Marvel’s Daredevil: Season 1 Review (Part 1)
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Warning: This review contains major spoilers for episodes 1-7 of Daredevil (Into the Ring through to Stick), with lighter spoilers for subsequent episodes.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a fairly massive, varied place. In one corner of the galaxy, you have talking trees and raccoons, while somewhere else there’s a society of alien beings who act like Norse gods – and down on Earth, there’s a maelstrom of iron suits, super soldiers and miniature Thomas the Tank Engine train battles (never forget). The one thing that’s tied Marvel Studios’ film and lately, TV offerings together is a general overriding sense of lightness and optimism. Each hero has gone through the ringer, but most of Marvel’s heroes come out the other end quipping and joking with barely a scratch…
The first of Marvel’s Netflix forays, Daredevil, aimed to eschew that sunny and optimistic veneer and delve head on into the murky world of street crime and corruption. What’s interesting about Daredevil right off the bat is that it begins essentially in media res – before the (visually stunning) titles of episode one roll, we’ve already seen Matt Murdock in action, sporting the black costume that he wears for almost the entire season. Some earlier parts are filled in later on via flashback and the crucial accident that gave Murdock his powers is shown early on but it’s notable that Daredevil isn’t really an origin story for Matt Murdock – and it’s extremely refreshing in that regard. Instead, it throws us straight into the action – fittingly, for such a punchy and brutal series.
The first few episodes spend a great deal of time acquainting viewers with the gallery of main characters – and it’s with the characters where the true advantages of telling a thirteen hour story instead of a two hour story shows. Charlie Cox is excellent as Murdock, bringing the requisite charm to the role, but also ably showcasing Murdock’s darker side – Daredevil plays around a great deal with the theme of morality via Murdock’s character, and Cox is more than able at showcasing the tortured, more amoral side of Murdock that he battles with on his quest for justice.
Foggy Nelson, Matt’s business partner and designated sidekick, starts the series in a very firm comic relief role – but he’s cleverly and gradually fleshed out later, with a more heroic and compassionate side emerging. Foggy’s eventual casting as an everyday, small-time hero who beats off crooks and helps an old lady who’s being bullied out of her apartment is an intriguing contrast to Matt’s more violent version of heroism, and it’s a credit to the writers that this contrast doesn’t feel forced. Likewise, Karen Page enters the stage in episode one as a by-the-numbers victim, but thankfully the writing of Page’s character is far stronger than the writing of most female characters on superhero shows, and Karen soon becomes a likeable idealistic foil to Matt, helped by Deborah Ann Woll’s spirited and determined performance.
And then, of course, there’s the bad guy. The way Daredevil handles the introduction of Vincent d’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk is fantastic – mentioned in fearful tones as ‘an employer’ in the first three episodes, it’s not until the end of episode three where Fisk’s name is revealed and the character is shown for the first time. However, Fisk’s actual reveal is an extremely clever subversion of the way supervillains are usually introduced in comic book adaptations – Fisk’s introduction through a burgeoning love story with an art gallery worker is more along the lines of a subplot you’d expect from a hero, yet this introduction works wonders at establishing just how complex a character Fisk is.
He’s still very much a crime lord, but Fisk’s characterisation in his introduction is nuanced and sympathetic enough that we’re actually encouraged to feel sympathetic for the lonely kingpin. And when the establishing villainous moment comes at the end of episode four, it has far more impact than it would usually have, coming right after seeing Fisk stuttering and mumbling his way through a date. Wilson Fisk is one of Daredevil’s triumphs – and it’s his unusual introduction that paves the way for the MCU’s strongest villain yet. The fateful first conversation between Fisk and Murdock in episode six is also an example of great, nuanced writing of the villain – even in the midst of framing Murdock as a terrorist and cop killer, it becomes clear that while Fisk and Murdock may employ different methods, they’re both working towards the same end goal of cleaning up Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a clever parallel that underpins a hero/villain relationship far more complex than we usually see in the MCU, and spotlights the engaging thread of grey morality throughout the season.
It’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Daredevil’s calling card – the fight scenes. Each and every fight scene is quite unlike the usual fights we see in comic book adaptations; bones break, copious blood is spilled and the participants get exhausted. The crunchy brutality of these fight scenes keeps them consistently engaging – Murdock’s fistfights feel like a real, exhausting brawl rather than an effortless two-punch knockout, helping to establish the vigilante’s vulnerability. You’ll have likely heard about the one-shot fight sequence in episode two – but it’s worth repeating just how innovative and well-choreographed that sequence is; no jerky, unfocused jump cuts, just pure, brutal violence.
The brutality doesn’t stop at the fight scenes. Unconstrained by the rest of the Cinematic Universe’s restrictions on gore, Daredevil delivers two shocking moments of gore that make the series feel a long way away from the adventures of Tony Stark. The sight of a man impaling his own head on a fence and Fisk smashing a man’s brains in with a car door may be nearly vomit inducing, but these moments, while vaguely horrendous, have a clear story reason – to show Fisk’s brutality – ensuring that these scenes retain their impact without feeling gratuitous.
It’s not quite all sunshine and roses – there are some frustrating flaws in both the plotting and structure of the first seven episodes. The pacing is sometimes off; sometimes the show is a slow-burning legal drama, and other times it’s stampeding through plot, creating an occasional imbalance in the storytelling. The structuring of the episodes is also a tad strange: while the season tells a continuous, serialized thirteen-hour story, the big mid-season event – the framing of Daredevil for the wiping out of the Russians and the death of Vladimir – isn’t quite followed up on in a satisfactory manner.
While the first six episodes form a cohesive story that’s wrapped up by the end of episode six (Murdock’s dealings with the Russians), and the final six episodes function as the season’s endgame, episode seven is something of an anomaly. This episode, Stick, is essentially a standalone interlude with some serialized material packed in – yet the standalone story, featuring the return of Murdock’s former mentor, has no real bearing on what came before or what comes after. Instead, Stick is a strange tonal departure from the rest of the season, eschewing the season’s more straightforward crime story vibe for a vaguely supernatural tale, topped off with an ominous prophecy featuring Murdock that is never mentioned again. This may be set up for the other Netflix shows, or a potential season two – but in the middle of a gritty crime story, it can’t help feeling tonally dissonant and jarring.
If the first seven episodes laid the foundation of Fisk’s criminal empire and Matt Murdock’s quest, then the final six see the two in direct conflict with each other. Who really wants the best for Hell’s Kitchen? There’s only one way to find out…
Rating for Episodes 1-7: 9/10
Gripping and often brutal, Daredevil’s opening episodes showcase some of the best action we’ve seen in the MCU so far, whilst introducing nuanced and interesting characters and delivering several genuine shocks.