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Daredevil by Marvel Entertainment/Netflix
Review by Drew Bittner
Marvel Entertainment  
Date: 29 April 2015

Links: IMDB Entry /

Hell's Kitchen has seen better days. Following "the incident" (i.e., the alien invasion seen in The Avengers), New York is rebuilding...and changing. Old neighborhoods are being torn down, the tenants evicted and their lives uprooted, to achieve a shadowy businessman's dream. Only a handful of people dare stand in his way. One of them wears a mask.

Daredevil
CAST:
Charlie Cox – Matt Murdock/Daredevil
Deborah Ann Woll – Karen Page
Elden Henson – Foggy Nelson
Vincent D’Onofrio – Wilson Fisk
Toby Leonard Moore – James Wesley
Vondie Curtis-Hall – Ben Urich
Bob Gunton – Leland Owsley
Ayelet Zurer – Vanessa Marianna
Rosario Dawson – Claire Temple

A collaboration between Netflix and Marvel Entertainment, Daredevil is the story of Matt Murdock (Cox), a young lawyer whose blindness is offset by the superhuman amplification of his other senses. The dichotomy of his life--officer of the court by day and agent of justice by night--tears him in opposing directions, and while his righteous wrath finds many targets, he struggles to reconcile his belief in the law with the injustices that law permits.

As the story opens, Matt and his longtime friend Franklin "Foggy" Nelson (Henson) are opening their own law practice. Fresh out of law school, they have no clients and no income--but they are quickly drawn into the battle for Hell's Kitchen when they defend Karen Page (Woll), who discovered something she wasn't supposed to see and was found by police next to a dead coworker. The bad guys are not done with her, however, and the three must take extraordinary steps to keep her safe.

The bad guys, represented early on by Wesley (Moore)--who refers to his "employer" when meeting with various underworld chiefs--are all in the orbit of a figure who is not seen; to speak his name to others is a death sentence. And so we learn that the plans for Hell's Kitchen are not as noble as they might seem.

Matt, wearing a homemade black outfit and mask, goes after the loose threads of this criminal conspiracy as he finds them. His first targets include the Russians who are trafficking in kidnap victims. He makes enemies of Vladimir (Nikolai Nikolaeff) and Anatole (Gideon Emery), two hardcore Russian Mafia brothers who also distribute heroin as their part of the criminal enterprise. But the crooks aren't his only enemies, as Matt soon learns that the police have been paid off by this crime boss as well; he cannot trust the courts or the media, either.

Karen, however, seeks out and enlists the help of Ben Urich (Curtis-Hall), veteran crime reporter for the New York Bulletin. Urich is an old hand at this, teaching the headstrong and impatient Karen about the fine art of building a case against the untouchable. His patience may seem plodding to her, but he knows how to do this. Digging for info, she helps an elderly woman, Mrs. Cardenas (Judith Delgado), whose home has been torn up by "workers" sent to drive her from her home. Karen enlists Foggy in helping her too, and the two young people form strong bonds of affection with the feisty older woman, who dotes on them as well.

When "the masked man" becomes enough of a nuisance, we finally see the central villain revealed: Wilson Fisk (D'Onofrio), a businessman whose vast fortune is derived from facilitating many criminal activities. He's trying to gentrify Hell's Kitchen, for reasons of his own, and is forced to take direct action when the masked man disrupts his plans.

Matt survives a dragnet by the Russians only narrowly, and with help from Claire Temple (Dawson), a compassionate nurse who finds him in dire straits. They develop a close bond, one that is nearly destroyed when the bad guys come too close, and she forces Matt to consider whether he is doing the right thing after all. In flashbacks, we see the events--including the death of his beloved father, boxer "Battlin’ Jack" Murdock (John Patrick Hayden), and his training at the hands of the cruel, callous Stick (Scott Glenn)--that shaped him into who he's become.

Fisk, meanwhile, discovers the delights of art with the help of Vanessa (Zurer), a gallery owner whose beauty and intelligence appeal to the lonely man. The horrors of his past are laid bare in a compelling episode, giving context to the volcanic fury seething beneath a placid exterior. For all that he seems cool and collected, Fisk is a barely-controlled force of wrath in an expensive suit...and his own associates see that he is losing control, bit by bit. The Russians, a representative from the Japanese Yakuza, an enigmatic Chinese woman named Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), a shady financier--all of those in his orbit have cause to worry as Fisk is distracted by this new relationship.

And one by one, the masked man pays each a visit, even as those Matt cares about suffer in turn. Foggy and Karen face terrible losses, of faith and friends, while the ranks of Fisk's allies are culled brutally. As Matt tries to dismantle the coalition from the outside, Fisk is forced to ever more violent means to correct the problem, especially when an unsuspected vulnerability comes to light.

The story pares down both sides, until it comes down to Matt and Fisk. There is one final confrontation that they must have, one that could decide the fate of Hell's Kitchen, one that could answer for all the deaths and ruined lives exacted along the way.

