Hollywood has been inundated with superheroes over the last decade, with no signs of slowing down for the next five years at least. That being so, it’s easy to lose compelling stories in the fray, especially when each new TV show and movie is just another in a long line. But even before Netflix debuted Daredevil, critics were buzzing. Consensus leading into Friday’s launch was that it was a “darker” take on the Marvel universe. Of course, that follows a trend that began with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, so it’s nothing new to comic book entertainment.
Where Daredevil stands apart from the pack, though, takes us levels deeper than it simply being “dark.” It borrows heavily from the Frank Miller depiction of the comics that’s come to define the character, bringing with it a whole host of stories and plot devices never before attempted by Marvel on screen. The Daredevil story itself poses its own issues adapting into movie or TV formats, as evidenced by the Ben Affleck disaster that effectively killed the franchise for more than a decade. First, you have to figure out how to accurately and compellingly portray a blind superhero with no visible superpowers. Second, the powers he does have are sensory, making that difficult to translate visually for an audience.
For Netflix’s try at it, it did a masterful job. Gone is the overwrought voiceover that plagued the movie, replaced with beautiful cinematography and well-written dialogue. For depicting Daredevil’s super-senses, we get just one initial first-person perspective rather than the relentless use of the device we had with Affleck. Past that, the enhanced hearing is more suggestive than overt, making our hero seem less than indestructible and more like what he actually is: A blind man who happens to be very good at fighting.
But that’s not all that makes this series unique. Take, for example, the fight sequences. Typically, what we see whenever a hero takes on a host of thugs is a quick dispatching, following a few swift kicks to the face. Daredevil‘s approach couldn’t be more different. When he punches someone, that person goes down briefly, only to get right back up again (like pretty much anyone who gets hit just once). The outcome of each fight is hotly contested, with our hero spending a fair amount of his time getting the absolute tar beat out of him before finally prevailing.
One particularly masterful fight sequence takes place over three minutes minutes in a single take. It’s set in a hallway, darting in and out of rooms as Daredevil attempts to take on a hoard of hired muscle. As the battle draws out, we see Daredevil become visibly tired, breathing heavily as he exhaustingly throws punch after punch. For brief moments he leans up against the wall to catch his breath before rushing back into the fray to continue on. It’s a master class in how to film an action sequence and has no qualms with showing our hero struggle in an all-too-real way.
Each kick and punch seems belabored, similar to how we’d imagine anyone would act trying to knock down multiple men with just bare hands. We’re an audience that’s become accustomed to seeing Captain America fell an enemy with a single well-placed hit to the head, making the struggle-bus fight scenes of Daredevil that much more realistic. You’d be hard-pressed to find another comic book movie that treats its action with this much realism, serving to make our hero look like the human he really is.
Past the visual elements of Daredevil, the show does something no other Marvel property has done to this extent before, in completely fleshing out the storyline of its main villain, Wilson Fisk (Thor did it to some degree with Loki, but not this completely). The show starts with Fisk, eventually known as the Kingpin, as more of a ghost than a man. No one dares to even utter his name, with his interests represented by his assistant in all dealings with the crime bosses of Hell’s Kitchen. Slowly but surely, the show unravels the complex story of Fisk as far more than a larger-than-life villain’s tale. At points we even begin to sympathize with him, with the show taking an entire episode to run through his back-story and motivations while our hero briefly takes a backseat.
Daredevil expends a lot of effort humanizing characters who are typically made to look larger than life. Complex superheroes and villains are nothing new to the Marvel universe, but complexity doesn’t necessarily equate to sympathy. Sure, the rest of the MCU shows us Captain America, a hero with an ironclad sense of right and wrong. Or Iron Man, a quick-talking genius billionaire with a penchant for megalomania. But Daredevil is simply a man more than anything. Telling us he’s heroic and moral is one thing, but what’s just as important is emphasizing his vulnerability, something the show accomplishes to perfection.
Season 1 of Daredevil is the consummate origin story. Before he can be the fully formed hero we know he becomes, we have to see him as a human being capable of failure. It goes far beyond the show simply being “dark” or “gritty” and into the territory of things like “humanizing” and “nuanced.” While we all await the bombastic hero extravaganza that will be the new Avengers movie come May 1, Daredevil is the veritable yin to that yang the Marvel universe has so sorely needed.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest
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