Back in early 2011 the future of the then-fledgling Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t all that exciting a prospect. They’d only released 3 movies so far that while financially successful, amounted to a couple of okay films and one disappointment. Fast forward a year and they were on top of the world off the back of the improved Thor and Captain America movies that ultimately led to the immensely entertaining The Avengers and its $1.5 billion box office. I’ve been keenly anticipating every Marvel studios movie since – with generally positive if not ecstatic results – but the most exciting thing to me that Marvel announced was a Daredevil TV show. This was one of the only 2 Marvel characters I ever read at length (the other being The Punisher), with the Brian Michael Bendis/Ed Brubaker runs in volume 2 standing as some of my favourite superhero comics. That they were opting for a series rather than a new movie gave the project a lot more potential, it wasn’t likely to just be a retelling of the origin story setting up for a hopeful sequel, they had the chance to tell a larger ongoing live-action superhero story the likes of which we haven’t really seen from their films yet. Not only that, this was going to be on Netflix, meaning that we’ll get the whole show in one so they don’t need to stick to a strict, episodic structure and it won’t suffer the content restrictions of network TV or PG-13 movies, allowing Marvel to dive into some darker territory potentially suitable to the character. Considering the high Marvel studios are on right now, this show should be amazing right? Well no it isn’t I’m afraid. I have to say that on the whole I found it to be a vast disappointment.
The main problem is that it’s just so darn slow, it’s really quite tedious at times and for long stretches at that. After the first couple of episodes killed my initial excitement I found myself putting on later ones whilst doing my ironing or making breakfast. I can’t imagine how any one managed to binge this in one weekend as they might other Netflix shows. It took me about 2 weeks in total to complete it. Honestly, had these been released once a week I’d have probably lasted less than a month. It’s a slog to get through this show, and that’s a real issue.
The principle cause of this is that this show takes the exact approach to its story that I didn’t want it to: it *is* an origin story, and it’s one that’s stretched out to 13 hours.
I really feel that creator Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) and showrunner Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus) could have dealt with the set-up in the first few episodes then led into an ongoing story – there’s a wealth of great source material to draw from. Instead they opt for a flashback-laced narrative that frequently gives us extended asides with supporting characters and very little in terms of actual plot advancement. The flashbacks mostly aren’t a problem in themselves, even if they cover some familiar territory, but swathes of the present day material aren’t anywhere near as interesting as they should be. The worst offender here is most unfortunately Matt Murdock’s best friend and business partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), who’s a character I’ve always liked in the comics but here is rendered rather irritating. Also Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), another long-standing comics character never justifies her extensive screen time. There are additionally a number of unmemorable side plots involving the criminal underworld Daredevil’s up against that never feel fully realised. Some of the episodes begin feeling they’re going to do a ‘monster-of-the-week’ type story but it never truly commits to that or to true serialisation. When all the episodes are released at once, Netflix don’t need to end on cliff-hangers or honestly try making every episode stand alone, they should surely want us to head straight to the next episode? Daredevil is uncomfortably somewhere in between, it’s as if they are trying to make standalone episodes but none are ever particularly satisfying.
It’s by no means all bad though, there’s plenty of good stuff to be found within. As Matt Murdock/Daredevil himself, Charlie Cox (Stardust) is just fine, bringing an appropriate level of both intensity and charm to the role. We mostly see him in Murdock mode, as I don’t know exactly how much of his Daredevil work is done by stunt doubles, but that’s all handled very smoothly. He’s a different kind of hero to the other Marvel characters we’ve seen so far, and indeed he teeters far further into anti-hero mode – we see him torture a bad guy not long in. I still was left wanting more from the character though, there’s precious few scenes featuring him actually working as a lawyer – this show had plenty of time to give us some courtroom drama where he gets a chance to use his heightened senses and sharp instincts but failed to deliver, and it could have resulted in some much needed comic relief.
