This review only covers the first 5 episodes and is relatively spoiler-free, so don't worry if you're one of those sensible people who hasn't binge-watched the entire season yet. For my ~professional (and even less spoilery) review over at the Daily Dot, click here.
As a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, my feelings on Daredevil are decidedly mixed. On the one hand:
- This show is just really damn good. The dialogue and characterization are strong, and it's way ahead of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in terms of things like fight choreography and sound design.
- The plot is complex but neatly organized, and the Netflix format allows things to unspool gradually rather than leaping between episodic subplots. I hate exposition and am sick of formulaic TV writing, so this was great for me.
- Matt, Foggy and Karen are charming and adorable, and Wilson Fisk is an unusually compelling villain. Congratulations to whoever cast this show, because they knocked it out of the park.
- I'm enraptured by the romance between Wilson Fisk and Vanessa the art dealer!! (More on that later.)
- It's satisfying to see an "adult" comicbook adaptation that isn't gratuitous or exploitative. Daredevil doesn't sanitize the visceral impact of violence, but it doesn't revel in it either. To me this is an ideal balance, because usually there's a strict divide between movies like Sin City or Watchmen, which strive to be ~gritty and ~dark, and PG-rated movies like Spider-Man, where people have constructive relationships and friendly banter. Daredevil has both. I had to cover my eyes during a few of the more violent scenes, but in some ways I prefer that to when Thor or Captain America dispatches an enemy bloodlessly and with no obvious moral impact.
- Like most superhero adaptations, this show has a woman problem. The two most significant female characters are a nurse and secretary, both of whom get kidnapped/beaten up and subsequently rescued by the hero within the first few episodes. Plus there are way more men on the cast than women, for no good reason.
- It's unoriginal. I know Daredevil relies on a lot of familiar old superhero tropes, and that's fine. The problem is that it feels too much like a crime drama from the '70s or '80s, and not in the Taxi Driver homage sense the creators intended. Matt Murdock's childhood flashbacks are the worst example: His father training in a boxing gym that might as well be in the 1940s. Why not update this to make it feel more contemporary? Why not rewrite some of the male characters as women? Why not make Karen Page a lawyer or an accountant or an IT specialist instead of Matt and Foggy's secretary? Why not include more details that feel specific to 2015 New York? Some of these are just a matter of taste, but others feel more like an attempt to retell a story that belongs in the past.
Daredevil is getting very positive reviews, already being praised for outstripping Gotham, The Flash, etc. For the most part I agree, but lately these comparisons have begun to feel like splitting hairs. Daredevil, Spider-Man, Batman... they all have different personalities and tones, but they're variations on an extremely narrow theme. Daredevil even moreso, given its many similarities with Batman. We already have a lot of movies about white male vigilantes with daddy issues, and if we absolutely have to keep exploring this subgenre, there are surely more original ways to do so.
Basically: Is it enough that Daredevil is "good"? A huge amount of effort went into making sure the script was smart, the execution was slick, and each character was perfectly cast. But at the same time, they failed to tackle one of the most consistent problems with superhero dramas: crappy roles for women.
Karen Page and Claire Temple are both likable and well-drawn characters, and the Netflix format allows more time for development later on. But they're still rooted in gender-specific roles, and massively outnumbered by dudes.
Obviously I don't think it's sexist to cast a woman as a secretary or a nurse; that would be idiotic. But in the case of Daredevil, these roles feel very gendered alongside the plethora of male cops, journalists and criminals we meet throughout the show. Even when you include Madame Gao (who speaks only in untranslated Chinese for the first few episodes) and the Kingpin's love interest, there's still a blatant gender imbalance in the cast.
It's not all bad, of course. Karen's investigative subplot is great, and Madame Gao clearly has a larger role to play in later episodes. But on the whole, Daredevil's men fight each other and plan the future of the city, while women provide emotional support and dress the hero's wounds.
If this all seems overly negative, I'm sorry. I loved many aspects of the first few episodes, especially in the way the show balances adult-rated content with charming, idealistic characters. (Matt, Foggy and Karen are so cute! VERY! CUTE!) It's great to see a superhero adaptation that includes people cursing and having complex emotional lives but doesn't fall into the trap of mistaking cynicism for maturity. I'm sure I'll have more to say once I've watched the rest of the series, but for now I really have to talk about my absolute favourite part of the show: Vanessa and Wilson Fisk.
I SHIP THIS SO GODDAMN MUCH.
First of all: Vincent D'Onofrio is so fucking good in this role. Wilson Fisk's characterization is fascinating in itself, but D'Onofrio's performance has been killing me since the moment he appeared onscreen.
In my review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier I discussed the way superhero/villain pairings tend to mirror one another. Daredevil does this to the point where Wilson Fisk and Matt Murdock's goals actually overlap. Both want to transform and rejuvenate Hell's Kitchen, and both are doing so with a combination of legal and criminal means. The difference between them is a matter of degrees, with Fisk having more resources and less moral compunction about killing people to get his way.
Superhero movies are packed with villains who are, for want of a better phrase, emotionally unstable. These depictions range from two-dimensional nonsense (the Red Skull) to legitimately compelling (Loki), but Fisk falls into an unusual class: realistically human. His emotional problems and social anxiety aren't presented as madness or some bizarre quirk, but as normal aspects of his personality.
Is Fisk a brutal, terrifying despot? Yes, but he's also insecure and lonely and self-aware. One of my favourite aspects of D'Onofrio's performance is the way he forces words out like he's grinding them through his teeth, which usually gives the appearance of carefully controlled rage. In Vanessa's presence it feels more like he's making a physical effort just to talk to her, fighting his way through his own nerves. His interest is painfully obvious, but he's also respectful of her boundaries and cautious the power he could potentially hold over her. An unusual dynamic for TV romance.
Fisk is ruthless and calculating in his professional life, but his interactions with Vanessa prove that he's desperate to earn love on its own terms, free of exploitation or control. What a wonderful contrast to the sadism or blatant unpleasantness of most supervillains, which makes them far too easy to kill. As for Vanessa, the show manages in just a few scant scenes to create a character who dovetails perfectly with Fisk: self-possessed, pragmatic, discreet and mature.
This relationship is far more interesting to me than Matt's tedious Batman situation with Claire. I don't give a shit about another dude heroically screwing up his love life because he's obsessed with running around in a mask all night. Fisk may be a monster, but he's infinitely more compelling as a romantic lead: murderous and ambitious, yet restrained, considerate, and desirous of love.