Note: This review contains very mild spoilers for the whole of S1 of Daredevil, no real specifics but be warned.
In the current season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. there is a power struggle between the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency being run by Agent Coulson and another S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation that emerged from the wreckage of the events of The Winter Soldier. Both think their way is the right way. Both are trying to handle how to deal with a world where alien armies attack New York, Norse Gods are real and people with abilities are very much real. In the forthcoming Age of Ultron movie, Tony Stark struggles with The Avengers place in the world, how their actions have consequences and how to protect the world when they are all gone.
With Civil War looming in the MCU there is the question of how should threats be dealt with? Spy agencies are by their very nature hard to govern and rife with the possibility of corruption and double agents. The Avengers are just one group of people (some of who happen to be superpowered) but they can’t deal with everything happening in the world.
The latest installment of the MCU brings up the option of individuals taking it upon themselves to better their environment and protect the part of the city they grew up in and its people. This isn’t about spy agencies, this isn’t about fighting against Hydra or A.I programmes gone mad. Whilst S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Avengers struggle with the big global choices and saving the entire planet, Matt Murdock and his friends are trying to protect their city from a much simpler but still deeply devastating threat – crime.
Daredevil is part of a deal between Marvel and Netflix to explore street level heroes and villains. A lot has been made of the darker tone and higher rating of the series but the majority of that is focused on the violence – of which there is a lot, including some deeply disturbing moments. Marvel hasn’t gone completely off the leash with the show, there is some swearing but nothing extreme and there isn’t a HBO level of sex and nudity. The overall tone of the show makes it unsuitable for younger children who watch the movies but it still has moments of humor and relief that stops it from becoming overwhelming dark.
The casting for the series is spot on. Charlie Cox who plays Matt Murdock brings charm and confidence to Matt as both the lawyer and the masked man protecting the street. There are also real moments of vulnerability from our hero and an inner conflict. Matt doesn’t have the swagger of Tony Stark or the virtue of Steve Rogers but he is always trying to do the right thing both in his day and night job.
Deborah Ann Woll who plays Karen Page was by far the best thing in True Blood, especially during the later seasons so it is perhaps unsurprising how much she shines in the role of Karen. There is still a lot to explore with that character in future seasons.
Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson was a revelation. I haven’t seen in in much before so he took me by surprise. He brings the humour, the heart (and the heartbreak) and forms part of the trio along with Karen and Matt which is the centre of the show. In one of the season’s standout episodes ‘Nelson v Murdock’ Henson breaks the audience heart with his performance.
Other supporting characters include reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall). I found his story really interesting because the MCU hasn’t explored the media that much so far. Though there may be framed headlines from the Battle of NY or Hulk’s Harlem fight in the background of Ben’s office, it’s clear the man who built his career on investigative journalism, on bringing down bad guys and corrupt organisations still longs to focus on that rather the current superhero craze or what colour a subway line should be. He has heart and makes for a great addition to the series.
Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple is also impressive. Her nurse has great chemistry with Matt, and one of the few negatives things about the series is that she is underused, disappearing for long stretches of episodes. Hopefully any future seasons will rectify this.
Then of course there is Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk. He is simultaneously awkward, a quiet menace, a vulnerable giant, and a terrifying monster. In Fisk’s spotlight episode ‘Shadows in Glass’ he states that he is “Not cruel for the sake of cruelty. That I’m not my father. That I’m not a monster, I am?” Fisk’s motivation throughout the season is absolutely fascinating. Like many bad guys before him he justifies his brutal actions by stating it is for the good of Hell’s Kitchen but unlike some villains you can tell he genuinely believes it. His plans to rebuild the city he grew up in on the surface don’t sound terrible or evil but his methods are cruel despite his protestations – kicking out elderly tenants for example is not the action of good man. Fisk surrounds himself with people who have taken the destruction caused by the Battle of NY and made a profit from it – this isn’t anything new but it’s still distasteful. On top of that they flood the City with drugs, kidnappings and violence.
So in emerging from the shadows like many vigilante before him comes Matt Murdock. A man who due to an accident as a child is blind but also has heightened senses. The show doesn’t really go into too much details about how his abilities work but needless to say he can provide a more than adequate beating to the bad guys. What often makes superheroes like Matt interesting for fans is that he isn’t impervious to harm. He gives beatings and takes quite a lot as well. He can’t just pull himself off the ground. He has to fight dirty, and fight for his life.
The fight scenes are incredibly impressive, even when they are at times darkly lit and hard to see you can hear the bones cracking, you can hear the people involved struggling for dominance. One stand out scene is the corridor fight in episode 2 ‘Cut Man’, already it has gained quite a lot of coverage from sites and applause from fans and critics. It is spectacular. Another stand out occurs in episode 9 ‘Speak of the Devil’, the episode keeps flashing back and forward between the action of the fight and the ongoing story. It is brutal.
Daredevil isn’t just concerned with action and fighting but with the consequences of that. Matt meets with a local Priest (Peter McRobbie) throughout the series and their talks about the devil and his existence are wonderfully done. Our hero struggles with whether he is making the city a better place or not. But mostly he struggles with whether he can do what really needs to be done – kill the devil himself Wilson Fisk. If he does that he crosses a line which he may never come back from, if he doesn’t then things may never get better.
The first season of Daredevil is hugely remarkable and if this quality continues with the upcoming AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and then Defenders series then the MCU has a fine addition to its increasingly expanding world.
Goodbye to the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. For now.
Daredevil Season is available on Netflix.