We’re awash in live-action adaptations of comic books lately, including several TV shows. But Netflix’s new Daredevil series still feels like something special. It pulls no punches, never winks at the audience, and perfectly captures the feel of the best Daredevil comics. Here’s our spoiler-free review.
We’ve seen the first five episodes of Daredevil, out of 13 total, and I can already tell that there will be a lot of people staying up really really late on Friday night, after it appears on Netflix. The series thus far definitely has the feeling of being a roughly 12-hour movie, with each episode sort of standing on its own but also building up a dark, intense ongoing story.
And even though I’ve loved a lot of live-action comics adaptations on television lately — especially Arrow — it’s sort of a jolt to see one that’s stripped of a lot of the sentimentality and narrative coziness that still comes with broadcast TV. Not only is the violence a lot more brutal in Daredevil, but the characters are allowed to be slightly more honest and less melodramatic. There are still likable characters, and strong emotions, but it’s a bit less overplayed than on network TV.
So in case you’ve never read a Daredevil comic, here’s the basic premise. Matthew Murdock is an attorney who was blinded as a child, in an accident with toxic chemicals. Now he practises law and defends the helpless, but also fights crime in a mask at night, using his enhanced senses to compensate for his lack of sight.
So Daredevil has superpowers, but he’s not invulnerable and he can’t fly. In fact, he seems pretty breakable, in this series, which makes everything a lot more interesting.
The Daredevil series does a pretty great job of capturing just what makes a good superhero comic so addictive. Including the highly serialized storytelling, the focus on soap-operatics alongside ongoing villainy, the beautiful use of panel layouts to frame a perfect image, the stylized violence, and the driving sense of a mission statement that can never be completed. It’s all pretty much there.
And it’s impossible to talk about the Daredevil series without mentioning Frank Miller, who wrote and/or drew some of the most important Daredevil comics. Frank Miller’s influence has been kind of a double-edged sword for live-action comics adaptations, because his visual style is so distinctive and stark and pulp-influenced — but too much Miller-inspired imagery can easily slide over into looking like pastiche.
The nice thing about Marvel’s new series is that it keeps its Miller tributes constant but subtle. There are lots of shots, here and there, that look like they could have been drawn by the man himself — but nothing that grabbed me by the hair and screamed, “HEY I’M A FRANK MILLER SHOUT-OUT” right in my ear. (The fact that it’s all filmed with real sets, rather than green-screen, also helps.)
And one thing about this show that really makes it stand out — the fight scenes feel more like brawls. When Daredevil is fighting one, or frequently several, guys, it feels like people are just swinging wildly. The fight scenes are beautiful and athletic, but don’t always feel “choreographed,” or at least there’s a messiness to them. And when the show gets seriously bloody, which it does from time to time, that feels like an extension of how kludgey the fight scenes are in general.
Once this series is out, there will be a lot of screencaps of beautiful individual shots, as well as GIFs of nicely put together sequences. The use of light and shadow, along with splashes of color, is beautiful in a way that feels comic-booky but not ostentatious about it.
And meanwhile, the Manhattan neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen mostly feels like a real location, with real dirty politics and real issues. This is Marvel’s first “street-level” series, where the focus is on urban crime, and it helps a lot that the location feels grounded and connected to the real world, albeit with notable differences. There are some great scenes of lawyering and courtroom drama, but also a nice “French Connection” vibe to some of the moments where people dig into corruption and crime. And it’s a major accomplishment that they managed to make Manhattan, gentrification and all, feel gritty, dirty and dangerous.
That said, Daredevil is not perfect, at all — in particular, it has the kind of pacing issues that a lot of Netflix series seem to have. Scenes are allowed to go on for a few minutes, purely because there’s no external pressure to cut them off. In fact, some of those fight scenes felt like they went on a minute too long, despite being beautiful to watch.
The slow pace is mostly a good thing, because it lets the characters breathe and keeps the scenes from feeling like shorthand (as scenes often do on regular TV) — but it also means you get people bantering about something for a long stretch, just because there was no reason to cut that. (Also, another gripe is that this show definitely comes down on the “torture works” side of things, but that does go along with its pulp roots somewhat.)
And that’s the final thing about this show — the characters are fantastic. The writing is sharp and funny in a way that doesn’t clash with the noirish, pulp-hero tone. (The writing staff includes three Buffy the Vampire Slayer veterans, and it shows.) And the cast is pretty much spot-on, especially Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple... and Vincent D’Onofrio, pretty much embodying the Wilson Fisk you always pictured in your head from the comics.
The Daredevil series, at least based on the first five installments, is one of the best encapsulations of a lot of superheroic themes that I’ve seen thus far in live-action. It features a deeply flawed hero, whose mission is painfully open-ended and who’s in danger of losing his soul in the fight against people massively more powerful than himself. It’s a must-watch, not just for fans of the comic or of superhero comics, but for anyone who loves great action movies or great heroic narratives.
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