ED. NOTE: This review kicks off Daredevil Week at Comic Riffs.
ONCE MARVEL again had the rights, the studio was determined to do it right.
Last spring, Kevin Feige, Marvel’s president of production, made it clear that the screen rights to the character Daredevil had reverted from Fox back to the House of Ideas. Now, one year later, fans of the Man Without Fear can be especially glad they did.
On Friday, Marvel and Netflix will debut their new series “Daredevil,” as phase one of a rollout of their live-action superhero shows. And the show indeed has nothing to fear, because “Daredevil” – darker than previous small-screen Marvel series — is a creative bull’s-eye.
“Daredevil” will be available for your 13-episode binge-fest, but you won’t need but a few episodes to see how much the show gets right, including the decision to film in New York. “Daredevil” has a gritty realism that Marvel’s feature films generally don’t even have.
Marvel was also smart to tap Daredevil to begin the multi-series Netflix launch. Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist aren’t far behind, but “Daredevil” serves as a big-bang moment for the studio’s Netflix universe.
If ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” and “Agent Carter” were solid singles that stretched into doubles as they moved along, “Daredevil” is a first-pitch home run. Yet “Daredevil” shouldn’t be overly compared to what Marvel has aired on TV, because the Netflix show smartly exploits being free of broadcast limits.
Daredevil is that unusual Marvel character (aside from the Punisher, among just a few) who can justify R-rated live-action material, but Marvel and Netflix decided not to go there. Instead, they embrace a very strong PG-13 feel, complete with S-bombs and stylized street violence.
Even the opening credits are dark, as crimson-saturated images of law, faith and, eventually, Marvel’s devil himself appear. And speak of the devil: Marvel has gotten that right, too.
From the moment he first seeks forgiveness during a confessional – to forgive not for what he’s done, but for what he’s about to do — to when he goes out and “does it,” Charlie Cox utterly embodies the role. As Matt Murdock, Cox is charming. (With a certain panache, he amazes his good friend/law partner Foggy Nelson, played by Elden Henson, by detecting – despite his blindness — when a beautiful woman is in the room.) Cox’s Murdock also displays a calmness that highlights the contrast with his masked persona.
But every now and then — as he confesses, while drawing comparisons to his boxer-father — Murdock has to “let the devil out.” And when the devil is on display, the actor especially shines. From the outset as a crimefighter, Cox is almost ninja-like. He’s not Daredevil yet — just a black-clad vigilante trying to bring his own justice to Hells Kitchen – but his defensive blocks quickly turn into hard-fisted counters. When he flips out of danger or delivers a spin-kick, he looks like someone who has mastered martial arts (fitting since from the “Daredevil” trailers, we know that we see that Murdock, as a youngster, was trained by Stick).
“Daredevil,” is a show about a city on the rebound. And Hells Kitchen, the neighborhood itself, functions like a character — with the efforts to rebuild this city providing “Daredevil,” with a key connection to the Marvel Cinematic universe.
And just how to fix Hells Kitchen is a double-sided story. On one side is the yet-to-be-named Daredevil; on the other is Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) – aka the Kingpin. Two men who are trying to clean up their city, while both working outside of the law, eventually build to an epic confrontation.
Fisk runs Hells Kitchen’s “rebuilding” efforts in the shadows — intimidating through silence. His name is not allowed to be uttered by anyone. Although he’s large and wears his baldness like so much badness, Fisk exhibits a calmness that masks the monster within. One wonders how a man so calm and quiet could run a city’s organized crime — until Kingpin gets upset, and his rage is on full display.
As good as this central confrontation is, “Daredevil” isn’t just about a vigilante and the man he’ll cross paths with. The supporting cast is stellar, too. As Karen Page, Deborah Ann Woll gives off an appropriate sense of tragedy, even when things are going well. She’s the lone bright spot in Matt and Foggy’s usually empty law office. But the show hints that there is more to her than a pretty face, and that better days may not be ahead.
And in a show that is consistently dark, Foggy reliably provides comic relief.
Elsewhere, Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple proves herself as a trustworthy ally in Matt Murdock’s nightly crusade (though she doesn’t fully grasp the degree of danger she’s in). Vondie Curtis-Hall plays Ben Urich, a veteran reporter in a struggling newsroom who in his youth wasn’t afraid to take on crime through words, but now seems cagier about his tactics. (Will he catch up to Hell’s Kitchen’s masked vigilante? Will he be an ally to Daredevil?) Ayelet Zurer (many will remember her as Superman’s Kryptonian mother in “Man of Steel”) is intriguing as Vanessa Marianna, the love interest of Wilson Fisk who can bring the Kingpin’s shy inner child. And Toby Leonard Moore’s Wesley, the top assistant to the Kingpin, is the essence of cruelty and professionalism. (With the Kingpin preferring to stay in the shadows, Wesley does the dirty work without having to raise his voice or get a hair out of place).
All the elements come together deftly to produce something we haven’t quite seen from Marvel – apart from TV and the big screen, “Daredevil” stands on its own in the Marvel screen universe.
By all rights, he’ll soon be a Man With an Audience.