Giving the Devil His Do-Rag: Why Netflix’s ‘Daredevil’ Is the Least Marvel-y Marvel Property YetNetflix
This story discusses all 13 episodes of Daredevil in a fair amount of detail; the spoiler-averse are advised to turn away now.
The first season of Daredevil1 went up on Netflix this past Friday, just after midnight, which is also the time of day when 80 percent of the first season of Daredevil appears to have been filmed. This is a dark show in the most literal sense. The action unfolds in small patches of light amid a blackness so profound you could use it to calibrate your TV’s contrast settings. Plenty of interesting objects loom out of the dark, most dramatically the head of Vincent D’Onofrio, which is now an enormous Colonel Kurtzian moon. D’Onofrio plays crime lord Wilson Fisk, well known to readers of Marvel’s comics as The Kingpin, although no one on this show ever calls him that. (No one calls Fisk’s newfound nemesis “Daredevil” to his face, either — for most of these 13 hour-long episodes, the crime-fighting alter ego of blind lawyer Matt Murdock, played by Charlie Cox, is referred to as “the man in the mask” or “the man in black,” because he takes to the streets in Under Armour and a do-rag.) Even calling Wilson Fisk “Wilson Fisk” is frowned upon; when one of Fisk’s thugs comes close to referring to him in conversation, Fisk’s majordomo snaps, “We don’t say his name!”
Fisk is not the protagonist of Daredevil, but whenever D’Onofrio shows up onscreen — basically playing Donald Trump as Lex Luthor while somehow Orson Welles–ing even harder than he did while playing the actual Welles in Ed Wood — it feels like maybe he should have been. Not since Jeff “In a CAVE! With a BOX of SCRAPS!” Bridges in the first Iron Man has an actor made as lavish a banquet of a Marvel-villain part. And that wasn’t even a good part; this one is. D’Onofrio’s Fisk is a fully realized human — a man of wealth and taste who has cultivated elegant manners to hold his rage and sorrow in check. The first time we see him, he’s regarding a lunar-surfacey white abstract painting in a gallery and grunting, “It makes me feel alone.” By the time we find out via flashback what made Fisk who he is, D’Onofrio has already shown us everything we need to know — it’s there in the guilty-little-boy look that crosses his face when he tries to persuade a date into sticking around for dessert so he can order zuppa inglese, in the painstaking way he sprinkles his breakfast omelette with freshly chopped
scallions chives during the lovely, wordless Lonely Single Supervillain montage that opens Episode 8. You know right away that fixing this same tiny, elegant omelette every day is a kind of meditation, a violent man’s way of reassuring himself that he’s more than a beast.
D’Onofrio’s performance is the one truly great thing about a generally pretty-good show that — at least so far, at least on my various social media timelines — has been greeted as some kind of mind-blowing revelation. This isn’t really a surprise. No franchise’s fan base grades on a more generous curve than Marvel-movie aficionados, or awards as many A’s for effort and intention. Captain America: The Winter Soldier books Robert Redford as the heavy and makes a few halfhearted allusions to our own imperiled civil liberties, and everyone calls it a “’70s political thriller” with a straight face, forgetting that actual ’70s political thrillers seldom excused government malfeasance by blaming it on defrosted Nazi agents. So allow me to manage your expectations a little. Daredevil is solid. It’s promising. It’s never embarrassing — it will easily erase any painful memories you may have of Mark Steven Johnson’s 2003 Daredevil movie, in which a sweaty, grimacing Ben Affleck hopped around in crinkly red leather like a Gimp packaged by Russell Stover. This show sticks the landing the way the first Iron Man and Avengers films did; there’s nothing transcendent about it, but it easily justifies its existence and its seemingly guaranteed second season, and capably primes the pump for the three other shows about street-level Marvel superheroes that Netflix has in the pipeline.
