In a bizarro Hell’s Kitchen that’s been ungentrified back to the ’70s, shady human traffickers and shadier real estate developers stage a polyglot mafia quorum on a skyscraper mid-construction, the Manhattan skyline lit up dark behind them. They have a lot to talk about. There’s a new evil rising in New York—and a new hero to fight it. A man in black haunts the mean streets of retro-Manhattan. By day, he’s a blind lawyer. By night, he’s a whole lot cooler than Ben Affleck.
Marvel Studios’ first two shows focused on attractively inconsequential Agents, characters with little-to-no footprint in pre-existing comic book mythology. That’s not the case with Daredevil, the studio’s new 13-episode bingeable series, which debuts Friday on Netflix. (Only the first five episodes were made available for review.)
Daredevil derives from some of the greatest comic book stories ever written and some of the most incredible comic book illustrations ever drawn. If you’re a Daredevil fan—which, guilty—you’ll dig how the opening episodes synthesize a few different eras of comic book history. It’s modern-day Hell’s Kitchen, but the destructive attack that served as the climax in The Avengers has bombed it back to the pre-Giuliani days. Charlie Cox (so good as the plucky Irish gunman on Boardwalk Empire) brings a suave nobility to Matt Murdock—he gets the character’s Catholic-tinged tragedy and his randy single-guy swagger.
In his lawyer life, he’s ably assisted by Elden Henson, the long-ago Mighty Duck—whose Foggy Nelson is an endearing non-powered everyguy—and by Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Karen Page with a combination of easygoing charm and traumatized anxiety. If you just watch the first episode, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Daredevil is just trying to be a pretty good procedural—The Practice with occasional costumed interludes.
But the show keeps expanding its vision across the first five episodes. Episode 2 puts more of a focus on Matt Murdock’s costumed alter ego. This is a proto-Daredevil: a normcore superhero, maybe the first onscreen costume vigilante who is actually wearing something real people would wear. Episode 2 also features one of the wildest corridor fight scenes this side of The Raid. (I’m tempted to say it’s one of the better superhero fight scenes, full stop, as visceral and earthbound as The Avengers was cosmic.)
The show was originally developed by Drew Goddard, the Cabin in the Woods co-writer/director. Goddard wrote the first two episodes before heading to the big screen to direct some Spider-Man movie or other. He was replaced as showrunner by Steven DeKnight, who turned Spartacus into high-velocity ultraviolent pulp. Some of that spirit extends to Daredevil, but the Spartacus influence goes deeper than the occasional R-rated bloodspurts. It takes a few episodes for Vincent D’Onofrio to show up, but his Wilson Fisk is a complete creation: It captures the menace of the Kingpin character, but it’s also an energetic method acting experiment by one of our finest scenery-chewers. D’Onofrio gives the character a melancholy poignance—the Kingpin goes on a date!—and the show works hard to make Fisk a genuine foil for Matt Murdock.
The show brings a shot-on-location authenticity to the greenscreen-y Marvel Universe, which is a roundabout way of saying that Daredevil looks like a real TV show made in the present day rather than a syndicated adventure series from the ’90s. At best, Daredevil feels like a pulpier Batman Begins, with way too many daddy-issue flashbacks and a panoramic sense of place. At worst, Daredevil is a much better Gotham, an overextended origin story mixing retro-camp with contempo-grit.
Like Gotham, Daredevil has a few too many ripe lines about what it means to be a hero, a few too many “THIS IS MY CITY” soliloquies. It’s trying to be a lot of things—a lawyer show, a superhero saga, a crime epic, a city symphony—and it doesn’t succeed at everything. But there’s an energy to the first five episodes, a feeling that this show can try everything.
Daredevil is the first step in Marvel’s grand plan to recreate its Avengers success on the street level, with future Manhattan-centric shows AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist to follow. In a weird way, this whole Netflix plan is an example of the company returning to its roots: Back in the old days, when Marvel Comics was still rising and practically everything was written to some extent by Stan Lee, it was a New York-based company about everyman New York heroes.
I didn’t really think Marvel Studios was interested in everymen anymore. Lacking the film rights to Spider-Man and the X-Men, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been built on the back of billionaires, gods, and walking symbols of American righteousness. Its patron saint has always been Nick Fury, the omniscient, all-powerful superspy.
So the most surprising thing about Daredevil is its full-throated support of the little guy. Much is made in the early episodes about how Matt and Foggy left lucrative gigs at a whiteshoe law firm to fight for the everyday people of Hell’s Kitchen. And there’s a moment in an early episode when a disaster-capitalist bad guy says he doesn’t mind superheroes; wherever they go, destruction follows. And destruction is a great opportunity, in the let’s-rebuild-Treme-without-the-poor people sense. A superhero show that’s skeptical of superheroes? What a devilish, daring concept. A-
Watch the trailer below: