Marvel Studios has been busy since Iron Man premiered in 2008. They’ve released 10 feature films and two television shows. Twelve more films are planned through 2019, along with four new Netflix shows. Daredevil is the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a 13-episode season that dropped on Netflix last week.
Why bring up MCU history at the top of a review? Frankly, it’s impossible to watch any superhero product, Marvel or DC, without comparing it to the hero’s past appearances. And, for most Marvel fans (and any casual viewers with unfortunately strong memories), Daredevil conjures up images of a messy, misguided Ben Affleck/Jennifer Garner vehicle. Like the reboot of The Incredible Hulk before it, Marvel has started anew here, introducing a new Matt Murdock and sidekicks in a surprisingly fresh take on Hell’s Kitchen.
Matt Murdock may still be a blind lawyer helping the less fortunate by day while beating up gangsters at night, but Daredevil is strikingly different from Marvel’s other productions. It’s a small-scale, street-level crime show that DC fans (especially those who love Arrow) might find appealing. The Avengers might have defeated Loki’s attack on New York three years ago, but there are still children being kidnapped, people getting murdered, and kind Guatemalan grandmothers getting kicked out of their apartments to make way for condominiums. It’s love for New York — Hell’s Kitchen specifically — that drives Murdock in both his legal and extra-legal work, and while the repeated speeches about “my city” can get tiring, a more personal connection sets Daredevil apart from the often centerless Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Showrunner Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, Lost) wisely skips over Murdock’s origin story, instead diving into the action early and often. That action has a slick, stylish look that somehow improves with every episode (Fight in the rain? Check. One-shot hallway fight? Check. Sewer shoot-out? CHECK). The graphic violence can be overwhelming when binge-watching the show, especially for those used to Marvel’s more PG-13 fare, but it’s used to great effect: Hell’s Kitchen is a brutal city, which breeds brutal men.
Speaking of binge-watching: most Netflix properties are built with mainlining in mind, but this is the first one I’ve seen that has used the structure as a way to break format conventions. I binged the first ten episodes this week, and would often find myself thinking a fight must be a cliffhanger finale only to see I was 20 minutes into a new episode. The usual dramatic beats are all there (including a gorgeous Hannibal-esque title sequence) but they’re varied enough to keep episodes fresh even when consumed one right after another.
No small part of Daredevil’s success is owed to Charlie Cox’s performance as Matt Murdock. He manages to sell the more heavy-handed material while remaining charming as hell, and gives an impressively expressive performance for having his eyes covered 75% of the time. His supporting cast is more hit-and-miss. Elden Nelson’s performance as Foggy Nelson can seem a little out of step with the rest of the show, and unfortunately Karen Page (True Blood’s Deborah Ann Woll) gets dragged along with him for the first few episodes.
Any superhero story is only as good as its supervillain, and William Fisk (better known as Kingpin) doesn’t disappoint here. He doesn’t appear until episode three, but Vincent D’Orofino’s presence hangs over the show even when he’s not on screen. The show made the choice to dive into Fisk’s backstory to flesh out his motivations, which aren’t all that different from Matt’s: he just wants to clean up the streets, and isn’t afraid to bust a few heads to do it.
It’s a struggle that won’t be resolved soon but, until then: welcome to Hell’s Kitchen.
Featured image courtesy of Netflix.