The trouble with the superhero genre comes not with the plotting, but with the interpretation of these beloved characters. There isn’t much wiggle room when it comes to adapting everyone’s favorite comic book heroes onto the big screen (or in this case, small screen), and one wrong move can spark an outcry (see: Superman Returns). Marvel’s latest venture, Daredevil, represents how to do this best. The show is very natural, with a brilliant interpretation of Matt Murdock/Daredevil and his cohorts, that never gets too caught up in its grittiness that it feels like imitation.
Credit this excellent interpretation to showrunner Steven DeKnight (Spartacus) and creator Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods). The show has such a unique style, but it doesn’t sacrifice this for substance. There’s still plenty of good stuff here in the writing. Let’s start with Daredevil himself. We begin in Hell’s Kitchen, where Matt Murdock and his friendly associate Foggy Nelson have started their law practice, and have begun to attract clients. Matt, blinded at the age of nine, uses his heightened senses to fight crime and bring criminals to justice. He eventually gets caught up with Karen Page, who puts him on track towards uncovering a crime syndicate run by the hands of Wilson Fisk.
Daredevil wisely utilizes the binging model to create tense episodes that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but that also allow for intricate plotting that demands repeat viewing. Daredevil isn’t a light show; this isn’t your dad’s Spiderman comics. Being outside of network constraints allows all kinds of brutal violence, and the show pushes for a mature tone that it admirably reaches. There’s human trafficking, drug rings, people getting impaled, but turn it around and we get intimate moments that flesh out these characters to their core. The show uses flashbacks (a bit too many, for my taste) to show Matt’s Catholic upbringing, his struggles after his accident, and his relationship with his father. What I didn’t expect, however, was for the flashbacks to give me more than I thought I needed about other key players in Hell’s Kitchen.
This begins with one of the best villains this side of the Joker – Wilson Fisk, played by the brilliant Vincent D’Onofrio. His motivations, his plan, his backstory, his allies, everything about him is so complex and multifaceted. He became one of the shining stars in the series. In a world full of anti-heroes, we always talk about the “likability” complex. And while I don’t think this is an accurate metric to base character development on, Wilson Fisk is a demonstrator that villains are humans just like everyone else. Marvel struggles with their villains. For every Loki, there’s a Malekith. But Wilson Fisk stands out purely on his merit as a well-written character. One of the best scenes involves him going on a date with Vanessa, whom he meets at an art gallery. First off, when was the last time we saw a villain get a love interest and giggle with glee as the two went on their first date? This scene is a reminder that villains don’t have to be hell-bent crime lords, they can be sympathetic hell-bent crime lords.
Wilson Fisk aside, there is still some excellent secondary characterization here. Karen Page is the strong female character that Marvel has been looking for, as she steals the spotlight as she uncovers a conspiracy with the help of investigative journalist Ben Urich. And Foggy Nelson, despite receiving the “comic relief” token, still has plenty of memorable moments that help him stand out. The one dark spot is Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), who I was hoping would be a key character. She appears in less than five episodes of the series and is instantly forgettable in almost all of her scenes. I expect to see more from her should the show continue.
Daredevil throws away tempting conventions to make the storytelling predictable despite lobbing plenty of twists at you. It isn’t afraid to kill off a major character even though he or she still had plenty of work to do. It’s this kind of risky storytelling that makes Daredevil stand out. I’m glad we got a 13-episode series of this rather than a movie, because I fear the two-hour run time would kill everything that made the show what it is. Well-developed characters, a formidable and tragic villain, and exciting action sequences that keep you on your toes elevate Daredevil to the top of the ever-expanding TV superhero genre pack. I hope Daredevil is a sign of good things to come for the rest of the Defenders series, and for Marvel in general.