It’s odd that in our coinciding Golden Age of Television and Gold Rush of Superhero Entertainments, we’ve yet to see a truly great superhero television show. The medium of TV, after all, is a snug fit for the genre: Part of the charm of superhero comics is their narrative shagginess, the nutty contortions necessitated when telling the same episodic story for 40, 50, 77 years. The open-ended expanse of television seems an obvious home for this, but in recent years superhero television shows have either functioned as glorified ads for tentpole movie franchises, or off-ramps where less glamorous properties get dumped in faint hopes they’ll be pulled along by the insatiable rage for tights and fluttering newsprint.
Netflix’s Daredevil—the first season of which drops, in its entirety, Friday on Netflix—is a shock to the senses in a number of ways, but the first and biggest is that it’s really, really good. I’ve watched only the first five episodes, but so far Daredevil is the best superhero television show I’ve ever seen; more than that, it stands among the best screen ventures that Marvel has yet undertaken. It’s dark and gripping, smart and sure-footed, and takes itself and its audience seriously while avoiding either pretentious brooding or fanboy pandering. It’s also adventurous and different, in a way a show this good was always going to need to be. It’s the first modern small-screen comic adaptation that doesn’t seem to be lustily glancing at the multiplex.
For the uninitiated, Daredevil is the alter ego of Matt Murdock, do-gooder Hell’s Kitchen defense attorney and perpetually lapsing Catholic. A childhood accident blinded Murdock while abnormally heightening his remaining senses: He navigates the world by way of a sort of mystical sonar, in the courtroom he can hear people’s heartbeats to know if they’re lying, and his sensory overload has blessed him with superhuman balance and agility (plus a mastery of martial arts, this being a comic book). Come nightfall Murdock dons a silly red costume and becomes Daredevil, billy-club-wielding scourge of the New York underworld. To non-comics readers, Daredevil is still best-known as the subject of an awful Ben Affleck vehicle from 2003, a movie made while Marvel was still finding its footing in the movie game.
The lingering disgrace of that film has been a source of ongoing frustration to fans, because Daredevil is one of Marvel’s great creative treasures. The character debuted in 1964, officially credited to Stan Lee and Bill Everett, but Daredevil will always be the spiritual property of writer and illustrator Frank Miller, whose early-1980s run on the title is a landmark in Marvel’s storied history. Daredevil’s moral torment, gritty environs, and near-metaphysical obsession with crime and punishment served as an ideal staging ground for the kinetic rage that Miller brought to The Dark Knight Returns, his 1986 Batman graphic novel that’s among the most influential superhero comics ever written.
It’s fitting, then, that the reborn Daredevil bears closer resemblance to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (itself heavily influenced by Miller’s Batman) than any previous Marvel Studios undertaking. Daredevil is a glowering thriller that makes full use of its Netflix pedigree: It’s nearly impossible to imagine this show on network television, not least for its occasionally shocking violence. The hand-to-hand action sequences bear the heavy influence of Korean auteurs like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, and the show eschews cluttery CGI and cacophonous set pieces in favor of the more visceral carnage of fractures and lacerations. It’s not always for the faint of heart, but its intimacy feels less numbingly exploitative than the genially bloodless destruction that so often overtakes the last act of big-budget superhero movies.
Daredevil is a bloody show that also bleeds: It has more interest in human bodies than much recent Marvel fare, and more interest in human beings as well. It’s remarkably patient, resisting the urge to tell its viewers everything at once, a restraint largely enabled by the binge-y sprawl of the Netflix format. We see relationships between characters develop, blossom, and more often than not go south, in ways that feel more natural than simply as a vehicle for action sequences or sex scenes. We learn Daredevil’s origin story in fragmentary pieces as opposed to a prologue-ish information dump, and over a third of the way through the season our hero has yet to acquire his red suit and clubs. (They’re surely coming, but even a perfunctory nod to realism is a thoughtful touch.)
The show sets its own terms, and exists for its own story rather than as a corporatized trans-media stepping stone. This is most certainly the “Marvel Universe” but with none of the hackish cross-promotion of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Daredevil is set in the aftermath of the destruction of New York wrought in The Avengers, referred to here as simply “the incident.” Amid the wreckage is a rush on speculation, development, and attendant corruption, and this is where Daredevil springs off.
At its core Daredevil is a show about crime, which was always the main concern of the comic as well. Its villains aren’t galactic warlords or mad-scientist types; they’re mobsters, hit men, dirty cops, plunderers and rogues of all types. The show makes prodigious use of gloomy alleys and dimly lit interiors, and noir seeps through the dialogue. “Used to be if they killed someone they’d send his wife flowers. Now they just send his wife with him,” laments a tough trying to go straight. When Daredevil informs a captive thug that he’s hurting him “because I enjoy it,” the acknowledgment is jarring, and unexpectedly honest: Of course this guy’s a sadist.
All of this is helped along by unusually strong acting from a smartly assembled cast of up-and-comers and veteran character actors. British actor Charlie Cox gives Matt Murdock an understated and serious charisma, shades of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark minus the scenery-chewing. Elden Henson plays Murdock’s law partner Foggy Nelson, a goodhearted Falstaff type who’s blissfully unaware of his partner’s nighttime high jinks, and Rosario Dawson brings unexpected dimension as a hardboiled medic and possible love interest. But the show’s most memorable performance comes from Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, a character best known in the comics as Kingpin, a hulking syndicate boss and Daredevil’s (literal) Big Bad. D’Onofrio’s Fisk is an inscrutable mass of corked violence who speaks in a halting lilt that carries no small touch of the tormented introspection that haunts the show’s protagonist. He’s Marvel’s most soulful villain since Alfred Molina’s turn as Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2.
Daredevil isn’t a perfect show, nor is it quite a great one, at least not yet. Some of its lesser characters reek of stereotype, its depiction of newspaper journalism is comically ludicrous (and not in a J. Jonah Jameson way), and its imagining of contemporary Hell’s Kitchen as a hardscrabble multiethnic enclave is bound to shock the neighborhood’s many luxury condo owners. But it’s startlingly good, and moreover, it has what the best TV shows and the best comics have, and what Marvel’s elaborately plotted movie slate strangely lacks: room to breathe, and to grow.