TV Series Review 2015: "Netflix's Daredevil" (Created by Drew Goddard), Season 1: Episodes 1-5
Just when you thought Netflix couldn't soar any higher, quickly becoming the medium to beat against fledgling premium cable stations like HBO and Showtime, it picks up another original series in the form of Marvel's Daredevil, a protagonist and concept that was woefully misinterpreted more than ten years ago in a much derided theatrical release. Pretty much pretending that the former film never existed, this show, created and written by Drew Goddard of "Lost", "Alias" and "Cloverfield" fame, extracts its influence directly from the hard-hitting work of Frank Miller and Warren Ellis. Both scribes produced incomparable work with Miller's "Daredevil: Born Again" and several of his single issues widely acclaimed for establishing a gritty and noir-like tone to the proceedings. Miller was unafraid to kill off important characters, namely Matt Murdock's assassin-flame Elektra by the demented and sadistic Bullseye. Similarly, Ellis with his run on "Daredevil: The Man Without Fear" expanded upon the Matt Murdock persona that the show really taps heavily from. Starting with Issue # 343, Ellis crafted several issues that involved all Matt Murdock and no Daredevil where Murdock blacks out and finds himself in near-lethal situations in a variety of shady locales. This series' first several episodes unfold precisely like that with Murdock becoming his own entity entirely sans his vigilante alter-ego. It makes for some great character exposition that does include a few strands of his origin story as a child. Unlike the ham-fisted approach the 2003 film took, Goddard makes damn sure to establish the mythos quickly and vibrantly and then at a moments notice the show takes on a life of its own.
Rather than go episode by episode, I'll offer a total summation of the first five episodes of the season. This is part 1 of two reviews I intend to post. So, my initial reaction to the first five was gleeful. In fact, not only was I captivated, but you could tell that Goddard and his collective creative team really had a soft-spot for the character and probably grew up reading him. In lesser hands, these episodes would've focused too much on his childhood and his initial "blindness" and subsequent development of his supersonic senses. The show doesn't pull its punches, especially in the action department where fights are portrayed realistically in MMA/kick-boxing style. Unlike past action movies and sword and sandal epics like "Gladiator", "Hero", & Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon", the punches, kicks and general bloodshed aren't polished and feel as low to the ground as the criminals and schisters that the show makes its best effort to portray somewhat accurately. When you hear a rib snap, or an arm break or glass come crashing, you can close your eyes and it'll appear as though its happening right in front of you. And, thankfully, unlike Joss Whedon's "Avengers" movies and "Agents of Shield" there is no dumb and witty banter during these fights because, you know, this is a different kind of show that tackles its forty-year old character seriously and, like, Christopher Nolan's run on Batman plays him as a deeply flawed, psychologically scarred anti-hero who was witnessed far too much and is just barely doing enough to keep his psyche in tact.
Charlie Cox, the underrated supporting actor who portrayed the charming but very unfortunate Owen Slater, one of Nucky's right-hand men in "Boardwalk Empire", really evokes Matt in all his many dimensions. He uses that charm early on to persuade a woman who he just saved from certain damnation to take on the position of being his law office's ever-so-eager secretary and to negotiate with crooked police officers. But, just as easily as he can be deceptively suave and not the hardened other half, he turns on a dime when facing Hell's Kitchen's worst scum. His performance is impeccably well-rounded and Cox is a self-proclaimed interested reader who did do plenty of research. It certainly shows and you never for once think that this role should have been handed to a CW actor. No offense to Grant Gustin of "The Flash" who is doing impressive work on that show in his own right, Cox it seems brings a certain kind of pedigree to the table that surely made the casting calls very complicated. The rest of the cast rounds out very nicely. The biggest surprise of all is Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin who finally returns to his villainous roots as an actor after starring for a decade as Det. Goren on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent". His first turn as the unmistakable zombie-like alien in 1997's "Men In Black" put him on the map and in the past nearly twenty years since that film was released he's cultivated quite an eclectic resume in both Film and TV. Kingpin is a towering (literally and figuratively) presence in the comics as he takes on many characteristics from the X-Men villain The Blob in that he is nearly indestructible in hand to hand combat and his strength is at near-super human levels.
The best thing about the show thus far is how the character interplay and dynamics are explored. The most potent thing, something that the comics have also touched on is that Fisk and Murdock are essentially cut from the same cloth. Fisk perpetuates crime and disorder as a way to preserve "his city", having grown up on the mean streets and finding a kind of kindred spirit in it like he owes an insurmountable debt. Murdock, on the other hand, doesn't see logic in the chaos and rampant destruction as his morality is routinely tested whether or not his law firm ought to represent those innocent until proven guilty or those that are squarely guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. By no means does Murdock think he is doing "the lord's work" by cleaning up the streets or trying to, he sees it as a soul cleanse to atone for his dad's past unsavory activities that cost him his life and to gain a new lease on his own existence, however fallible his approach may be. Foggy Nelson, played exceedingly well by Elden Henson who is well-known for his dramatic turns in "Lords of Dogtown" and "The Butterfly Effect", allows for an adept counterbalance between Murdock's more melancholic worldview and being an overall do-gooder with purity of intent. Sure, they scuffle and butt heads but at the end of the day, they do unite in surprising and occasionally humorous ways. Foggy is not only there for moral support but also as this show's ray of light that keeps the tone of the entire show even and its rewards earned.
One of the most brilliant elements of the first five episodes was the careful and foreboding introduction of Fisk. Instead of introducing the show's trump card in the first episode front and center, Goddard & Co. wisely teased him until the end of the third EP and only in the first EP did you hear his voice off-camera via speakerphone in a chilling limousine conversation. Then, when we do finally meet him, it is at an art gallery and he appears not only lonely but reserved, broken and, oddly enough, extremely nervous. D'Onofrio and the writers' unearth a wellspring of soul in him that makes you sympathize immediately. Later, when he decapitates one of his thugs using just a car door for ramifications of that John Doe screwing up his date that was going very well but takes a downturn after his criminal skeletons come to the surface in front of her, we really see Fisk in that moment take ownership of his lot in life and the intricate reputation he has cultivated for himself. D'Onofrio's subtlety is what makes him a lethal force and acts counterpoint to the late Michael Clarke Duncan's over-acted and far too hammy version of him in the film version.
All in all, I cannot wait to buzz through the remaining episodes and anxiously await the Season 2 premiere. Forget about "Arrow", the CW network's most tonally consistent show that this can best be compared to. "Daredevil" is far and away the strongest representation of this character that faithfully honors the mythology and the distinct source material. If you need another moving picture fix, checkout the episodes featuring Daredevil in the fondly remembered 1990's series "Spiderman: The Animated Series" for a healthy dose to prepare you for the next season. I know I will.