What it feels like, more than anything, is a well-executed weekly cable drama, the kind you might look forward to watching every seven days or so. Netflix’s direct-to-binge distribution model seems to make people feel obligated to wolf down whole seasons in one gulp, and in the case of page-turnerish pulp like Bloodline, that’s the right instinct. But the fact that you can watch all 13 episodes immediately doesn’t always mean you should, just as the fact that Ritz crackers come 30 to a sleeve is not a serving suggestion. I consumed Daredevil in a day and a half, which is a good way to ensure that you really notice when a show’s beats (flashback, sleuth-y B-plot, Daredevil either lays a beating on several dudes or takes one) become repetitive. I have the same issue whenever I let a pure-plot show like Justified pile up on my DVR — when you have three or four weeks’ worth of those to burn through at a time, the endless showdowns and standoffs and establishing shots where Harlan County appears to be just a hoot-’n’-a-holler down the moonshine trail from Sherman Oaks begin to blur together. So unless you’re really paranoid about spoilers (spoiler: The blind guy becomes Daredevil at the end), I’d suggest letting the saga of the Man Without Fear unfold the old-fashioned way, an hour at a time. Take a day off in between. Or at least go walk around the block.
And don’t get me wrong: I’m almost never happy with this sort of thing, and many things about Daredevil made me happy, from the use of invaluably real New York locations (clandestine meetings on the wind-whipped Brooklyn waterfront; drinks at the Turkey’s Nest on Bedford Avenue) to the subplot that posits redevelopment and gentrification as the work of supervillains. Unlike the flavorless Easter-egg scramble that is ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — a show that’s bound by the rules of the Marvel-movie sandbox but forbidden to play with any of the toys, and has therefore failed to captivate anyone whose pulse doesn’t quicken at the mention of Angar the Screamer’s government name — it carries no water for the larger franchise to which it’s connected. There’s a reference in series creator Drew Goddard’s pilot script to “death and destruction raining from the sky” above New York City and its effect on property values in Hell’s Kitchen; later, if you don’t blink, you’ll spot a “BATTLE OF NEW YORK” front page hanging in the office of crime reporter Ben Urich (a wonderfully careworn Vondie Curtis-Hall). But that’s it. No one gets a job offer from Samuel L. Jackson or stumbles upon a Cosmic Cube; at no point does Tony Stark drop by for shawarma. We’re meant to understand that this is the same New York where men with unimaginable power kick other men through buildings on the regular, but we’re also allowed, and in some sense encouraged, to forget that as soon as it’s established.
In that sense, the show is a faithful adaptation of the Daredevil comics, the best of which are crime stories that only brush against the larger superhero universe in which they ostensibly took place. The show never feels like it’s servicing fans of any particular newsprint incarnation of its main character, either. It certainly owes more to the gritty urban-vigilante version of Daredevil reinvented by writer-artist Frank Miller in the late ’70s than it does to the horn-headed acrobatic adventurer Bill Everett and Stan Lee created in 1964. But Goddard & Co. aren’t building a retro shrine to Miller and the Death Wish New York that inspired those comics, the way director Joe Carnahan seemed intent on doing with the ’70s-steeped Daredevil movie he never got to make. Instead, Daredevil lifts what it needs from the character’s whole history and carries it lightly. There’s a tailor named Melvin Potter, a hood named Turk, a mobster named Silke, and a Wall Street crook named Owlsley (Bob Gunton, eternal answer to the call of “Get me a more ethically compromised William Devane!”) If the show is working off a model at all, it’s that of NBC’s Hannibal, another painstakingly underlit and often shockingly violent reinvigoration of well-thumbed plots. Cox’s Matt Murdock and Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham share a taste for button-down collars and knit ties, a soft-spoken beta-male intensity, and a penchant for personal expiation through bloody-knuckled savagery. Daredevil has yet to retcon a slashy bromance between Murdock and his nemesis Fisk into its mythology the way Hannibal has with Graham and Mads Mikkelsen’s Dr. Lecter, but it plays up their similarities by establishing both Murdock and Wilson as childhood-trauma survivors who’ve grown into adults with savior complexes.
