The screen version of any long-running comic-book superhero inevitably feels thin compared to the richly detailed idea of that hero in the minds of the fans who grew up with it. Five movies in, no Hollywood Spider-Man has yet embodied, all at once, the comic iteration’s glorious contradictions. He’s the genius/broke-ass geek/outcast/photojournalist/inventor-hunk who dates supermodels and bombs out of grad school and fights off fear/depression/guilt with a relentless stream of Groucho Marx patter-jokes as he bops villains’ skulls to save a city that hates him.
If that’s too much for the movies to get right, the even crazier Daredevil never had a chance. Here’s a blind lawyer/acrobat/vigilante leaping from Hell’s Kitchen roofs/flagpoles to kick the asses of the criminals who are always killing his girlfriends and breaking his spirit and overwhelming with sound effects the fragile heightened-senses “radar” with which he can hear a cat pissing on cotton twelve blocks away and judge by their heartbeat whether anyone’s lying to him. Oh, and he’s a sin-obsessed Catholic who gives long speeches at confession about the difference between justice and the law, often citing the story of his father, a hard-headed boxer murdered by the Mob for refusing to throw a fight. And did I mention he’s a ninja? With billy clubs?
It took Marvel comics over twenty years to figure out how to make this character work — in the Eighties Frank Miller shifted the emphasis from dare to devil — so you shouldn’t blame Ben Affleck for not having nailed it in a two-hour movie. The new Netflix series, created by Drew Goddard, takes a sensible brick-by-brick approach, introducing an element at a time with great patience and solemnity.
Sometimes the seriousness is off-putting: The second scene of the pilot finds Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), that blind lawyer, weep-speaking to a priest scraps of his dad’s pulp-noir backstory. The third scene: Murdock, masked, beating the hell out of the Russian Mob while Manhattan twinkles coldly in the background. Many traits of the hero might seem new or impossible to viewers, but the show makes them seem familiar. The lighting is all jaundiced orange-yellow or steely blue, the look like some Nineties David Fincher music video; these first beatdowns are shot from the vantage of the bad guys, who get stalked by the shadow-hero just like the thugs in Batman Begins. Daredevil hits them quickly, but not with Spidey-style superstrength — it takes him several kicks and punches to bring down even a street-level punk. (He throws in an occasional flip or wall-vault, but his maneuvers look peak-human rather than superheroic.)
The writers’ first rule on this series seems to be “Downplay the ridiculous.” In the five episodes available for review, we never see how Daredevil leaps from building to building, exactly, although comics fans will relish the rooftop and water-tower sets. He fights powerless gangland types rather than Stan Lee goofs like Stilt-Man or the Circus of Crime, and his nascent law firm takes on corrupt landlords and developers in a west-side Manhattan rebuilding after New York got alien-smashed in The Avengers.
By the end of that fifth episode, Daredevil hasn’t yet donned a proper costume, preferring instead a black ski-mask. And despite at least two spectacular fight sequences in that first batch of shows, both inventive, Oldboy-inspired long takes, watching this Daredevil means watching many, many hushed scenes of tense consultation: between Murdock and his priest; Murdock and his shut-in nurse/possible girlfriend (Rosario Dawson); between young Murdock, in flashback, and his pugilist pa (John Patrick Hayden); between Murdock’s firm’s lone employee (Deborah Ann Woll) and reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who due to rights issues does not work at the Daily Bugle; and most especially between the gangs of this New York, the Russians and the Chinese and Toby Leonard Moore as a dapper representative of the show’s big bad, Wilson Fisk (a cue-balled Vincent D’Onofrio), known in the comics as the Kingpin of crime.
The attempt to puff silliness up to grim and significant drama means the show plods, sometimes, especially when the Russians are gabbing: What’s to be done about this masked man? But a couple episodes in, when D’Onofrio first lumbers onscreen, Daredevil seized me. His Kingpin is a marvelous monster, a chromedome Sydney Greenstreet exuding such waves of power and menace that the writers can introduce him as a lovesick pup, awkwardly courting a beautiful art dealer (Ayelet Zurer) and leaving us to wonder, in horror, just when he’s finally going to unleash his inner Kraken. When he does — yikes.
Cox’s Matt Murdock isn’t as immediately compelling, but who would be? Still, Cox and the writers do nice work by making Daredevil’s good-guy violence almost mirror the Kingpin’s brutality: We may feel some awe at how far the villain goes, just as we cringe and say “No!” at how often the hero’s not much better. Dawson, as that nurse, expresses our outrage at the way Murdock seems to get off on his own brutal justice. There’s some comfort in the fact that he looks scared of himself, too.
In its first episodes, Daredevil doesn’t dare get into some of the character’s crazier aspects: his ninja training or his flagpole-leaping. He only once handles anything resembling a billy club, and his heightened senses are handled with smart simplicity: He concentrates in close-up, and the sound designers let us know what he hears, or he tells us what he smells. What’s most encouraging is that the show’s sometimes punishing seriousness seems to rise from a love of the character’s hard-to-swallow aspects rather than a fear of them: Goddard and company seem to be building up to them rather than taking them as a given. I look forward to seeing what their Daredevil’s like when they get him there.
Two final thoughts: Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson, Murdock’s law partner, lists confoundingly from Franklin & Bash bro to a crusading attorney eager to fix his poorest client’s sinks. And would it kill the writers not to give the too-few female characters lines like “What’s the deal with the meat-grinder in the pencil-skirt?”?