For a good long run, DC was the king of bringing their properties to the large and small screens. From 1943 with the Batman serials, to Superman I and II in 1978 and 1980, to the glory that was Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), DC had the televisual and cinema game on lock. Marvel did their thing, but nothing Marvel did could hold a candle to Justice League Unlimited. Not a Hulk, Thor, Daredevil special. Not any animated iteration of The X-Men or the Avengers. Not anything, animated or not. Then in 1998, Blade happened.
It made Marvel a legitimate player in the cinematic space. Two years later, the first X-Men film dropped. On the back of Blade, X-Men became a phenomenon that spawned a far superior sequel, and other X-Films of varying quality. Then came the first manifestations of the Spider-Man films (2002-2007). DC offered good counter-punches with Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). While DC was handling its business in the movie houses, it was offering Smallville (2001-2011) on our television sets. Then the Marvel Cinematic Universe exploded. ‘Nuff said. This by no means is a complete history of Marvel and DC’s film and television efforts. I just wanted to set the stage and illustrate the entertainment arms race the Big Two are engaged in.
Then in 2012, Arrow happened. It was such a breath of fresh are for live action superhero entertainment on our televisions. It wasn’t as hokey as Smallville, or as “to hell with canon and quality” like the Marvel live action television shows. Arrow is gritty and as realistic as the fantastic could be, and provided us with just enough DCU Easter eggs to keep us watching week to week.
Marvel dropped Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on us in 2013. Full disclosure: I hate this show with a passion. Lackluster acting, plots, horrible stunts and fight choreography… I’ll stop here. The one thing the show has going for it is that it links to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), thus giving it some grounding and familiarity. DC came back with the campy, yet fun, The Flash this season but Arrow was still on top of the heap. That is until April 10, 2015. On this date, televised superhero adventures changed forever. This is the day that the 13 episodes of the inaugural season of Daredevil dropped on Netflix in all of their bloody, legitimately gritty, and surprisingly human glory.
It took me just under three days to watch all of the Daredevil series. I’d sneak an episode here and there — fitting them in whenever I had the chance. Now that I’m done, I’m going to do it again. It is just that good. I feel the same way about Daredevil’s first season as I did about the first season of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series in 2004: “How in the hell can TV be this good?”
By a very long and wide margin, Daredevil is the best superhero property ever put on television. Yes, it is even better than Justice League Unlimited (2004-2006). From the creepy (well, I find it creepy) opening sequence, to the music, direction, casting, and the absolutely stellar stunts and fight choreography, Daredevil is the hero we all need right now.
Charlie Cox as blind attorney Matt Murdock is exceptional. It was like he was ripped from the best of the comics and deposited on screen, fully formed and relatable. Cox plays him with a seething just-below-the-surface rage that is damn near terrifying. He also captures Murdock’s playboy nature.
Murdock is a mack, and Cox shows us how he uses his charms.
Just take a look at the Night Nurse analog, Claire Temple (played with haunting vulnerability by Rosario Dawson) when she is tending to Matt, her longing is almost a third character in their shared scenes.
I wasn’t too fond of Deborah Ann Woll’s portrayal of Karen Page, but episodes 8-10 gave me a newfound appreciation for her. Episode 11 forced me to shut up and give Deborah/Karen all the props. That’s all I can say about that.I also wasn’t too sure about Elden Henson as Franklin “Foggy” Nelson. There was a little too much hipster smarm on him for me to relate. In the comics, I always experienced Foggy as the string that tethers Matt Murdock’s kite. No matter how choppy the wind got, there is still someone holding the line, making sure that Matt doesn’t fly off. But as the series went on, Henson’s Foggy reminded me of Sammy Davis Jr.’s tenure with the Rat Pack. He appreciates the talent he is surrounded by, but harbors some animosity as the others get more shine.
Henson shows us, despite Murdock being his best friend, just how much of Murdock’s behavior he is willing (and not willing) to tolerate. He has the best one liners in the show. I wouldn’t relegate him to comic relief — he is much more nuanced — but he brings much needed humor to the show.
And then there is Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk. This portrayal has set the bar for all villains, super or not. His motivations are clear, even though we may disagree with his tactics.
D’Onofrio offers a master class in acting. From the way he says thank you to his right-hand man James Wesley (he is the god of oily fixers) played by Toby Leonard More, to the way he flirts with Vanessa Mariann (Aylet Zurer — pure sexy sophistication and edge), to the way he expounds on his passion for his beloved Hell’s Kitchen, D’Onofrio’s Fisk is a treasure to behold. If he doesn’t get major recognition for this role, it will be criminal.
I don’t have the time or space to give every actor the praise they deserve, but let’s just say that everyone on the show is on their A+ game. In particular Vondie Curtis Hall, as reporter Ben Urich, is an absolute standout. Stubborn in his drive for the truth, and loving to his bedridden wife, Hall is a close second to D’Onofrio in terms of bravura acting.
Some folks are trying to call Daredevil The Wire or the Breaking Bad of superhero television shows. I’d argue that this is the first Daredevil and that it should be judged in this lane, and not diluted by comparing it to other shows. This is no diss to those shows, but let’s allow Daredevil to stand on its own numerous merits. And speaking of merits: The stunts and the fights.
Never on television have there been better stunts or fights. Hell, some films would be hard pressed to match this level of both complexity and brutality. The fights, as stylized as they are, look like they hurt. The fight against Yakuza boss, Nobu (Peter Shinkoda, king of the quiet story) and Matt Murdock as the man in the mask is brutal, bloody, and rewindable (yes, this is a word). I watched that fight six times. And keep an eye out for Wilson Fisk and the door of his SUV. I say gotdam! Some folks argue that the low lighting of many of the fight scenes is a distraction, and that it takes too many hits for Matt to lay out his opponents. This is the trouble with trained martial artists watching reel martial arts.
(There is a nod to Chan Wook Park’s 2003 masterpiece Oldboy that kicks all the asses there has ever been).
This is a fantastic world, and we have to judge the fights by the rules of this world. I’m hoping that this season is just the set up, and that season 2 shows us how Matt Murdock, the man in the mask, graduates to the Daredevil we all know (and some of us) love.
Watch this show as soon as you can. Daredevil gives me hope for the other MCU/Netflix properties that are on deck.
(There is a daylight Parkour scene that illustrates just how intimate Matt Murdock and the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen are. Absolutely amazing).
The last 13 minutes of episode 13 will have you yelling at the very top of your lungs.
Daredevil gets 5 out of 5 stars.
Lastly, here are some things I learned while watching Daredevil:
- Violence has consequences: both psychic and physical.
- Heroism is on a scale.
- The best villains can get you to root for them.
- Marvel is running the game. Now, if only their books could match what they put on TV and film.