe for many of the heroes (Daredevil, Spider-Man, etc.) who operate in the city. D’Onofrio does stunning work, creating tics, mannerisms, inflections in his voice, ranging from quiet menace, moments of raging precision, and longing desires for a less lonely existence. His scenes of courtship with art-dealer Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) play out in a kind of twisted version of a romantic comedy (i.e. the restaurant that is cleared out for their date, etc.), their chemistry believable, palpable, and almost endearing, especially for a couple addicted to power.
Like any super-hero story, the highlights are the action, and ‘Daredevil’ does not disappoint on this front. While in action, Murdock’s black-suited vigilante (the traditional red suit with horns doesn’t appear for a while – for this story, even the reasoning behind it grows organically from the material) is subject to as much pain and suffering as he gives. His fighting style is a combination of techniques from martial arts to boxing, and his motions are all predicated on the unique nature of his abilities to anticipate what is coming based on his heightened senses of sound, smell, and touch. These scenes, particularly a harrowing single-tracking shot hallway battle in the second episode, prove that energizing, exciting action can be done exceedingly well even on a budget more conservative than is allotted to Daredevil’s big-screen cousins.
Netflix/Marvel will be introducing other ‘street-level’ characters to this mix, in an attempt to create a second tier of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that rivals that which exists in the comics. This long-form storytelling is grounded and character-driven, with stakes that affect neighborhoods and individuals rather than cities and planets, therefore making this a very different sandbox for creators to play in. If the subsequent series’ are made with the same care and creativity as ‘Daredevil,’ fans of gritty comics and crime fiction alike are in for a real treat . . .
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -or- A-