I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done, Father. I’m asking forgiveness… for what I’m about to do.
When I first heard that Marvel Studios was adapting Daredevil into an original series for Netflix, I was skeptical. Agents of Shield hadn’t exactly filled me with confidence regarding Marvel’s ability to make a good TV show (though it has since improved dramatically), and last time someone took a crack at Daredevil, we got Ben Affleck and… well, you know how that went.
But maybe that was the problem. Not every superhero needs a big screen treatment and a budget to match it. It doesn’t always work to pick a famous actor to play the title role. For an unassuming vigilante like Daredevil, a blind kid from Hell’s kitchen who just wants to make his city a better place, it enhances the role to pick a relative unknown and let us peel back his layers over 13 episodes rather than stuff it all into a two-hour action flick.
And sometimes, certain material deserves a second chance to find an audience. The first season of Daredevil was a revelation and season 2 is hitting Netflix this Friday. If you are a Marvel fan or just like good television, you best be watching.
I first noticed Charlie Cox on Boardwalk Empire. He was a solid addition to Atlantic City’s old fashioned gang warfare, but it never occurred to me then that, “Wow, now THAT guy would make a great Matt Murdock.” Not that I had any idea who would make a great Matt Murdock, mind you. The duality of the role, having to clock both the approachable, principled lawyer and his no-nonsense alter ego is tricky. Not every actor can do it. Interestingly enough, Affleck was a bad fit as Daredevil but is now attempting to tackle Batman, an even more challenging role with heightened expectations. Life is funny that way.
Cox benefits from receiving a full season of television to convince us that he’s a smart choice for the Devil of Hell’s kitchen. Instead of getting the origin story, the main conflict with the villain and the hero’s journey all at once like we would in a movie, the plot is allowed to breathe and take its time. This enables Cox to fully explore the moral dilemma that’s burning a hole inside of Murdock. He has to straddle that line between vigilante and executioner, wanting so badly to kill the men who have made his city bleed, but knowing he has a higher purpose and can’t succumb to those vengeful desires. It’s an unexpectedly solid performance, hopefully one that will make Cox a star.
Daredevil doesn’t flinch at violence, nor does it shy away from mature themes. As Murdock’s battle against the underbelly of Hell’s Kitchen escalates in its physicality, it also takes him to some darker places. Child abductions. Drug addicts. Mobsters getting decapitated. No, I did not make that last one up. Daredevil is a vast departure from the Marvel Cinematic Universe because of its adult content as well as the stakes always being high and Murdock constantly finding himself in peril. As the show wisely acknowledges, Daredevil doesn’t have an iron suit or a magic hammer, making his heroics all the more impressive and the ass-kickings he takes all the more convincing.
The supporting characters are essential for establishing the divide between Murdock’s attempts to achieve justice through the legal system and the way in which he subverts it. His friend and partner in Nelson and Murdock, Foggy Nelson (Fulton from the Mighty Ducks!), Karen Page, their secretary, and Ben Urich, an investigative journalist with strong ethics in an increasingly unethical profession. The relationships that Murdock builds with these people are all essential to the story, but none more so than with the antagonist, Wilson Fisk. As it should be.
Ah Fisk. I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time explaining why Fisk is THE best villain that Marvel Studios has cranked out. With all due respect to Loki and the Winter Soldier, Fisk is the most compelling adversary that any of our heroes has had to face. He’s a beast of a man who seems physically insurmountable, and yet it runs so much deeper than that. I hate to use this phrase, but the show does such a good job at humanizing him. It holds up Fisk’s childhood next to Murdock’s and we see through a set of wildly different circumstances why each character ended up the way that they did. You may not agree with Fisk’s opinions or methods, but you understand his motivation. I cannot understate how crucial that is to a good story.
How often do Marvel movies present fun action, likable heroes and painstakingly forgettable and lackluster villains? Even in the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, one of the very best features from Marvel Studios, we receive an antagonist in Ronan who is easily the dullest part of the plot. This happens all the time and it drives me up the wall, which makes Fisk an overwhelming breath of fresh air. Vincent D’Onofrio leaves his mark in every scene he’s in, whether it’s Fisk clashing with Daredevil, taking on his rivals in the drug trade or enjoying a quiet date with Vanessa, his love interest. He even portrays Fisk as a real person, complete with thoughts and feelings and vulnerability. What a concept!
Despite everything it does so well, Daredevil doesn’t always fire on all cylinders. It loses a bit of momentum towards the end of the season, compounded by an extremely poor decision made by one of the supporting characters that left me befuddled. Then the show rebounds for a hard-hitting, excellent finale that ends things with a lot of positive momentum.
As much as I enjoy our big screen superheroes and watching them team up for Avengers movies, I almost enjoyed the smaller scale theatrics of Daredevil even more. It was a gripping, personable look at a character that I previously had little interest in and it was the strongest content that Marvel released in 2015. Season 2 of Daredevil, featuring The Punisher and Elektra, will once again try to work its magic on characters who are still looking for a proper adaptation onto our screens. We have season 1 to thank for making it plausible for us to put our expectations so high, and for making us believe that it will pull it off.
Jesse’s Rating: A-