Daredevil is a revelation. For a superhero show, Netflix’s Marvel series is incredibly human. Sure, it has its superpowered protagonist and takes place in the same world as The Avengers; it’s heavily serialized and features convoluted mob war plots; it’s centered around a blind lawyer who doles out vigilante justice by night; and yet despite all these genre trappings, Daredevil invests the majority of its time on its characters rather than its concept. That’s why it’s fantastic.
Starring Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock – the titular blind lawyer slash ninja vigilante from the pages of Marvel Comics – Daredevil is part startup business comedy, part law procedural, and part martial arts film. It is a show made up of long, dialogue driven scenes, Buffy-esque banter, and showstopping monologues, concerned more about character beats than plot twists and cliffhangers.
When Murdock and his law partner Foggy Nelson go to bat for Karen Page, a woman framed for murder, they are sucked into the labyrinthine underworld of Hell’s Kitchen. By day, Nelson, Murdock and Page try to establish a defense attorney practice, while by night Matt takes justice into his own hands as a street-level superhero. The collateral damage caused by the near apocalyptic events of The Avengers has provided a blind spot for corruption to fester, and Murdock believes it is his responsibility to keep the criminal element in check.
The high concept is made palatable by the aforementioned focus on character and an incredible level of confidence on part of showrunner Steven DeKnight (Spartacus). Daredevil exhibits an extraordinary amount of restraint, allowing for a scene to last as long as it needs to and letting the audience get to know the characters before quickly shifting to brief but effective moments of brutality (Get used to the sounds of broken bones, by the way).
The restraint makes Daredevil’s breathtaking action set pieces stand out spectacularly. The fight scenes between Daredevil and the mob goons operating a human and drug trafficking ring out of Hell’s Kitchen are eye popping. One in particular, presented in a single shot and which anchor’s episode two, is maybe the best live action fight scene involving a Marvel superhero ever. It’s like the hammer fight from Oldboy had a child with the car scene from Children of Men and named it Art.
Daredevil‘s beautifully choreographed fight scenes are elevated above eye candy status thanks to context provided not only through the confident character based scenes, but also by some expertly timed flashbacks. A scene from Murdock’s past will be inserted exactly at the right moment to add high emotional stakes to an action scene or to betray his own spoken words in a moment of vulnerable bravado.
The perfect balance Daredevil has struck between restrained character drama and gut turning violence is perfectly embodied by Vincent D’Onofrio’s villain, Kingpin. In the show’s first five episodes, the iconic white whale of Hell’s Kitchen spends about 90 percent of the time being a human being and the other ten percent acting as a world-ending force of nature.
It’s a challenging prospect. Seeing Kingpin admit he is painfully lonely, watching him go on dinner dates and otherwise be a pretty embarrassing romantic, runs counter to our instincts when it comes to TV supervillains. The thing is, after entire episodes worth of art gallery visits and painfully desperate dinner dates, Kingpin’s brief moments of apocalyptic ultra-violence are all the more upsetting and spectacular. You can see where he’s coming from when he kills a guy, and that’s an impressive feat. He’s not just cool and scary, he’s understandably human, and that requires a kind of nuance you rarely see in villain writing.
And that’s true about the show as a whole: like Kingpin himself, Daredevil is not what you expect. It’s not so much a superhero show as it is a reaction to all other superhero shows, a necessity born from their excess and disregard for the human. It’s gritty, it’s real, it’s funny, it’s sad. It’s everything a superhero show should be, but hasn’t been until now. I didn’t know superhero shows could be this good because I needed to be shown one from a new perspective. I needed a road to Damascus style revelation in the form of a one hour superhero drama, and that’s Daredevil.