This post discusses the first several episodes of Netflix’s “Daredevil.”
Marvel has made a bundle on superhero movies in recent years, and this summer’s box office looks to be as big as ever. But in expanding its storytelling to television, there have been signs of strain: “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” had a rocky first season, and it took the spinoff, “Agent Carter,” to do something genuinely fresh, though the ratings were lethargic. Now “Daredevil,” the first of of four television shows Netflix is producing in conjunction with Marvel, has arrived, and I regret to report that it’s a ponderous, queasy bummer, a vigilante show that’s arrived at precisely the wrong moment.
Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is one of many, many television lawyers and sawbones who, despite advances in modern forensics and medicine, continue to believe that their most valuable tool are their gut instincts. But part of the fun of a show like “House M.D.” was watching the characters figure out how to translate a hunch into a specific diagnosis. The characters tried tests and treatments, got new information, ruled some options out and introduced new ones.
But “guilty” or “innocent” are less complicated questions than a medical diagnosis. And so when Matt has a hunch that Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a young woman found holding a knife, her hands bloody, over the body of her dead co-worker, is innocent, she just turns out to be so. And more than that, once Matt and his fellow attorney Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) come to her aid after she is attacked in prison, Karen tells them everything.
“Job’s easy when your client’s innocent,” Matt tells Karen when she is exonerated. “All you did is tell the truth.” Too easy to be interesting. If all Matt has to do is listen, we’re in for a lot more of the monologues that tend to weigh down the pilot in between vigorous punchings and flashbacks. Matt gets plenty of workouts in the many scenes of him punching people with great efficiency and a certain amount of style, but “Daredevil” would be a more interesting lawyer show if we got to see him exercise the muscles behind his ears.
And even if “Daredevil” featured more actual legal legwork, the series’ sense of certainty about guilt or innocence feels awfully out of step with the moment in which the show arrives on Netflix. We’re supposed to be fine with watching Matt brutally lay out out all sorts of human traffickers and corrupt cops because he knows for sure that they’re bad men, and so we don’t have to worry that he is delivering his violent version of justice to someone who doesn’t deserve it, and because he takes so much punishment himself. “This is what you do, you make life difficult for bad men?” Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), a nurse who patches Matt up after she finds him in a dumpster, asks. “No offense, but you don’t seem to be very good at it.”
But if the killings of black men, teenagers and boys that have gripped this country in recent years have taught us anything, it should be that such fantasies of certainty are dangerous delusions. And even if someone is guilty, delivering penalties outside of a courtroom has an ugly way of escalating the punishment for crimes. Walter Scott is dead because he had a broken taillight on his car. Michael Brown is dead because he was suspected of robbing a convenience store. The crimes in “Daredevil,” including trafficking and attempted murder, are more consequential, but the show is still awfully blithe about how violently Matt deals with them.
“I’m supposed to take you on faith that I’m on the right side of this?” Claire asks Matt in the second episode, but Matt shrugs off her worries, and she quickly confesses that stories about a masked vigilante inspired her to rescue him. Before the episode is out, Claire is giving Matt advice about where to stab a criminal he is torturing.
Maybe this makes me squishy. But a debate like that, which isn’t really a debate, or flashbacks to little Matt quoting Thurgood Marshall, or the sight of Matt going to confession to get preemptory dispensation for his sins in the pilot don’t do much to convince me that “Daredevil” has thought very much about the anti-heroic nature of a moral philosophy where the most noble thing a parent or a lawyer can do is to hit someone very, very hard (Matt’s dad is a boxer who used to throw fights). The color palette on “Daredevil” is muddy — it’s always a rainy autumn evening in Hell’s Kitchen, apparently — but its view of the world is a crisp, and dully disturbing, black-and-white.