Remember when the closest thing to a superhero on TV was the soapy teen adventures of Tom Welling’s handsome-yet-surprisingly-nerdy Clark Kent on Smallville?
If networks previously approached the genre with some trepidation, we’re now verging on over-kill. From the brooding Robin Hood-esque undertaking of Arrow to the preppy super-speed hijinks of The Flash, the small screen is currently awash with superheroes, making it hard for new shows to stand out from the crowd, as the lamentable Constantine can no doubt attest.
Marvel has already experienced first hand how challenging it can be to turn a comic book property into a hit show, with Agents of SHIELD still struggling for attention, which makes the decision to kick-off its quintet of interlocking miniseries on Netflix with Daredevil – a little know superhero whose only previous on-screen appearance was in the widely loathed Ben Affleck movie – an even bigger risk.
Thankfully, it’s a risk that pays off – and then some. Marvel’s Daredevil is unlike any superhero show you’ve ever seen, eschewing the usual mix of superpowers, colourful villains and high-tech gadgetry in favour of a gritty and raw crime thriller that’s punctuated by the kind of intensely visceral violence we’ve come to expect from the writer of the blood-soaked Spartacus series.
Visually, the show is gorgeously cinematic, director Phil Abraham shrouding the crumbling neighbourhood of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in a shadowy noir hue that never seems to go out of style. Yet, it’s what goes on beneath the dramatic aesthetic that’s most impressive, with writer Steven S. Knight serving up a multi-faceted crime story that slyly apes The Wire in its devastating focus on human emotion and moral turmoil in a corrupt society.
The Netflix series chronicles blind lawyer Matt Murdock’s (Charlie Cox) early forays as the titular vigilante as he dons the black homemade ninja costume that will be familiar to readers of Frank Miller’s The Man Without Fear and sets out to pulverise the ruthless criminals who have taken his neighbourhood in a choke hold since it was trashed during Avengers Assemble’s climatic alien invasion.
Knight is refreshingly content to spoon out Murdock’s origin story over the course of the series, which allows episode one to hit the ground running without the impediment of needless exposition, introducing Murdock and his law partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) as they set up their new law firm and take on the case of an innocent women (Deborah Ann Woll) who’s framed for a brutal murder.
There’s even enough time to introduce primary antagonist William Fisk, aka the Kingpin, who appears only in name at first – spoken of in the kind of reverence usually reserved for Lord Voldemort – manoeuvring the pieces of his schemes from afar and ruling his new empire through fear and intimidation.
Broadwalk Empire’s Charlie Cox impresses in the lead role, embodying both the charming lawyer and ferocious vigilante sides of Murdock’s character, whilst also imbuing him with an underlying intensity that hints of a man struggling to keep a lid on all his bottled-up turmoil.
It of course helps that Murdock represents a meaty role for any actor. With a tragic backstory that even Bruce Wayne can’t match, having lost first his sight in a chemical accident aged five and then his father when a gang of vengeful thugs come calling, Murdock is a richly complex character who uses his vigilantism as an outlet for his grief and yet feels conflicted about his violent actions due to his Catholic upbringing.
But what’s most remarkable about this ‘superhero’ is that he is entirely fallible. While his blindness has heightened his other senses to superhuman levels, Murdock doesn’t have a superpower to call upon or a billion dollar trust fund to equip him with impenetrable armour and high-tech gadgets, and as a result he frequently gets hurt in fights and often requires improvised medical care from concerned local nurse Claire (Rosario Dawson).
Yet he never gives up, his greatest strength being a superhuman will to keep fighting back – a trait he learned from his father, a rather poor boxer who, Murdock recalls, could at least take a punch. This formidable drive looks set to provide the series’ main narrative arc as Murdock continues to push his body, and, more importantly, his morals, to breaking point. Will he be able to pick himself back up when the inevitable collapse comes his way?
There are those that lament the abundance of comic book adaptations on our screens as a sign of the dearth of original ideas; Daredevil proves that this is far from the case.
As Constatine and Agents of SHIELD have already proved, it’s no east feat to standout in this saturated genre, yet Daredevil does just that by reworking its hero’s comic book origins into the style of a gripping and pulverising crime drama that revels in the kind of moral ambiguity and brutal physicality that can match whatever the best of TV has to offer.