Nowadays, I can barely flip three channels down the dial without landing on a comic book television show. In the last couple of years, cable and network television have unleashed a torrential downpour of superhero TV with programs such as Arrow, The Flash, Agents of Shield, Gotham, Constantine and Powers. This rising tide of live action comic book stories doesn’t even factor in the comic based blockbuster movies that steadily stream out of Hollywood like circus clowns filing out the windows and doors of their jam-packed clown-car.
Much like musicals in the 40’s, westerns in the 50’s and slasher-flicks in the 80’s, the sheer volume of superhero movies and television shows seems indicative that we are in the medium’s golden age. Sadly, quantity has not meant quality. As prevalent as superhero movies/television are, there are still many elements at the heart of the genre that the entertainment industry is hesitant to embrace. Whether it’s ignoring colourful costumes or iconic code-names like Catwoman, our live action heroes rarely receive the onscreen respect that they deserve. Fortunately, there is an encouraging shift in this trend. In bringing the classic marvel character Daredevil to the small screen, Marvel and Netflix have formed their own version of the dynamic duo. Marvel’s Daredevil is the rare superhero show that provides a perfect balance between capturing the essence of the show’s comic book roots while establishing the gritty tone of a modern day crime-drama.
The comic book character Daredevil that the show is based on got his start way back in the 60’s and has since been handled by numerous writers and gone through multiple character interpretations. Over the years, the most consistent element of the Daredevil mythology is always the character Matt Murdock, a blind defense attorney by day and crime fighting vigilante by night. That is pretty much all you need to know going in as the series does a great job of adapting the character for the small screen. In the first episode, Matt Murdock/ Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and his partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) are a couple of struggling lawyers based in Hell’s Kitchen. Foggy’s willingness to engage in questionable behaviour lands them an opportunity to defend Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a young and attractive murder suspect that the police found alone in an apartment with the bloody body of her co-worker. When Matt and Foggy take the case, they are unprepared to deal with the deep-rooted underworld ties that come along with it. When the criminal organization responsible for the murder sends their thugs after Karen, Matt must become his vigilante alter ego in order to protect Karen and unravel the conspiracy at the heart of the case.
So far, Marvel’s Daredevil has been a textbook example of how to do superhero stories right. Episode one “Into the Ring” skips the standard superhero origin story and jumps right into Matt Murdock’s crime fighting career. Far too often, superhero movies/shows take audiences by the hand and walk them through the character’s origins. How many times do we really have to see Ma and Pa Kent raise a young Clark or Bruce Wayne’s family gunned down in an alley before studios realize that we get it. Marvel’s Daredevil respects the audience’s intelligence and dives right into Daredevil’s battle against Hell’s Kitchen’s litany of scum, forcing viewers to keep up with the show’s pace.
The trendy thing for comic book movies/shows to do is go “dark” and “gritty”. Although Marvel’s Daredevil fits in with that trend, it also establishes a new gold standard. Comic book movies like The Dark Knight and Man of Steel go “dark” in order to class up their pulpy subject matter in a way that is disingenuous to their comic book roots. The Batman in the Dark Knight movies existed in a world without superheroes (or even his sidekick Robin) and the Superman in Man of Steel was a dull, brooding, hipster-beard wearing outcast whose real main power was being “emo”. Daredevil is a character who was an anti-hero before it became trendy. Back in the 80’s while Adam West was most people’s only concept of Batman, a dark and brooding Daredevil was lurking on the rooftops and in the piss stained alleys of an apocalyptic version of Hell’s Kitchen, beating the crap out of rapists and drug dealers. Daredevil is one of the templates for dark and emotionally fractured characters in mainstream comics. The Netflix interpretation of Daredevil perfectly captures the tone of his comic roots. We see this incarnation of the hero completely brutalizing thugs, rescuing sex workers, fighting cocaine cartels yet still finding time to womanize while off the superhero clock. Did I mention that he goes to confession because he’s riddled with Catholic guilt?
“Into the Ring” does a remarkable job of offering the audience their first glimpse into the Daredevil universe by showing viewers that the show is not afraid to be “comic book-y”. Superheroes such as Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk (and technically Spider-Man) have all been to or live in the New York City that the show takes place in. Matt Murdock/Daredevil and Foggy walk the very same streets of New York that suffered an alien invasion in 2012’s The Avengers. Whereas most comic book movies/shows hesitate to embrace their source material’s “nerdier” elements, this series has a main character with actual super powers, who lives in a city where he might run into Tony Stark on Fifth Avenue and who also lives in a world under the threat of invasion by the aliens in Guardians of the Galaxy.
As much as we can all appreciate a great story, most superhero movies/shows live and die by their action sequences. Marvel’s Daredevil offers some of the most intense and somehow believable live-action superhero fight sequences that I have ever seen. The show’s fight choreography is slickly paced, brutal and carries a hefty weight that allows viewers to get a sense of the stakes of combat. There is a ferocity to the impact of every hit that Daredevil takes and I couldn’t help but wince with him each time that he reeled in pain. When Daredevil literally dodged bullets or used parkour to scale up walls, I believed that I was watching a skilled acrobat and not the work of a digital effects team or a man in a harness. Most importantly, the combat on the show is straight up fun. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing a masked vigilante spin kick Eastern European sex trafficker’s teeth down their throats? Try doing that Liam Neeson! #Taken4
Netflix’s Daredevil series is the perfect example of how to make a superhero television series work. Daredevil being a blue collar, street level hero means that the show doesn’t need to bankrupt itself with sky high visual effects budgets. Marvel’s Daredevil found a way to zero in on tight, lower stakes, street level crime with dynamic action scenes that would inspire Jackie Chan to stand up and begin a slow clap. Episode 1, unabashedly embraces Daredevil’s comic book roots while telling a violent, urban crime story that will appeal to comic fans and non-fans alike. If “Into the Ring” is any indication of what’s in store for the rest of the series, comic book fans will be in for a dozen hours of Netflix Nirvana.
Victor Stiff is a Toronto based writer and nerd culture curator who may have an unhealthy relationship with chocolate milk. You can find him on twitter@victorjstiff