Daredevil is Marvel aiming for the superhero TV throne – and almost winning.

The idea of vigilantes fighting criminals who have taken control of a city so thoroughly and completely that they have turned them into havens for villainy and cruelty is not […]

The idea of vigilantes fighting criminals who have taken control of a city so thoroughly and completely that they have turned them into havens for villainy and cruelty is not really new. In fact, in all honesty, nothing about Daredevil is really new. And yet Daredevil is astounding in every other aspect of its execution. It’s earnest, blunt and it just kicks so much ass. Brilliantly shot and stylized, its aesthetic brethren are not The Avengers or The Guardians of the Galaxy, but rather shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, which is unsurprising considering director Phil Abraham’s stunning work on the latter.

Much like Mad Men, there’s genuine attention to environment and how it shapes these characters up, as well as the relationships they form. The show often employs a flashback structure in order to showcase character motivation and relationships without devolving into monologues. Yet the show is not afraid to use monologues to filter events through character perspective. At times, the choices are questionable but on the whole, the show usually knows when to show and when to tell.

It helps a lot that the whole cast is ridiculously and consistently good, with one exception: Vincent D’Onofrio. At first, I was captivated by D’Onofrio’s take on Wilson Fisk. His tortured soul and his imposing physical build make for a powerfully raw combination that the actor uses well to make a unique first impression that walks the thin line between intimidation and self-pity. But over time, his acting choices become repetitive. His growl becomes less menacing and rather goofy. His monologuing comes across as aloof and self-delusional. Characteristics that definitely apply to the character, but the self-delusion conveyed is less messiah complex and more “inability to interact with other humans”. Admittedly his body language does suggest a man who has a hard time conversing with most people, but I still found it difficult to engage with the show when D’Onofrio went off on a tangent, such as the ideally showstopping, actually dramatically empty monologue where Fisk delivers his realization that he is not The Good Samaritan he thought he was but rather the Ill Intent that hurts the traveler in the famous parable. It also feels overwritten and hardly fitting of a character who seemed to genuinely believe in being a force of positive change through ill-advised methods, much like a certain vigilante.

This parallel usually would make me roll my eyes until they popped out of their sockets but Daredevil employs it to effective dramatic power. It helps a lot that Daredevil (the show) never answers the question of whether Matt Murdock’s methods as a vigilante are actually as bad as the criminals he fights. The show consistently keeps asking the question, rephrasing it through different dramatic scenarios, but it never lowers itself to doing something so mundane and crass as offering an answer because, well, Matt himself does not know. Navigating this confusion, as life constantly questions and interrogates your methods and raison d’etre is something that many find hard to engage with in most dramas. One need to look no further than prestige cable shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, where Walter White and Don Draper’s commitments to self-destruction are often interrogated and sometimes even miraculously (and temporarily) interrupted. But I would argue serialized fiction doesn’t work if there isn’t an ongoing conflict. After all serialization is closer to the reproduction of life than reflection of the same. Life doesn’t end after your Great Adventure. It goes on and you face the consequences, as well as new adventures. And in most of those adventures and periods of your life, the only secure constant is yourself and you will always be facing the same inner voice. One that will grow and change, sure, but one that will probably have recurring concerns.

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Yet it is an understandable complaint since we are but passive observers, looking to be entertained. And it helps a lot to have a veritable entertainer in the frontlines, finding the right way of hitting these emotional beats in creative and interesting ways. Marvel was extremely lucky to count on the talents of Charlie Cox to play Matt Murdock and find the signature charm as well as the menace and the penance that lurk underneath it. Cox plays Murdock with conviction and yet he’s able to show the troubled man underneath it, desperately hoping to find a solution to a world that has gone to shit. More than that, and in line with his Arrow homologous Stephen Amell, Cox manages to convey the raw physicality of his actions all too well, both in the fight scenes and in the fallout of the sames. Cox is stunningly good at taking a beating and having the pain of each punch land on the viewer as much as it’s landing on Matt. But above all, Cox is able to shift skins all too easily in a way that’s utterly reminiscent of Matt Murdock’s multifacetic personality.

