There was a time when critics of Marvel Studios’ output could inflict cheap body blows in reviews and discussion threads by citing the lack of truly visceral, hard-hitting action, high dramatic stakes, and an over-reliance on snappy humor in the MCU. With the release of the Netflix Daredevil series, however (and to some extent, the politically charged Captain America: The Winter Soldier before that), those days are long gone. That’s because Daredevil has armored the Studio’s perceived weak narrative underbelly by delivering a measure of bone-crushing brutality, complex character drama, street-level grit, and noir-drenched cinematography completely unlike anything they’ve ever done before. Darkness has come to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but unlike certain other filmed content from the “Distinguished Competition,” here it’s appropriate for the character and doesn’t come across as morose or leaden, thanks to some crackling acting performances and whip-smart dialogue by series creator Drew Goddard.
Goddard moved on from showrunner duties right before production, but Stephen DeKnight made a seamless transition, directing an introductory episode that deftly establishes the show’s continuity and sets the stage for everything we need to know for the ensuing 12 chapters; it’s a clinic in efficient and effective world-building. We’re given a glimpse of the horrible vehicle crash that splashed young Matt Murdock in the eyes with toxic waste, rendering him blind but enhancing all his other senses to beyond human levels. Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson rent an office to start their fledgling law practice, and quickly meet their first client (thanks to Foggy bribing a booking officer with cigars for his mother) in the form of the beautiful Karen Page, who has become a target of the shady conglomeration of organized crime figures (Russian Mafia brothers, a silent Yakuza leader, an elderly Chinese lady with cocaine empire, and a sleazeball money man) who work under the mysterious Wilson Fisk.
The series does a tremendous job of building Fisk as a looming, shadowy, near-omnipotent threat; a well-connected boogeyman and puppet master with strings connected to all of the major organized crime figures in the city. Characters are continually warned not to speak his name, and when we finally do meet Fisk in the flesh at the end of the third chapter, D’Nofrio’s performance is chilling and nuanced, imbuing “The Kingpin” with a disquieting calmness masking a furnace churning with white-hot, seething rage within. By the end of the fourth episode, that terrifying fury is released on one of his underlings in gory, jaw-dropping fashion. In just the few brief establishing scenes, it doesn’t sound crazy to instantly place him second next to Loki as the scariest, most emotionally complex villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As great as D’Nofrio is, Boardwalk Empire‘s Charlie Cox is equally fantastic in the titular role. In lawyer mode as Matt Murdock, he’s smart, steely, driven, and often charming. When he’s breaking skulls and in his early superhero garb, he’s menacing, calculating, and really, really tough. Cox pulls off a terrific balancing act, right from his riveting opening scene in a church confessional. Deborah Anne Woll exudes a wonderfully vulnerable quality as Karen Page, doing a tremendous job portraying a character obviously hiding some dark secrets.
Rosario Dawson impresses as she usually does in a two-episode arc as a nurse who helps patch Matt up after a particularly horrific beating, while Vondie Curtis-Hall lends a salty, veteran presence to the proceedings as beleaguered, but undeniably truth-hungry reporter Ben Urich. Nearly stealing the first four episodes are Elden Henson and Toby Leonard Moore as Foggy Nelson and Wilson Fisk’s right hand man Wesley, respectively. Henson is the light in the darkness in the show so far, brightening every scene he’s in with well-timed humor and a sweet devotion to his best friend Matt. Moore, meanwhile,is especially effective as Fisk’s interminably creepy spokesperson; a slimy sociopath in a $10,000 suit carrying out The Kingpin’s dirty work.
If Daredevil can sustain this mix of teeth-smashing, bone-shattering fight choreography and intense, character-driven storylines through the remaining nine chapters, it should earn a spot near the upper crust of not just Marvel Cinematic heavy hitters like The Avengers and The Winter Soldier, but Nolan’s Dark Knight films are within reach as well. It’s already far better in these four hours than Agents of SHIELD in its entirety and a good chunk of Arrow. It’s a well-paced show with an engrossing main narrative, complimented nicely by sub-plots churning in the undercurrent.
4.5 stars out of 5