How can anything good happen in a place called Hell’s Kitchen? It’s a real location, named after the brutality that seems to overflow from its residents and onto its dirty streets. It’s also where Marvel’s Daredevil takes place, Netflix’s latest original series and the next entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it’s one hell of a trip.
This first season covers he origins of lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) as well as the origins of his alter superhero ego Daredevil. It actually follows the serial format for comic television: we track the present day hero as he develops his chops for taking down bad guys while visiting the past through flashbacks for the foundational backstory.
In Murdock’s case, he saved a man from being hit by a truck back when he was a child, but some of the dangerous substances on the truck burned away his ability to see with his eyes. But through some ways the show explains, he further develops the ability to see a different way—to see a “world on fire”—and uses his remaining heightened senses to fight crime.
The first thing that’s interesting is that this world is canonical to the MCU, taking place roughly 18 months after the events of 2012’s The Avengers. Most of New York is still recovering from “the event,” a softer colloquialism for a mass alien invasion from a floating portal in the sky. In fact, this is how we believably eschew the modern upscale aesthetics of Hell’s Kitchen to the crime-ridden one of the show. The Avengers left a hole in New York, and the filth of drugs and human trafficking have flowed forth to fill it.
It’s fascinating, though, that outside of a few oblique references and Easter Eggs to the films and some potential future developments, Murdock’s escapades are almost wholly self-contained, and for good reason. For all the grandiose explosions and world-ending consequences of the theatrical entries into the canon, Daredevil is infinitely more personal. This is the hearty, intimate endeavor of one man to save his city.
Truthfully, it’s two men trying to save their city. Opposite Cox’s Daredevil is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, better known as The Kingpin, and he is going about a different tack for redeeming his hometown. Working hand in hand with Russian mobsters, Yukuza, and Chinese gangsters, he is trying to do good through the warped filter of his past.
This is one of the highlights of the show. D’Onofrio is an extremely potent Kingpin. Fisk, as a child, was terribly troubled by his father and further his relationship with his mother, and whenever his actions come to a head as an adult, you can see his history in his eyes. You can see his regret and his conflict constantly percolating just behind those big doughy peepers.
That is until he loses it. And boy does he lose it, and it feels dangerous. Some of his vocal gurglings are questionable, but his explosions of emotion—be it rage or sadness or whatever—are the perfect foil to Cox as Murdock. While Murdock struggles inwardly with his desires to fix the city and his desires to remain a good man, Fisk exposes his inner turmoil rather outwardly.
This makes Cox’s performance as important to the tone and direction of the show as D’Onofrio’s, which you would expect since it’s a series named after his character. And he handles the responsibility with aplomb. Besides capably executing on the physicality of the role (fighting and blindness included), Cox holds a necessary tenderness behind his steely demeanor as both an attorney and a crime fighter.
Most of the supporting cast does just as well including Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich, each one with considerable depth and pesonality. And whether you count James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), Fisk’s righthand man, as a supporting role or the primary villain for nearly the first third of the season, he is a commensurate intimidator with Fisk. It’s a solid one-two of villainy, especially when you throw in Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) emergent psychosis.
Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) is fairly problematic, though. The childhood friend and lawfully employed partner to Murdock, he is right there alongside Daredevil and Kingpin all the way through the season, blissfully unaware of his friend’s nighttime activities. But Henson’s acting is more like constant overacting and the character itself tends to flipflop between being moral and being money-hungry without any consideration. Most of the time he’s annoying and confusing. Other times he’s just taking up space.
There is, however, an admirable and impressive amount of grit to the show. It’s a stark contrast to the rest of Marvel’s offerings, where things only ever get as dark as classic apocalyptic scenarios, but this is about taking the dirt off the streets and rubbing it in your face.
This is exemplified through the excellent production and meaningful directing of the season. There’s a lot to the visual impact of each episode. It’s not just about showing you one talking head after another (though it does indulge in that inevitable trap often) but it’s about filling your head with the idea and suggestions of what is important and what isn’t but showing you some things and simply implying others.
There’s one particular scene early on that features a five-minute, one-take fight scene where Daredevil is trying to rescue a kidnapped child. It is a tiring battle for both him and the audience. This isn’t where Captain American punches a bad guy and proceeds; this is a true slugfest. You can see the methodical nature of Murdock’s combat, assessing and reassessing the tight confines of the hallway while utilizing his abilities to monitor the things beyond sight.
But towards the end, he is worn and exhausted. It’s not even fighting after that long. It’s just desire, and his desire is outmatching the several men he’s dismantling. This culminates in a shot that excludes us from the payoff of the crucible, forcing us to realize this is indeed Murdock’s journey and not ours.
Speaking of the fighting, though, there is a lot of it, and it’s pretty fantastic. Very rarely do you see Daredevil get through encounters as if they were mere scuffles. These are full-on battles, each and every time. Sure, he manages to accomplish some superhuman things, but you feel like he earns each and every victory. And that’s not to mention the moves he does are pretty cool.
The story, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as consistent. The personal threads hold tight and intimate throughout, but the intrigue of the procedural elements involving a menagerie of crime organizations, lessons on the dangers of truth-seeking/journalism, and incontrovertible good Samaritanism waver in and out and all over impotent romances. It’s too many dishes stacked up and almost all tip over and break across the singular goal of taking down Fisk.
Despite that, this is still a good show. Whether you’ve watched the other bits and pieces of the MCU or you’ve read every Marvel comic under the sun, Marel’s Daredevil is a compact, forceful, and dramatic season of television. It is well worth your time.
+ Intimate and personal foils between Fisk and Murdock
+ Plenty of great performances that fit this darker facet of the MCU
+ Directing that has meaning
+ Fighting that feels real and has consequences
– Wavering and confused threads in the last third of the season
Final Score: 9 out of 10