Superhero comics made an awkward lurch toward social relevance in the ’70s, with heavy-handed stories about drugs and racism; but the genre really started to mature in the ’80s, when a handful of writers and artists embraced their pulp roots. At Marvel, Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men comics and Frank Miller’s version of Daredevil elevated the medium via twisty, fast-paced storytelling, and a willingness to take the life-and-death stakes of superheroes’ lives seriously. These books were entertaining first and foremost, and developed their deeper themes organically, by sharpening the focus on the characters and their worlds.
Superhero television is now at the kind of crossroads that comics reached circa 1980. In comics, the previous decade’s wave of adult-oriented genre fare and undergrounds showed that there was both a way to produce more sophisticated work and an audience for the outcome. With TV, the massive success of superhero movies in the 2010s has proven that millions of people worldwide are willing to take the genre fairly straight, with all the trappings from the comics—costumes, powers, crazy villains—that live-action adventures tried to avoid for so many years. The “no tights, no fights” mandate of shows like Smallville is fading fast. It’s a post-Flash, post-Avengers mass media landscape now. Writers, directors, and producers can be as faithful as they want to be.
The Netflix drama Marvel’s Daredevil is remarkably faithful—perhaps to a fault. The series was developed by The Cabin In The Woods and Cloverfield screenwriter Drew Goddard (who’s worked on several Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams projects, including Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Alias), with showrunning duties handled by Spartacus writer/producer Steven S. DeKnight (another graduate of the Whedonverse). These two savvy creators are committed to bringing seriousness, imagination, and visual flair to action-fantasy.
Their Daredevil is an amalgam of different eras of the Marvel comic, taking elements that pre-date and post-date Frank Miller’s ’80s run. Boardwalk Empire’s Charlie Cox stars as Matt Murdock, a poor boxer’s son who was blinded by a freak childhood accident that left him with heightened senses. As the series begins, Murdock is starting his first law practice with his sweet, somewhat goofy best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), while spending his spending his evenings donning a black bandana and fighting crime in their crumbling Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
In the five episodes Netflix has made available to critics, the show’s writers move a lot of the comic’s familiar pieces into place. Matt and Foggy’s first client is Karen Page (True Blood’s Deborah Ann Woll), who later becomes their secretary. In her off-hours, Karen looks into the malfeasance of her old employer, and enlists the help of burned-out crime reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall). Meanwhile, Matt’s nocturnal adventures lead him to the apartment of sympathetic nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). And hovering just above the fray is Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. “Kingpin” (Vincent D’Onofrio), a millionaire businessman with not-so-secret mob ties and a touching schoolboy crush on local art gallery owner Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer).
Fans of the comics should appreciate the clear intent here to make a superhero series that doesn’t deviate too much from the source, or pull too many punches. This is a hard PG-13 (bordering on R-rated) Daredevil, with smatterings of profanity and near-nudity, and a level of blood and gore previously unseen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nearly every episode builds to a brutal action set piece, with either the masked Matt or some criminal lackey beating the snot of an adversary, in sequences choreographed and shot for maximum visceral impact.
Overall, Daredevil has an appropriately dark and grubby look, established in the first episode by director Phil Abraham (who has directed several Mad Men episodes, and was one of The Sopranos’ primary cinematographers) and cinematographer Matt Lloyd (who also shot the fine-looking films Robot & Frank and The Better Angels). The fight scenes are even grimmer, with minimal editing and ample goo. The show’s creative team has translated the kineticism of superhero action to the screen in impressive ways, akin to lean Hong Kong cops-and-robbers pictures.
What they haven’t done is make great television.
The failings of Netflix’s Daredevil may just be inherent to some kinds of made-for-streaming series. Like Amazon’s disappointing Bosch, Daredevil isn’t structured or paced like episodic TV (though it’s broken up into fairly uniform 50-minute installments, for no real reason beyond convention). This show is made to be binged, which means it doesn’t seem obliged to conform to the usual dramatic arcs that TV writers use to pull viewers through commercial breaks, and to keep them tuning in from week to week. Through the first five episodes at least, the various plots and subplots—most of them involving gang wars and shady business dealings that inflict collateral damage on the residents of Hell’s Kitchen—aren’t compelling or original enough to earn an active “Yes, I’d like to see more of this.” Instead, what Daredevil has are one or two moments per episode that may be exciting or promising enough to keep Neflix subscribers from hitting the stop button before the next episode auto-plays.
Besides the blood-streaked action sequences, Daredevil’s bread-and-butter is long, muted conversations, and a few of these do represent the show at its best. When Matt tells Claire that he can tell she’s bleeding because “I can taste the copper in the air,” or when Kingpin explains his vision for a more orderly New York to Vanessa, these kinds of deep character beats can round out a TV drama. Daredevil’s cast is good-to-great (Cox and D’Onofrio especially), and some of the strongest material here has hardly anything to do with superheroics, such as Matt’s occasional confessions to his priest. The writers have a good sense of the real conflict at the heart of the series, which has to do with the hero’s worry that by inserting himself into a battle between crime bosses, he’s inadvertently becoming one of their soldiers.
But like too many genre shows with a prestige patina, Daredevil lacks dynamism. It initially seems like a bold choice to allow scenes to play out much longer and quieter than they would on regular TV, but that stylistic tic eventually becomes enervating. When nearly every non-fight scene is long and quiet, the result is a self-indulgent ponderousness.
Some of that sobriety comes woven-in to the material. Daredevil shouldn’t be Guardians Of The Galaxy, after all. Still, the best runs on the Daredevil comics—Miller’s for sure, but also writer Brian Michael Bendis’ long stretch, and writer Mark Waid’s recent award-winning take—include moments of levity and passion mostly missing from DeKnight and company’s cooler spin. The people in charge of this show are hardly hacks. Even viewers who aren’t aware of Spartacus or Angel should recognize some fine writing in scenes like the one where Matt’s senses are overwhelmed by the sound of a city in pain, or when he explains that he perceives the world as sensory fragments that he arranges into “an impressionistic painting.” But it’s hard to ignore that, liberated from the demands of advertisers and weekly ratings, Daredevil’s creative team has produced something with very little sense of urgency.
Netflix’s Daredevil is the first of a block of interconnected streaming series set in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. (Daredevil’s most overt nod to the MCU comes early, when Matt and Foggy talk about renting an office on a street heavily damaged by The Avengers’ big battle.) All of the upcoming shows look to be in the same gritty, martial-arts-dotted, noir-inflected vein—which means they may all end up being a lot like Daredevil. That’ll probably be okay with most Marvel fans, given that there’s plenty of the comics’ flavor and just enough thrilling action in this initial effort.
But Daredevil’s opening credits—which show the hero’s eventual costume being formed from what looks like molten wax—promises something with a little more sense of play, that doesn’t try so hard to be heavy. Maybe by episode 13, that more confident, enjoyable Daredevil will finally emerge. And maybe the rest of Netflix’s MCU shows will follow from there, ready to prove their maturity through taut narratives, not just raw violence.