Courtesy of Netflix and Marvel Television Studios, Matt Murdoch aka Daredevil is the newest entry into the realm of superheroes making the leap from paper to the small screen. Frankly, I could not be happier with this turn of events.
It’s an odd feeling for me. I’m often the first in line to complain about superhero stories taking over everything while offering nothing but cerebral indigestion. Yet the first three episodes of Daredevil, which for the sake of this review I’ll consider to be the series’ first act, gives me something that Agents of SHIELD couldn’t do with an entire season: a reason to give a damn.
Superheroes, despite outward appearances, resonate with their audiences because they are a criticism of the status quo. For example, Steve Rogers is a reminder that America is getting further away from the progressive politics of Roosevelt and closer to the bad-old-days of Herbert Hoover. An audience identifies with Cap because he believes in something greater than the institutions of the current day. This is why I found Agents of SHIELD to be such an alienating concept.
I want a hero story to break my cynicism. It needs to make me believe in some sort of lofty ideal. Gods help us all when our idealism has to look to SHIELD aka the Team America: World Police for nourishment. By comparison, the blind lawyer of Hell’s Kitchen is a spot-on criticism of everything that’s wrong with America while also offering idealism amid the pragmatism of his vigilantism. That’s a lot of ‘isms.
Where the likes of Tony Stark might try to help people in a conceptual sense, all the while living in the lap of luxury, Netflix’s Matt Murdoch wants to help actual people. As “the man in black” – not yet donning the mantle of Daredevil, he fights for the poor and dispossessed people of Hell’s Kitchen. These are the folks who would otherwise be victims of organized crime and the looming gentrification (a side-effect the private sector rebuilding New York in the wake of the Chitauri invasion of The Avengers) of the traditionally working-class Midtown West.
Likewise, Nelson and Murdoch, attorneys at law, mobilize in about twenty minutes the kind of empathy that Michael Clayton took two hours to produce. Amid a culture where the divide between those who benefit from the system and those crushed under its weight is ever-present, the idea of inner-city lawyers fighting the good fight has become even more resonant since Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Bill Everett created the man without fear in 1964. Everything about the introduction to Charlie Cox’s Daredevil pulls at an audience’s desire to see a champion for real people.
In terms of Daredevil’s visual style, the series is a considerable departure from the clean-cut, everything-is-awesome look of the movies. Even when Captain America was in hiding during The Winter Soldier, the film presented a character besotted with all the best assets of society and a high-tech paramilitary organization. In comparison, Daredevil’s costume is, so far, a black shirt, jeans, and a mask. Even armed with his enhanced senses and righteous indignation, Matt Murdoch manages to take as many beatings as he dishes out. Indeed, the second episode begins with “The Man in Black” being tossed, half-dead, into a dumpster.
In some ways the series feels more high-stakes than the rest of the MCU. It’s not like anybody thought Loki might beat the Avengers. The bad guy is not going to win in a summer blockbuster movie. In the case of Daredevil, Wilson Fisk could conceivably triumph despite Matt Murdoch’s best efforts. Murdoch isn’t simply a crime fighter or a symbol for the good people of Gotham, he’s part of a dialogue on the rights of the individual versus the rights of a nation where corporations are people. Beating Wilson Fisk is about bringing down said system. Likewise, Karen Page, played by True Blood alumna Deborah Ann Woll, will only find justice for the crimes that brought her into the offices of Nelson and Murdoch through the idealism of the fifth estate as a watchdog for society. These are not battles easily won.
More so than anything else I’ve seen in the MCU, Daredevil is grounding its story in an all too familiar reality, and underwriting its world with some resonant symbolism and thoughtful ideas. There is a sense of consequence to the slow burn of Daredevil that is absent from most super hero adaptations. Finally, Daredevil is proof that a dark story is not mutually exclusive of an idealistic hero.
- I don’t normally care about opening title sequences, but this one is amazing.
- A few people have talked Daredevil going to the well of “women being rescued” a little too often. For now, I’m giving it a pass on that front. These scenes are not about gender-specific helplessness so much as a reflection of the people who are commonly the victims of human trafficking and organized crime.
- Foggy Nelson’s mother clearly didn’t like him that much to name him Foggy.
- Only in a comic book universe could a murder charge go to trial and be resolved inside of a week.