My spoiler-light review of Marvel and Netflix’s reinterpretation of Daredevil.
The Avengers does not exactly lack for great lines of dialogue. However, my favourite comes after Thor has plucked the recently captured Loki from the Avengers’ custody. As Captain America puts on a parachute to pursue them, Black Widow warns him “I’d sit this one out: those guys are basically gods”. To which he replies “there’s only one God ma’am and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that!”
That in microcosm has been the Marvel Cinematic Universe up till now. It’s a place where deities exist but are the kind that use a magic hammer to summon lightning to destroy an alien spaceship. So it’s quite a departure for the opening of Daredevil to take place in a confessional. And the ‘one God’ makes his presence felt throughout the series by means of the central character’s tortured Catholic soul. The dramatic tension that animates the story is less whether the hero will stop the villain but how much of his soul will he sacrifice doing it.
Marvel has explored more sombre territory before: take the Winter Soldier or some of the more recent episodes of Agents of Shield. But Daredevil takes this to an altogether different level. Indeed, this Marvel/Netflix co-production feels spiritually closer to Netflix edgy prestige shows like House of Cards than Marvel’s ultra-mainstream blockbusters. The goofiness of the films is gone, and we are now in a part of the MCU where there are slum landlords, people struggle to pay hospital bills and superheros need patching up after fights. Even the action sequences are unlike anything Marvel has delivered before. They look like the product of the showrunner asking his stunt coordinator for something ‘like the Raid but even crunchier.’
For my money this is overwhelmingly a good thing. As affectionate as I am when it comes to Marvel’s other big TV project, Agents of Shield, I loathe the way it is littered with clunky exposition that serves solely to ensure even the most obtuse viewer will not be left behind. By contrast, Daredevil is a paragon of showing rather than telling, not being afraid to convey information through the composition of a shot or have it emerge naturally from the interaction between characters.
And in a world where pain and suffering are permitted to exist, events carry more weight. Sure the stakes may theoretically be higher when Thor battles to prevent the Dark Elves unleashing the Aether at the centre of convergance* than when Daredevil is trying to rescue a kidnapped boy from the Russian mafia. But it really doesn’t feel that way.
But for all the things that can be said in favour of Daredevil’s concept, style and writing, what I suspect will sell it for many people is the acting. Charlie Cox, who incongruously I last saw playing a choir master in the Theory of Everything, makes an admirable lead. However, the real powerhouse of the series is Vincent D’Onofrio playing the villain Wilson Fisk (AKA Kingpin).** The Full Metal Jacket and Law & Order alumni establishes utterly convincingly that Fisk is a man of both immense destructive potential and great vulnerability. D’Onofrio maintains an admirable unity between the Fisk who’s intimidated by social situations and the one who unleashes almost indescribable hurricanes of violence when provoked. He’s generally an uncomfortable figure to watch, which makes it all the more remarkable that you can’t help doing so.
Indeed that’s kind of emblematic of Daredevil’s place in the MCU. A show that’s nastier, more demanding and frankly rather brutal winds up being just about the most satisfying thing Marvel has done to date.
Summary: 9/10 – if there’s a nine year old in your life with lots of Avengers toys for goodness sake don’t let them watch this. Everyone else, for goodness sake watch this!
*If you’ve not seen seen Thor: the Dark World, let that sentence serve as a warning that you really don’t need to.
**I’m struggling to think of two actors playing the same character more differently than D’Onofrio in this series and Michael Clarke Duncan in the abominable Daredevil film starring Ben Affleck.