James Moar walks down Marvel’s mean-streets with Daredevil.
There were several bad omens hanging over Netflix’s Daredevil. The 2003 film is mostly remembered as being poor, its spinoff Elektra even more so. Early episodes of Agents of SHIELD burned through a lot of goodwill for Marvel on television. So Netflix ordering up four different series (this, AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist) plus a crossover between them (The Defenders) was ambitious even by their standards. Showrunner Steven S. DeKnight citing The Wire as inspiration also seemed a little grandiose – superhero series can be many things, they can never lean on authenticity in the way that did.
Then the entire season arrived on the 10th of April – and it turns out that it’s very good. This is superheroics packaged as prestige drama, with the slower pace, patient seasonal arcs and looser content restrictions familiar from US cable TV (well, looser restrictions up to a point; it’s a little too obvious that Marvel Cinematic Universe characters aren’t allowed to say “fuck”). It’s been critically well-received and is apparently one of the most-viewed Netflix originals. A second season has already been commissioned.
Daredevil first appeared in comics in 1964, created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett. The basic premise of the Netflix series — Matt Murdock, blinded by the childhood accident that also gave him superhuman senses, practices as an attorney when he isn’t being a vigilante superhero — would be recognisable from those early issues. And supporting characters Foggy Nelson and Karen Page are present in similar roles in both – but the more significant, darker inspirations for the adaptation came later. Daredevil actually began as one of Marvel’s lightest comics, and generally remained one of its also-rans until 1981, when Frank Miller took over the book (this was his first continuing writing job, a fair way off from the increasingly self-parodic Miller adapted in the Sin City films and 300). He gave the book a darker tone influenced by noir (with added ninjas), and moved further and further away from the Marvel house style of the time during his run. Most interpretations of the character since have been either homage or response to Miller’s.
This interpretation chooses homage. The version of Matt’s early days draws on Miller’s The Man Without Fear prequel series, taking from it the pre-Daredevil costume Matt wears through nearly all of the first season and staging several moments to echo scenes in the comic. Brian Michael Bendis’ more muted crime stories of the early 2000s also appear to influence the show’s tone.
The action scenes take their lead from Matt’s father being a boxer, replacing the comic’s impossible acrobatics with long, gruelling fights with a focus on injury and exhaustion unusual even in shows that don’t have superheroics as an excuse. This is exemplified by the single-take corridor fight in the second episode, featuring enemies who clearly never heard they’re supposed to stay down after the hero hits them once.
The connection to the movies is mostly played down. Mass destruction caused in Avengers Assemble is used as the excuse for Hell’s Kitchen being the decaying hangover from 1970s New York that the comic prefers instead of the gentrified neighbourhood it now is. There are a few other references made, but they’re very low in the mix.
Charlie Cox captures the Matt Murdock of the comics very effectively, though placing more emphasis on his anger and inner conflicts than the more collected self shown to the world. Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page and Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson are good (Foggy more so when his comic-relief tendencies are played off something that complicates them), but they’re supporting characters who are too often cut off from the star, as Matt’s guarded public persona often doesn’t mesh with them as intended, even when they do share scenes. Courtroom law, the ostensible focus of their jobs, is only dealt with in much depth in one episode. Investigation is what the series seems really fascinated by, which is perhaps why reporter Ben Urich (played by Vondie Curtis-Hall) is a particularly strong presence here.
A surprising angle is taken on Daredevil’s main villain, the Kingpin. Though he’s built up from the outside as the same implacable figure as in the comics, when Vincent d’Onofrio enters in the role he’s earnestly trying to ask a gallery owner for a date. d’Onofrio leads on the character’s vulnerability, playing him as full of awkwardness and frequently surrendering to rage.
It’s something of an accident of timing that the series puts the most familiar version of Daredevil on screens while the comics have been spending the last few years offering a counterpoint to it. The 2000s saw too many story arcs which broke Matt Murdock down with the intention of building him up again (an approach particularly associated with the series by Born Again, one of Miller’s best Daredevil stories), and, placed in close enough succession, they became a continual grind instead. The eventual reaction was Mark Waid’s run, which takes a much more buoyant and cheerful approach, presenting a Daredevil who just gets on with his life despite his past. So long as the show keeps allowing its characters some triumphs and presents a little light and shade, though, it should avoid the trap the comic found itself in
Where is the show likely to go in its second season? The first season has a few gestures towards supernatural martial-arts elements (particularly in the seventh episode, Stick) that aren’t yet that well integrated into the series. It seems likely these will be expanded on, bringing it closer to Miller’s take on the character and easing the introduction of Elektra and Bullseye, two major Daredevil characters who are absent in the first season.
So, that’s one Netflix superhero success. Next up, AKA Jessica Jones, premiering this year or early the next. Now, what do the omens look like for that…?