I was out on the flashbacks by the time we got to Domenick Lombardozzi as Wilson Fisk’s abusive dad, a B-plot that felt like Lost (where Goddard was a writer/producer) at its most time-killing. I did like Skylar Gaertner as the young Matt, and the understated scene in Episode 2 when Gaertner sits at the kitchen table, waiting for his palooka dad to come home from throwing a fight and listening to the turmoil of the city — thumping music, neighbors in mid-domestic dispute. In the comics, Murdock’s hypersensitive hearing, touch, and smell are superpowers, acquired in the same accident that robbed him of his sight; the kitchen-table scene implies that those abilities might be just an extension of the natural wariness of a latchkey kid navigating life in a rough neighborhood. The awareness you have to develop to survive in a city like New York — even today’s New York — is a lot like Daredevil’s; the vengeful tone of Miller’s Daredevil comics make more sense once you know that their creator was mugged dozens of times after moving to New York from rural Vermont. In Daredevil, it’s Murdock’s assistant Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll, ex–True Blood) who comes to embody that transformation after being framed for murder and then traumatically assaulted. “I don’t see the city anymore — all I see are its dark corners,” she says. “All I see are threats.”
Unless the show departs radically from the overall arc of the comics, she is in for much worse. (Frank Miller made her into a drug-addicted porn performer; later, special guest writer Kevin Smith tricked her into believing she was HIV-positive.) Woll could use some real pitches to hit; she and Elden Henson (as Murdock’s confidant and law-school buddy Foggy Nelson) get more screen time in Season 1 than anyone except Cox, and they’re both appealing actors with interesting faces, but the characters (and their legal-drama B-plots) remain frustratingly underwritten. We’re supposed to buy Foggy and Karen as friends and therefore Matt and Foggy as romantic rivals down the line; the three of them spend a lot of time laughing together, but no one ever says anything funny. Cox has far more chemistry with Rosario Dawson’s Claire, a nurse who stitches Murdock’s wounds on the floor of her apartment, asks important audience-surrogate questions about his powers and his masochistic lifestyle, and at one point conceals her identity by improvising a superhero costume out of a white hoodie and a homemade Ghostface mask. Claire is a composite of a couple of obscure Marvel characters — former Luke Cage love interest Claire Temple and Linda Carter, one of the protagonists of the ’70s romance comic Night Nurse. Carter was reintroduced years later during Brian Michael Bendis’s great Daredevil run, as the proprietor of an underground clinic for banged-up superheroes. There is not currently a “Rosario Dawson IS … Night Nurse!!!” show on Marvel’s slate, and that is wrong.
What’s left — and what’s best, with the possible exception of the moment when D’Onofrio’s Kingpin snarls the words “videos of cats,” which is just delightful — is the violence. Most superheroes transcend physical reality; Daredevil, who uses a kind of echolocation to navigate the world, depends on it. But the fact that he can’t fly or turn intangible or pluck bullets out of the air means he endures a lot of physical punishment. The punches and kicks on this show look like they really hurt, to say nothing of the bone-snaps and the eye-gouges and the chain-whippings and the decapitations-by-stomping. Matt Murdock’s near-Christlike ability to take a beating isn’t one of his superpowers, but it borders on the superhuman. The hard-R-ness of Daredevil might be the best thing about it being a Netflix show instead of a broadcast series or a movie, but it’s not just badassery for badassery’s sake — it reacquaints the comic-book genre with pain and bodily consequence, two things that have all but vanished from Marvel’s version of the form. The trailers for Age of Ultron indicate that at some point the Hulk will fight someone in a Hulk-size Iron Man suit; sooner or later, every superhero movie devolves into Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots between two painstakingly rendered hunks of CGI. Even at its most grindhouse-nutty, Daredevil keeps humans in the equation.
The most groundbreaking thing about the show from a genre perspective is the good episode and a half that depicts Cox laid up on a couch like a double-train-wreck survivor after his first encounter with the Yakuza. Sure, he’s back out there taking more punishment before too long, and (increased spoiler alert) the season finale sends us off on a super-familiar note: martial music surging on the soundtrack, dude in body armor on a rooftop shot from extreme low angle, silhouetted against the skyline, tuning in to the city like an enormous radio, picking up the sound of a woman in trouble and springing into action. But in the 13 hours before that moment, we’re presented with abundant evidence that Murdock’s decision to become Daredevil is a terrible idea — which is a pretty great idea for how to approach a superhero show.