Daredevil: Hell’s Kitchen gets its hero in a worthy series

NOTE: While I’m going to try and keep this review as spoiler free as possible for those who haven’t seen all 13 episodes for the Netflix series, some minor ones may creep in here and there. For the most part, this will be a general, overall review of the entire series, without taking each plot point in turn for the individual episodes.

Daredevil leapt off the comic book pages to the big screen in 2003 and wasn’t overly received well by either fans or critics. Some complained that Ben Affleck just wasn’t right for the role of Matt Murdock, that Michael Clarke Duncan brought nothing to the role of Wilson Fisk (aka The Kingpin) other than his size, that Colin Farrell was a bit over the top as Bullseye, and that Jennifer Garner’s Elektra missed the mark. Overall, I never felt the movie was as bad as others did, though the more I read of the comics based on the characters the more issues I had with the movie. It’s certainly not the worst comic book based film out there (that dubious honor may reside with Jonah Hex) but, in my opinion, it does fall towards the lower end of the spectrum. Marvel’s answer to DC’s Batman deserved better, and it would take another 12 years for Daredevil to get his due.

The 13 episode series from Netflix proved to worthy of the titular character. The first season proved that Daredevil might be better suited to a television series format rather than a single two hour movie, and being shown on Netflix rather than regular cable allowed the series to go darker than it might have been able to otherwise. And there definitely were some very dark moments, from the violence (one character gets his head smashed in with a car door and another impales himself on a metal spike) to the overall tone of corruption and seediness in the neighborhoods of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. This gave the series a grittiness than wasn’t possible in the ABC series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D or Agent Carter, and one that wasn’t even shown in any of the big screen Marvel movies. This sets Daredevil apart and gives it its own identity within the MCU, even though the show does establish its ties to that larger cinematic universe. The series is set after the Chitauri invasion of New York that was shown in The Avengers (referred here as “The Incident”) and there is an offhand reference to Thor’s hammer and Stark’s Iron Man suit. But that was it, as it set out to carve its own path rather than constantly remind us that it’s tied to a much larger universe, as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D does. And that’s a very good thing, as Daredevil proves it needs only its characters to keep you invested.

One of Daredevil’s greatest strengths is its cast. Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) is excellent in the lead role of Matt Murdock, bringing some nice humor in his relationship with Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and a suitable gravitas in his courtroom/dramatic scenes as well as having the physicality to pull off the well staged fight scenes throughout the series. It was nice to see Murdock not portrayed as superhuman, as he often took as much punishment as he doled out to the bad guys. One memorable fight scene takes place in the second episode in a hallway as a bruised and battered Murdock takes on Russian mobsters in an effort to save a kidnapped boy. The fight plays out as one long extended cut and is brutal in its execution. While we see Murdock in his vigilante guise in a black outfit for most of the series, the character’s trademark red costume does make its appearance in the finale, created for Murdock by Melvin Potter (Matt Gerald), a name that will be familiar to comic book fans as Gladiator. The series traces Murdock’s origin story through flashbacks, showing us the initial accident that blinded him as a boy and his coming to grips with his heightened senses and learning to fight through the aid of Stick (a terrific Scott Glenn). Cox also plays nicely off his relationship with nurse Claire (Rosario Dawson) who gets pulled into his world, and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll from True Blood), a woman who serves as Matt and Foggy’s first case who then joins the firm as their secretary. Woll brings a lot to her character, and makes her far more than just a damsel in distress, showing in a couple of scenes her will to survive in bad situations. The season doesn’t quite touch on the same relationship the character has with Matt in the comics, but hints of that are shown towards the end and may be explored if the series gets renewed for a second season.

On the flip side, we get a terrific performance by Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk. D’Onofrio’s take on the character is nicely nuanced and more layered than one might expect. Fisk isn’t quite the Kingpin yet, but the foundations are laid for him to transform into Hell’s Kitchen’s crime boss. Flashbacks again fill us in nicely on Fisk’s past, including a brutal violent act, and we get to view him in a more sympathetic light in his relationship with art gallery worker Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer). Fisk surrounds himself with shady characters, all of which are well done and never feel like they’re one dimensional. Right hand man Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) brings a cultured menace to the screen, remaining calm even in the face of volatile partners in crime like the Russian brothers Anatoly (Gideon Emery) and Dmitry (Tony Naumovski). Fisk also deals with his money man Leland Owlsley (Bob Gunton), a man whose ambitions easily conflict with loyalty. Nobu (Peter Shinkoda) shows some ties with The Hand, and heroin trafficker Madame Gao shows some ties to Iron Fist. All prove to be well cast and make some devilish obstacles to get in the way of Murdock’s plan to clean up the city. We also get a great side character in reporter Ben Ulrich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), a crusader with a nice side story of his wife suffering from what seems to be Alzheimer’s. Ulrich proves crucial in helping Karen and her bosses in their quest to take Fisk down, and again we get a multilayered character instead of one who is just one note. That so many good characters and performances were packed into the 13 episodes is a testament to the strong writing from Bill Everett, Drew Goddard, Stan Lee, and drawing on the work of Frank Miller.

Overall, the series started off strong and ended strong. Filled with nuanced, layered characters and performances, great action scenes, and touches of humor make Daredevil one of the best comic book based series to date. Things aren’t presented in stark terms of black and white but in various shades of grey, with Fisk genuinely believing his actions will lead to making the city a better place, while Matt finds himself having to stoop to brutal tactics in order to accomplish his task of saving the city. This leads to us sometimes even rooting for the “bad guy” as Fisk is very sympathetic in spots, especially in his relationship with Vanessa, though he shows off how dangerous he can be in other scenes that showcase his penchant for violence. It all leads to a satisfying conclusion, an done that lays the foundation for more of Daredevil’s exploits. There is a wealth of material in the comics to draw from, and a serialized format seems to be the best way to explore that. Hopefully a renewal announcement will be made shortly, as this is one series that definitely deserves to carry on. Comic book fans will want to check this out, either now while the 13 episodes are available on Netflix for binge viewing pleasure or when it’s inevitably released to home video. Daredevil is well worth your time. Hopefully this is an indicator of the quality of the other Marvel series coming to Netflix, and just another reason why it currently is a great time to be a comic book fan.

 

9.5/10

Thomas Juretus

Born in 1963. Enjoy videogames, movies, comics- anything that tells a story. Have written three novels (The Zarchler Chronicles Book One: The Cassandra Crisis, Shalgroth The Zarchler Chronicles: Book Two, Madman's War The Zarchler Chronicles: Book Three) all published and available through PublishAmerica. Currently working on my fourth book, a sci-fi/murder mystery.

Thomas Juretus

Born in 1963. Enjoy videogames, movies, comics- anything that tells a story. Have written three novels (The Zarchler Chronicles Book One: The Cassandra Crisis, Shalgroth The Zarchler Chronicles: Book Two, Madman's War The Zarchler Chronicles: Book Three) all published and available through PublishAmerica. Currently working on my fourth book, a sci-fi/murder mystery.

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