As the show’s big bad guy Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin, Vincent D’Onofrio is unsurprisingly excellent. One area where Marvel has really struggled is to come up with decent villains; here they have their second great one after Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. I was initially concerned that Fisk was only appearing in early episodes for absurdly brief moments (literally seconds) but he gets his due later on. I’ve heard several critics point out that in our current TV climate of troubled male antiheroes Fisk might actually have been a more suitable protagonist for this show, and I find it hard to argue with that. Daredevil seems influenced by recent slow-burning shows like Breaking Bad, it unfortunately lacks any of that show’s addictive quality but undoubtedly has a compelling character in Fisk, whom they almost go out of their way to work on humanising.
The production values are impressively high too, and there’s been some real effort put into getting decent action scenes on a TV show. There’s an already lauded corridor fight scene in episode 2 that’s a real attention-grabber. I almost wish I hadn’t known about it before starting as I spent almost all of the otherwise uninteresting episode waiting for it to happen. There are other good action scenes throughout the show, if they are a little too infrequent.
The aspect of Daredevil that I really wanted to talk about though was its overall tone. Now I know, I’ve complained before about Marvel movies often feeling too similar to one another, but that’s in terms of their finales and set-pieces. It’s a shame that too few of their films get a chance to show any personality – with Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy coming closest – but like many others I felt it was quite telling that such a distinctive and talented filmmaker as Edgar Wright ultimately had to leave his Marvel project to be replaced by a more anonymous director. I do wonder if Marvel studios will ever make a truly great film as long as they enforce a level of conformity on their all their directors. On the other hand, the tonal uniformity does work on a different level in making these films genuinely feel like they could be taking place in the same world. This technique allows a technology-based human hero like Iron Man to join forces with a mythical fantasy figure like Thor without ever casting a doubt that they inhabit the same universe. Now I still think Marvel could – and should – allow directors to make more unique films under their banner, I don’t think a consistent tone in necessarily required for a shared universe, but Daredevil has left me questioning this notion more than I ever thought before.
Simply put, Daredevil is a far more serious than anything else in the MCU. It possesses a relentlessly dour tone, and is happy to ramp up the violence to R-rated levels. In fact I’m just going to come out and say it, it feels like they are attempting to replicate the “real-world superhero” atmosphere of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (there are supernatural elements to Daredevil but they’re infrequent and rarely dwelt upon). It’s fashionable now to bash the DC films for misunderstanding their comic-book characters and treating them over seriously but that’s exactly what Marvel has done here.
None of this is necessarily an issue in itself, in some ways it’s better to be reminded that even in a world full of superheroes there are still plenty of everyday people whose lives are not affected, and bad things like organized crime continue to occur. However, what my problem is, is that no-one in this show appears to live in the same world where a massive, world-threatening alien invasion just took place. The MCU is somewhere where people *know* there are other worlds out there and that super-powered beings exist. The characters in Daredevil even live in the same city, yet none of them seem even the slightest bit aware of this. Apparently the damage caused by the destruction in The Avengers plays a role in Fisk’s plan for Hell’s Kitchen, but I don’t recall anyone making much of a reference to the giant robot aliens. To re-iterate the Batman comparison, saying this Daredevil and The Avengers exist in the same city would be akin to DC asking us to accept that The Dark Knight and Green Lantern movies share a universe, a prospect I would have balked at.
I’m not asking for Marvel to go out of their way linking everything together, I don’t want a random appearance by Captain America in Daredevil. Marvel’s movies and shows should be able to exist and be enjoyed without requiring knowledge of their wider universe. Possessing that knowledge though, should enhance the experience of watching Marvel’s output, and sadly here it just hinders it. How jarring would it be if say, when Daredevil’s beating up some thugs on a rooftop one night a giant S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier passes overhead? But that’s supposed to be entirely plausable here. I’m sure there is a solution to this, and there are filmmakers out there ready, willing and able to give it a shot, but for the moment, Daredevil just doesn’t convincingly live in the MCU.
I really wanted to love this show, but it feels like Daredevil’s only getting started in the final minutes of the season, and in the time it’s taken to get there you could watch almost all of the Phase One movies. At the time of writing season 2 of Daredevil has already been announced with new showrunners and I sincerely hope that, now this whole extended set-up has been dealt with, they can start telling some decent stories with the character.