Monday, April 27, 2015

TV Review: Marvel's Daredevil

One of things that all the current crop of superhero shows - an ever increasing list, looking forward to next autumn - is that they all seem to want to stay safely middle-of-the-road. Most of them wear their superheroic costumes over well-established formats - The Flash's "freak of the week", Arrow's soap operatic character work, Gotham's crime procedural roots - and for the most part it works pretty well for them. And why shouldn't they? After all, "comics" isn't a genre, it's a format, and it's adaptations would do well to remember that. But the other thing they have in common is that by and large they're staying mass market, middle-of-the-road sort of shows on major networks. It wasn't until Netflix picked up Daredevil that we would see a superhero show wearing it's costume over a different sort of skin, that of the "quality, cable" end of the spectrum. So it was always going to be something a little bit different. 

I'm not that familiar with the Daredevil mythos - I've seen the Ben Affleck movie, which everyone seems to hate and I don't really remember that well, and I've read the occasional run in the comics. Outside of the big names, many of which don't even appear in this first series, I couldn't tell you much about Matt Murdock and his crime fighting ways, so I can't comment on how faithful, or accurate this is an adaptation. But the basic setup is straight forward enough; blinded as a child, Matt developed superhuman senses and after losing his father at an early age was trained up as a kick-ass fighter, and takes to vigilantism to oppose crime and corruption in Hells Kitchen, New York. The show gives him allies in old freind Foggy Nelson, and new friend Karen Page, and opposition in the shape of Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin. 

The first half-dozen or so episodes of Daredevil are like no other superhero show that I've seen. They're dark, violent, and ultimately rooted in character development, with a slower, moodier pace than I've seen elsewhere. Wilson Fisk becomes the stand-out character here, looming as a off-screen threat for a couple of episodes before striding into the centre stage, an utterly compelling performance that is, I suspect, a simple casting error away from catastrophically bad. But the casting is right, and the performance is right, and making Fisk a surprisingly empathetic character, giving him love, and friends, and a vision, is Daredevil's single smartest move. It feels like it wants to say Matt and Wilson aren't mirrors, they're the same. 

Daredevil also manages to dodge a lot of the pitfalls that dog some of it's peers. There is no element of origin for Matt, so his story is one of making peace with the path he's already on. Karen neatly avoids the "destined girlfriend" problem by having her own plot from the get go, and the dynamic between her, Matt and Foggy is a consistent joy, even as it falls apart.  The story itself manages to unfold pretty elegantly, with characters on both sides making poor decisions based on the information they have, so the situation in Hells Kitchen moves beyond anyones control. The better pacing, and better focus, means that hardly any of the main characters are short of depth, and even the most hateful characters get occasional moments of humanity, even as most of our heroes get moments of being jerks. 

In the end I only have two real criticisms of Daredevil. The first is that as it goes along it starts to feel more conventional, and moves away from sorts of shows it aspires to be counted alongside and back towards more familiar ground. Tone and excellent character work carry it through this, but once you're fighting ninjas in an abandoned warehouse, maybe you're not as distinctive as you think you are. The second is that right at the end, we were owned a better final showdown than the utterly conventional one we got. I can't say much more, but I felt it was a shame. 

This is the first show in a series that Marvel are making for Netflix - and if this is their warm-up, then I really look forward to the rest. It's a significant move for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too, producing something away from it's usual PG-13 (12A) fare, and proof that they can do that successfully. It is - slight reservations aside - an excellent series, and well worth seeing if you get the chance.