Marvel’s Daredevil: Season 1 Review (Part 2)
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Warning: This review contains major spoilers for episodes 8-13 of Marvel’s Daredevil (Shadows in the Glass through to Daredevil).
Daredevil made an extremely convincing start with its first seven episodes, introducing a set of complex, interesting characters along with a terrific, unusual villain in Wilson Fisk, topped off with the type of brutal violence never seen before in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the foundations firmly set for a barnstorming conclusion to season one, did Daredevil stick the landing?
The first half of the season was notable for being fairly fast-paced, with plenty of bone-crunching violence as Murdock took on the Russian associates of Fisk – but the final six episodes, for the most part, are a little quieter, with a heavier focus on fleshing out the relationships between the numerous players on Daredevil’s chess board. The season’s first half saw Foggy relegated to an entertaining enough but fairly disposable subplot involving an elderly woman and her tyrannical landlord, but episode ten in particular shines the spotlight on the key relationship between Matt and Foggy.
Having Foggy learn about Matt’s secret identity wasn’t a shocking twist (especially considering the small army of people on other comic book shows who know of the hero’s identity), but the fallout is handled extremely well and with admirable patience. Foggy doesn’t forgive Matt entirely by the end of the episode – it’s not until the finale, three episodes later, when the two finally put aside their differences. This patient, slow-burning feud highlights Daredevil’s aptitude at letting plot points simmer rather than tying conflicts up with a neat bow within an hour of screen-time – and the fractured relationship between the two is paralleled well by a set of flashbacks that serve to flesh out their friendship and assess what the two attorneys (or avocados) really mean to each other. The first few episodes saw too little of Matt out of costume – so scenes like episode ten’s flashbacks were a welcome remedy to that slight imbalance, and helped to contextualise the feud between the two in the present day nicely.
Wilson Fisk was already made a more sympathetic and nuanced bad guy than pretty much every MCU villain by episode seven, but the flashbacks to Fisk’s childhood serve to further justify the crime lord’s actions. In many ways, Fisk’s flashbacks are nothing new, and represent a fairly standard take on the well trodden ‘abusive father’ storyline, but it’s the flashbacks’ final twist that elevates these scenes above the garden variety version of this storyline. Seeing Fisk beat his father’s head in with a hammer (though thankfully, we don’t really see it) is a thoroughly macabre and twisted way to explain his more psychotic tendencies – yet the scenes are well-executed enough as to make Fisk’s attack almost justified; the result of years of pent-up hatred and fury, further enhancing the complexity of the crime lord. In the present day, Fisk’s unravelling due to Vanessa is also compelling viewing – while Fisk remains an extremely imposing threat to Murdock, the humanising of the character via the slow softening of his personality helps make Fisk far more than a cut and paste moustache-twirling bad guy.
However, there’s still plenty of action in the back half – and a central fight that’s notable again for its brutality is Murdock’s fight against Fisk and Nobu in episode nine. Pitting Murdock against two opponents who vastly outstrip his fighting abilities humanises the man in the mask as much as the flashbacks humanise Fisk – seeing Murdock cut to ribbons and then pummelled by Kingpin show that despite the mask and growling voice, Murdock is essentially just a man parading around in black sports gear, who can be cut and hurt just like anyone else. Superhero adaptations often run the risk of making their hero just a tad too invincible, so a brutal defeat like the defeat Murdock suffers in episode nine make him a far more interesting, relatable character. The brutal choreography of the fight not only displays Kingpin as a pretty considerable physical menace, but also hints at a larger, threatening presence via Nobu’s weirdly supernatural abilities in a far better way than Stick did.
The brutal, bloody shocks of the season’s first half aren’t so prominent – but Daredevil does pull out two shocking deaths that both have a considerable emotional impact. Mrs Cardenas, the elderly woman Foggy and Karen helped out, was a fairly ancillary character, but her off-screen death is a thoroughly effective way of showing Fisk’s brutality and the personal impact of his Hell’s Kitchen crusade. By showing a tangible, human impact of Fisk’s endeavours, Daredevil helps balance Fisk’s gentler inclinations and tragic back-story with a reminder that he’s still very much the bad guy – and having the victim be a character we’ve spent several episodes getting to know makes the impact all the stronger for it.
While Mrs Cardenas shuffles off the mortal coil off-screen, journalist Ben Urich’s death is a tad more brutal, even if no blood is spilt. Unlike Mrs Cardenas, Ben plays a pretty prominent role in the final few episodes – and in that time, the character evolved into someone far more complex than the typical ‘crusading journalist’ who pops up in comic book adaptations. The signposting of Ben’s death may have been a tad obvious, with the journalist ready to expose Fisk’s past online and plenty of ‘new beginnings’ promised, but watching Fisk quite literally squeeze the life out of Ben was a hard-hitting moment that smartly shifted Fisk into full villain mode in time for the finale. There’s an undercurrent of cynicism about Ben’s death, in that it feels constructed a little too much for shock value rather than purely to serve the story, but it’s nonetheless an example of Daredevil using its licence for more violent scenes to construct shocks that have far more punch than the tamer PG-13 violence you might see in regular Marvel movies.
Daredevil’s finale (ingeniously titled Daredevil) sees an interesting, most likely permanent tonal shift for the show – from gritty, realistic (ish) crime drama with shades of melodrama to full-on comic book action. Murdock finally dons the character’s classic red suit, Fisk accepts his place as the bad guy (it’s worth highlighting how well-written and acted Fisk’s epiphany is, delivered, fittingly for a show with plenty of religious themes, in a speech about the Good Samaritan), and it all concludes with a ‘boss fight’ of sorts between the hero and the villain. It’s perhaps a little too clear-cut and simple a conclusion than expected, and the themes of moral ambiguity and Matt’s inner struggle that come to the fore in the episodes before the finale are pretty much left by the wayside, but seeing Daredevil embracing its comic roots is somewhat satisfying – and it’s carried out in a smooth, seamless way that prevents the tonal dissonance that Stick’s one-episode trip into supernatural weirdness suffered.
We’ve had a season of reasonably realistic fare with only hints to the wackier side of the Marvel universe, so the evolution into a tone slightly more similar to the rest of the MCU feels fitting for the conclusion of season one, promising a tonal refresh for a potential season two and preventing the grittier tone of the rest of the season from getting stale. There’s no explicit hints to season two in the finale, but with a fully-fledged Kingpin presumably plotting vengeance in his prison cell and Murdock having earned the moniker of Daredevil, season two promises to take Daredevil in a fresh, intriguing new tonal direction.
Let’s just hope there is a season two…
Verdict on Episodes 8-13: 8.5/10
The all-out action of the season’s first half is sometimes missed, but Daredevil’s more character-based dénouement to season one provides meatier character material and a satisfying finale that sees Murdock finally suit up.