Simply put, Daredevil is one of Marvel's finest projects to date. It is a bold move, taking such a divergent tone from the movies that are celebrated worldwide; this show is brutally violent, grounded in real world street-fighting and savagery. It is not a show for children. That said, the violence is plentiful but not gratuitous, there are many scenes of Matt (especially) being patched up after his harder fights and then not healing as patiently as he should, and the language is a bit more raw as well without being excessive.

What makes all of this possible is Netflix. The show's producers are able to deliver an entire season of thirteen episodes, all of them nearly an hour long with no commercials, so that viewers can binge-watch and see an entire story in the course of a few nights. This is brilliant. The show becomes immersive, sparking conversations driven by comparing moments between episodes while they are fresh in one's mind; the show demands repeat viewing but also works as one integrated viewing experience better than many TV show seasons. Show creators Steven DeKnight and Drew Goddard--veterans of programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer--have created a master class in the next evolution of television.

And what a story they have to tell.

Charlie Cox, seen in Stardust and Boardwalk Empire, is pitch perfect as Matt Murdock. He is trying to learn how to apply his skills, both lawyerly and martial, to make the world a better place. He believes in the people of Hell's Kitchen and has chosen to protect their freedom against the rich and powerful; Cox's conviction, stillness and gravity draw the viewer into Matt's perspective, engaging our empathy even as Fisk tries to engage our reason. Cox is also a formidable physical presence, managing exhausting fight scenes with grace akin to a ballet dancer. This is a level of physical skill and performance that raises the bar for all Marvel productions going forward, and is the embodiment of what fans most want to see in Daredevil. He just absolutely nails it.

Cox's hero might be diminished, however, without a worthy enemy. Vincent D'Onofrio is revelatory as Wilson Fisk. A large and dominating actor, D'Onofrio does not let his physical presence carry his performance. He is canny and subtle, showing the world a quiet and thoughtful figure who is the center of a massive criminal conspiracy. And when that façade slips--he is truly terrifying. His Fisk is much like Shere Khan from The Jungle Book, a figure of calm reserve..until he isn't, and the murderous rage beneath is unleashed. There are a handful of moments when Fisk becomes abjectly horrific, and it is D'Onofrio's mastery as an actor that makes this monster recognizably human and even sympathetic.

As Karen Page, Deborah Ann Woll is the moral compass of the good guys. She becomes obsessed with bringing down Fisk and getting justice for his many victims. A study in vulnerability and indomitable will, Woll brings great complexity to a role that in lesser hands might have misfired; her Karen is a strong-minded woman who will not be discouraged, even at the risk of his own life. Her faith in Foggy and Matt is sorely tested, and the consequences of her actions threaten to shatter her resolve, but she is the one most committed to beating the bad guys, whatever that takes. And she’s more than willing to pay the price herself. Ms. Woll’s Karen is exactly the person Matt Murdock needs on his side.

Foggy Nelson is Matt's friend and partner, but there are things that can wreck even the most solid friendship. Eldon Henson is a happy, upbeat, and sunny presence in the show, the one who brings a smile when he's on screen, such that when bad things happen and his optimism collides with shattering reality, it becomes even more painful to see the good guys struggle. Henson evokes both with his portrayal, and if television ever showed why good guys need a best friend, this is why.

There are so many other brilliant performances--Bob Gunton as snarky financier Leland Owsley, Vondie Curtis-Hall as unflappable and brave Ben Urich, Ayelet Zurer as the fierce Vanessa, Rosario Dawson as Matt's confidante and one-woman trauma center Claire, Toby Leonard Moore as Fisk's skillful and gracious aide James Wesley--that the show is a treasure trove of amazing performances and strongly drawn characters. There is vastly more story than the synopsis describes above--we're talking about the equivalent of five or six full-length movies after all--but it is so worth exploring for oneself.

It is hard to overstate what a game-changer this could be for Marvel. Daredevil is not just the first of a cycle of five miniseries (although it is that too); it also represents a platform that could become invaluable to them as a launching pad for their properties. Daredevil has already been greenlit for a second season, which is unsurprising given Netflix added nearly five million new subscribers shortly before the series began (coincidence? certainly not). It is already an enormous success. But what will be interesting is seeing what that success means for future projects. Ask a fan and they will give you a list of the characters that they would like to see brought to the screen--and the partnership with Netflix may give Marvel a superlative channel for realizing those ambitions.

If this comes to pass, and millions of fans are eager to support Marvel's success in this venture, that would make possible a realization of the Marvel Universe beyond what any fan might have imagined.

For now, however, let's stay grounded as our newest hero. Daredevil is, as said before, one of the finest productions yet from Marvel. It is groundbreaking, it is astonishing, it is unlike anything they have done before--and it is hopefully a harbinger of Marvel taking glorious, thrilling chances. Their name has become a byword for quality. With shows like this, the future of that brand is very bright indeed.

Highly recommended.

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