After sprawling across movie screens, network television shows, and the pages of countless comic books, the Marvel Universe has finally made its way to Netflix. Daredevil, the first of four binge-ready Marvel superhero shows, debuts on the streaming service today, and even though it connects to the larger Universe, it doesn’t look anything like the Marvel you’ve seen before.
This is not a story about brightly-colored superheroes flying through the sky to save the universe. As is the case in the comics, the lens of Daredevil is far more narrow and noir, focusing on an inexperienced hero trying to save his city inch by inch, through gruesome hand-to-hand fights with criminals that would never show up on Thor’s radar. “The stories we’re telling on Netflix are about more street-level heroes,” says Jeph Loeb, Marvel Entertainment’s head of television, who cites the Daredevil comics that he, Frank Miller, and Brian Michael Bendis wrote as influences for the show. “They’re here to save the neighborhood.”
For Daredevil, that neighborhood is Hell’s Kitchen, an area of New York City that was torn apart by the climactic battle of the 2012 film The Avengers. Although the good guys won the day, many New Yorkers are still trying to pick up the pieces in the wreckage that was left behind, and plenty of opportunistic villains without superpowers have arrived to prey on the people rebuilding their lives in the rubble.
“The stories we’re telling on Netflix are about more street-level heroes.” —Jeph Loeb
If you’ve never read the comic books—or seen the laughably bad 2003 DD film starring Ben Affleck—never fear: The new Netflix series starts at the beginning, just as he’s venturing into vigilantism. Young Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is about to kick-start two very different careers: attorney by day, and superhero by night. While he’s launching a law practice with his best friend, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), and taking the case of a seemingly doomed murder suspect named Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), he’s secretly making his first forays into the world of vigilante justice, dressed not in his iconic red costume, but practical head-to-toe black.
Oh, and he’s blind. But his “disability” actually provides him with his superpower. After losing his vision in a chemical accident as a child—part of an origin story that is seen in flashbacks throughout the first few episodes—Murdock’s other senses were intensified to superhuman levels, allowing him to sense his enemies and their attacks through minute sounds, vibrations, and even changes in air pressure. Naturally, he’s also an expert fighter, pinballing through his foes with a blend of parkour, martial arts, and boxing that feels both acrobatic and unexpectedly brutal.
Viewers accustomed to the glossy, CGI brawls of films like The Avengers may be surprised by the sheer violence of Daredevil. Instead of rock ’em, sock ’em battles between nigh-omnipotent demigods, the debut season’s 13 episodes feature ugly, bare-knuckle brawls, filtered through the synesthetic lens of the hero’s enhanced perceptions. Bones splinter audibly into compound fractures that protrude from arms, knives scrape ominously across concrete, and punches land with the weight of baseball bats.
And then there’s the torture. Although it’s not unusual for comic heroes to resort to intimidation tactics—Batman has certainly been known to dangle a crook or two off a building—Daredevil doesn’t think twice about stringing a bad guy up on a roof and driving a sharp object into his eye. Indeed, he crosses the line to straight-up torture so quickly and so often that there are moments an onlooker might easily mistake him for a villain. Call Daredevil the 24 of Marvel television, with Matt Murdock as its unrepentant Jack Bauer.
Look a little deeper into Daredevil’s origin story, and it’s not hard to draw a straight line between his personal history of violence and his penchant for hands-on coercion. Murdock has a clean-cut, Ivy League exterior, but he’s also the son of a hard-nosed boxer, a working-class boy who spent far too many nights stitching his father’s face back together after a bad day in the ring. Although he made his living with his fists, Murdock’s father insisted that his son pursue education, rather than pugilism. The dual identities of lawyer and vigilante represent that psychic split, between the father he idealized and the ideal his father demanded of him, a way to live both lives rather than choosing between them.
Although it’s not unusual for comic heroes to resort to intimidation tactics, Daredevil doesn’t think twice about stringing a bad guy up on a roof and driving a sharp object into his eye.
“We all struggle with the person we want to be and who our parents wanted us to be, and that’s a universal story,” says Loeb. “He wants to become who his father dreamed of him being, this remarkable attorney. But he’s still his father’s son, and there’s a devil coiled up inside of him who does want to solve problems with his fists. So, how do the two sides of the coin live within this one person?”
The supporting cast includes Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), a nurse who serves as the hero’s obligatory love interest, and Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), an investigative reporter who wants to dig into the growing web of corruption in the city. His editor, who complains bitterly about bloggers making twice their salary “working at home in their underwear,” insists there’s no appetite for those kinds of stories in a post-Buzzfeed world. “It doesn’t sell papers, Ben,” he insists, before assigning Urich to survey New Yorkers about what color they’d like best for the new subway line.
The antagonists in Daredevil also seem well-suited to its smaller scope. The cabal of criminals who drive most of the violence in Hell’s Kitchen aren’t supervillains bent on world destruction, they’re wealthy real estate developers bent on gentrification. With much of Hell’s Kitchen still in shambles, they’re the ones profiting off the massive influx of reconstruction money and government contracts pouring into the city, transforming superhero mayhem into a profitable and growing criminal enterprise.
“Heroes and their consequences are why we have our current opportunities,” says one of them, pleased rather than perturbed at the idea that a new hero has emerged. “Every time one of these guys punches someone through a building, our margins go up 3 percent.”
But towering above them all is Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio), the shady businessman better known to comic book fans as the villain Kingpin. He’s interested in profit, but he also wants to rebuild Hell’s Kitchen as a thriving, upscale community—firmly within the grasp of his empire, of course. In many ways, he represents corporate America and perhaps even Silicon Valley, ready to steamroll over any of the little people who get in the way of his sleek, gleaming vision.
Much like Daredevil, Fisk is willing to do terrible things to achieve his goals, but believes that he’s doing them for the right reasons, that the ends justify the means. “The best villains don't know that they’re the villain,” says Loeb. “Fisk sees himself as the hero of the story. There’s a question of who is really good or bad. Therein lies the reason to watch the show.”