At the San Diego Comic Con of 2014, Marvel supremo Kevin Feige proudly announced that Marvel was ‘done with origin stories’. There’s a delicious irony, then, that the first product of their new partnership with Netflix is an epic thirteen hour origin story of not just one major Marvel character, but two.
“Daredevil” takes us to the streets and dimly lit back alleys of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Down in the gutters of Hell’s Kitchen, deep in the shadows cast by Avengers Tower, evil is stirring. A less cosmic evil, intent on something a little more prosaic than world domination but no less malign.
In the aftermath of The Battle Of New York, mysterious crime lord Wilson Fisk brings together the various gang factions who control the borough, uniting them in a common cause: to remake Hell’s Kitchen in his image. The only thing standing in his way is a small independent law firm, Nelson & Murdock and grizzled veteran journalist Ben Urich. Oh, and lawyer Matt Murdock’s side line in vigilantism, his blindness supplemented by supernaturally enhanced senses by exposure to toxic waste in a childhood accident.
With “Daredevil”, Marvel proves it can not only play in the dark and gritty space – it can excel. Eschewing the pyrotechnics and spectacle of the movies, the “Daredevil” series opts instead for a grimly realistic approach. Fights are painful, bruising and exhausting. Extraordinary actions carry extraordinary consequences and every character is burdened with secrets and lies as they make the unpalatable compromises they have to, to achieve their goals.
The structure is a triumph, with the entire thirteen-episode run resembling a hardboiled crime novel by a modern-day Dashiell Hammett. A noir thriller with a superhero twist. Polarised around the two adversaries, Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, the narrative spins and twists around their struggle while both accumulate allies and liabilities which ultimately determine their fates far more than the throwing of fists.
The cast is generally pretty good, with some taking a couple of episodes to find their feet but it’s Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio who really elevate the whole affair to the next level. The writing is top-notch, and uses the space afforded by a full thirteen hours to allow layer after layer of character development, enriching both their motivations and their actions. We’re largely shown Murdock’s origins through flashbacks which bring us up to date in time to see him finally become Daredevil but it’s in Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin that the series makes its smartest moves.
If you’re of the opinion that the weak point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far has been the relatively one-dimensional villains, then “Daredevil” is the series you’ve been waiting for. D’Onofrio gives Fisk a humanity to counterpoint his brutality, essaying one of the screen’s most complex and conflicted villains. He exudes a zen like calm which can transmute in an instant into a muscular, vicious rage. Again, the pacing of the series allows it to show us multiple sides to the monster and we see an almost tender side to him in his appreciation of art, his unexpectedly tentative and tender courtship and his zen-like morning routine of dressing up like Varys from “Game Of Thrones” and making himself a two-egg omelette. His chilling deconstruction of the biblical fable of the Good Samaritan in the final episode is a triumph of superb writing matched by a terrifyingly intense performance.
The series shares “Game Of Thrones”’ penchant for shocking moments of violence and it’s not for the faint of heart or squeamish. But if you have the stomach for it, you’ll be rewarded by some of the most technically accomplished fight scenes ever filmed, including a bravura sequence filmed in an uninterrupted style reminiscent of “Oldboy”. It’s raw, desperate and exhausting and tells you all you need to know about this show.
It’s still very much a Marvel product though, and it contains references not only to the wider cinematic and Marvel universe but also the nascent Netflix enclave, which will expand to feature “AKA Jessica Jones”, “Luke Cage” and “Iron Fist” before combining them into “The Defenders” before, surely, making the leap to the big screen to join in the Infinity Wars. They even find time for a sneaky Stan Lee cameo without breaking the series’ sombre tone.
“Daredevil” is worth the price of a Netflix subscription on its own, especially now season two has been confirmed for 2016. By going smaller, the Marvel Cinematic Universe just got a whole lot bigger.