The show has problems, admittedly. Its female characters are mostly poorly sketched and their place on the big picture seems almost exclusively supportive. The one exception to this is Karen Page, yet her victimization often borders on the outright insulting. Were it not for Deborah Ann Woll’s ability of conveying the pain and heartbreak that she’s trying to move past (and prevent on others), it’d be a tough pill to swallow.

But in this case, as in the tradition of the Great American Gritty City TV Show (The Wire and Homicide: Life On The Street come to mind), Daredevil also gets by using the balm that makes the medicine go down: humor. The show deploys characters like Foggy Nelson or Matt Murdock himself often at the right time in order to show the deep bond these characters have created with themselves and the world around them, which is the most important characteristic of Daredevil. All of the people who eventually find themselves in a collision course with Fisk’s ambitions and decide to help Nelson and Murdock’s case against him are people who eventually befriend Karen, Foggy and/or Matt. Seeing these three interact with a destroyed Hell’s Kitchen with nothing but good intentions in their heart is incredibly welcome thanks to three performers who show the conviction and the self-doubt that comes with the task of doing good in the face of insurmountable evil.  And it helps that the show leans often on the fact that these people like and trust each other. There’s a moment later on where the show throws a wrench on their relationships and it’s hard to not mourn what was lost, regardless of the fact that we know the show is rebuilding those relationships as we watch.

It’s also worth noting that the show has social concerns that go above and beyond The Winter Soldier’s concerns with cybersurveillance and government overreach (themselves rather commendable, I might add) In the world of Daredevil, the biggest and most evil plan is basically gentrification. Nelson and Murdock fight Fisk’s attempt of taking over the Kitchen in order to “clean it up” because it involves the displacement of the city’s downtrodden, even though he’s sponsoring criminals and terrorists. There’s a constant undercurrent of class warfare in the show, as Nelson and Murdock fight for the lower class against corporations that have no interest in anything other than self-perpetuation and expansion. There’s even a point where Ben Urich, intrepid journalist himself calls out Wilson Fisk as one of the many men who have the blood of the middle class in their hands. It’s refreshing to see a superhero show dig into the political roots of the genre without necessarily shying away from the violence that it uses as a thematic standpoint.

Daredevil proves a recurring theory I had: I genuinely believe comic book adaptations are better served by TV than film. The serialization of film, a medium that often relies on one-and-done stories, is not something I’m inherently against but it is certainly frustrating to me, especially since in the case of Marvel it basically involves just teasing out future projects rather than actually keeping track of emotional arcs and connections. Some of the sequels have improved on this but overall, the interconnectivity of the Marvel Universe is something I found far too gimmicky and creatively restricting rather than emotionally satisfactory as many films feel written by producers who want to tease out future projects rather than create an interesting film.

Daredevil shows that Marvel has promise on TV for two reasons:

1) It demonstrates effectively what a Marvel show that isn’t about the sidelines can do. Agent Carter and Agents of SHIELD are shows that often find themselves floundering and lost because their milieus are just “The Marvel Universe” and they follow characters whose struggles seem inherently like the b-plot of an Avengers movie, rather than the a-plot of their lives. I fully admit I didn’t watch either of those shows fully but I could never enjoy them and I believe that’s one of the bigger reasons I was unable too.

2) It showcases what Marvel can do on a serialized format once they are not restricted and bound by network’s rules. Daredevil is written and meant to be binge-watched, more like a 13 hour movie than an actual TV show, which works impressively well for its expansive story about survival in the face of evil. While I don’t hold much hope for Marvel’s ABC projects, its Netflix projects marry the best of both worlds effectively.

Overall, Daredevil is amazing. In thirteen episodes, Steven S. DeKnight, Drew Goddard and Charlie Cox create a full painting of a man who’s haunted by a punishing world and the inability to do good in it, as well as his desperate desire to both do good and to understand how to do good. Then they also manage to paint in a beautifully haunting landscape where the air is thick with corruption and fear, overseen by a man who was formed by the violence of this world and wants to get rid of it with violence and death, not unlike the first. This vast and epic conflict manages to encompass everything from class to crime and the justice system and it does so nimbly and effortlessly. If Netflix and Marvel come close to being half-as-good as this on their next shows, they will probably still rock our worlds.