Yet another superhero series to add to the franchises dreamed up to exploit the comic book escapades dreamed up most famously by DC Comics and, in this case, Marvel. Daredevil began life on paper in 1964, survived several remorphs that took the series lurching towards scifi, survived a 2003 movie interpretation with, of all people, Ben Affleck in the title role, video games and many more instances.
Not being a fan of comic books, nor especially of superheroes, my opening gambit is to say that this Netflix TV adaptation succeeds better than all of the above by virtue of taking the series right back to basics and focusing on very human instincts rather superhuman powers. It does so by creating complex and sophisticated characters and casting excellent character actors to display the full rounded emotions, peeling back the layers to reveal motivations, in fact all the facets you would expect to find in a 360-degree flesh-and-blood person rather than a 2D cardboard cutout.
This example could easily have turned out to be a biff-bang martial arts combo genre, following a trend for such hybrids, though the fact that the chosen format of 13 x 45 min episodes allowed the production room to breathe helps bring to life what might otherwise have been a hackneyed byproduct. Yes there are action scenes and stunts aplenty, but thankfully they don’t dominate the characterisations or the narrative – a fairly simple story but here told with panache and credibility.
At face value, Daredevil has the hallmarks you expect to find in these tales: Matt Murdock, blinded at the age of 9 by a radioactive substance that causes his remaining five senses to become hyper-sensitive, he is schooled by his boxer dad and later by a blind martial arts expert called Stick to learn to fend for himself.
In the meantime, he learns law, meets his future business partner, known primarily by his nickname, Foggy, and begins a law practice by day, while going out by night to help the innocent in his native Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan, dressed in black and with a blindfold covering his sightless eyes, armed only with his body. The rise of a villain by the name of Wilson Fisk, in league with the Russians, the Chinese and a range of other dodgy types, but ultimately his own inner psycho, gives Murdock AKA Daredevil a focus and the series its storyline.
Murdock has his own inner demons, often using a priest for a combination of confessions and pep talks, but thankfully our hero carries with him the important people in his life, some of them reluctant to believe he is the hero portrayed as a cop killer on TV news. They all come round, and luckily include a nurse to stitch his wounds, for Daredevil finds himself close to death on several occasions. With the help of meditation his body and his resolve heal sufficiently to enable him to work with friends and vanquish the baddies to win the day – but it’s a long, hard struggle. By the end he has acquired the body suit of a superhero and stands ready to protect the city in series 2 (already commissioned.)
Admittedly his is a well-honed body, capable of rapid-fire kung fu movements, punches, kicks, thrusts and leaps, but watching endless fight scenes without their being held together by a coherent dramatic narrative would be as boring and meaningless as the bump and grind of gonzo porn. That said, there is no question that the fight scenes are done exceptionally well, if on occasions too dark in this mean, moody city lit by neon to work out what is actually happening on occasions.
The pain and suffering caused by bones breaking and flesh tearing seems all too omnipotent, making Daredevil far less like comic book violence and far more like the real thing – except, that is, for the fact that the main protagonist is blind and works by his own internal sonar system. That it could enable him to dodge bullets and unhand baddies of their firearms stretches credibility, but far less than powers like x-ray vision or superhuman strength, for example.
But the bottom line is simple: no matter how high the production values, and here they are slick and hot, you would have nothing without top notch acting, whereby having villains who are not merely powerful but also have a back story to explain how they became what they are. I recently mentioned the excellent Lars Mikkelsen putting in a sterling turn as the devious President Viktor Petrov in House of Cards series 3 as one example of a baddie being a fine match for the hero, and here we have Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk demonstrating precisely the virtues and the vices that make the character a formidable opponent. That you could empathise with him for murdering his abusive father says a lot, and no villain would be half as effective if you could not imagine yourself as one of his followers, since his logic dictates that in a Machiavellian way the murder and mayhem, cruelty and vicious vendettas are justified and that the world would realise he is at heart a decent guy who wants to rebuild the city for the better.
Whether Charlie Cox is your vision of the man to upset the Fisk applecart is another question. There is a touch of the Clark Kent about his Matt Murdock, though as a lawyer he clearly has a brain and an eloquent voice. He is quirky and as complex in his own way as his adversary Fisk, and, arguably, as morally ambivalent too. Unlike the cleaner cut of superhero brands, he is not above causing death, indirectly at first but by the end beating to a pulp those who stand in his way is simply not enough. This is a character pushing at his own boundaries, so Cox has the mission of finding ways to reconcile the man and the alter ego in the name of good. In short, he is ultimately as Machiavellian as the man he is trying to defeat. Good v evil is now far from black v white – there are many shades of grey on both sides.
While I am less convinced by Cox than by D’Onofrio, he does a more than serviceable job, and is backed up well by a quality ensemble cast including Bob Gunton (who you will recall as the evil warden in Shawshank Redemption and equally evil here), Rosario Dawson (Trance), Elden Hensen, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Deborah Ann Woll, among many others. What is noticeable is that each and every character is compromised in one way or another, demonstrating that a voyage around each was a fundamental ground rule in developing the scripts – and each has their own development. What a pleasant change from years past!
So it is with pleasure that I can say that while the genre is very definitely not my preference, the execution very definitely is. Daredevil is probably as well delivered as any of its ilk ever has been or will be. Recommended – go see!