There's plenty to look forward to from Marvel. The Avengers are assembling. Ant-Man is upon us. And Spider-Man, on loan from Sony, is ready for a righteous reboot.
With all of this going on, superhero fatigue is understandable and perhaps inevitable. But don't let it keep you from the dark air of innovation and exploration in Daredevil, the first of four new superhero series from Marvel and Netflix. It's a brilliant piece of work, and totally texturally different from anything Marvel has done before.
The world of Daredevil is ultimately defined by its bloody body count. Creator Drew Goddard and showrunner Steven DeKnight have constructed a hyperviolent, claustrophobic world in which viewers are forced to see the gory consequences of murder and evil firsthand. It's something you don't see when you're following the lives of Tony Stark or Steve Rogers.
Daredevil isn't meant to shine and gleam the way Marvel's other superheroes do. It's the kind of show — and he's the kind of hero — that has dirt under its fingernails and mud running through its veins. It's shadow-soaked and dim, borrowing wholesale from nightmares and crime scenes.
But it isn't any less beautiful.
Goddard, DeKnight, and Marvel have created a world to get lost in that's incredibly different from the company's other projects — a bloody counterbalance to the glitz of The Avengers, the cheer of Agent Carter, and the snarky team dynamics of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
And it's equally fantastic.
If anything, Daredevil is just as important as its big-screen brethren. It's a stunning show that represents a promising future for where Marvel can go next — a force that shows Marvel is as comfortable going dark and bloody as it is zipping through the intergalactic rainbow of the cosmos.
It's also an indication that finally, Marvel is as nimble on television as it is on the big screen.
Here are four ways Daredevil stands as the best Marvel TV series yet.
Spoilers for the first season follow.
1) Daredevil is a serious meditation on violence
Marvel's superhero movies show all types of carnage, but often from a bird's eye view. The alien invasion in Avengers has an implied human toll, as do the climactic battles of Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: The Dark World.
But that toll is never really explored. How could it be in a PG-13 film?
There's no real connection between the demigods of the films and the people on the streets below. The Avengers and Guardians save the day, but we don't see what happens to the families of those who were killed in the collateral damage. We don't see the trauma from losing a father or the PTSD of those who survived the battle but lost friends. Days are saved, and everything returns to normal.
That changes in Daredevil.
The series traces the lasting effects of violence. We see how a childhood of emotional abuse sets the tone for the villain that Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) will become. We see how the insistence of hero Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) to not make the same mistakes his father did shapes his worldview. And we watch Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) begin to constantly look over her shoulder after waking up next to a murdered man.
"There's been something in your voice. It's been there for a while now. I thought whatever it was, whatever it's been, would get better once Fisk was put away," Murdock tells Karen in the season finale. "It hasn't. Has it?"
It's a poignant moment between the two. They want to move on with their lives, but it's impossible to do so, considering the bloody butchery and death they've been exposed to. Karen's voice can't go back to normal. She's scarred, like the rest of these characters, and it's the show's way of reminding us that violence has consequences. The scene cuts to a shot of Fisk waiting — further driving the point home.
DeKnight and Marvel aren't just sticking to the shadows to give us the shock of gore that other Marvel properties might be missing. The bloodiness of this show is a cerebral way to convey a story about being human.
Even with the thematic intentions in mind, however, the show is the bloodiest piece of work Marvel has created. People are shot, maimed, and stabbed in the neck and eye socket, among other things. Even our hero bleeds. But this violence isn't without consequence.
2) The show pays homage to comic book legend Frank Miller
Thanks to the popularity of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, there's a tendency to say that every dark superhero tale owes something to the director. That's already happening with initial reviews of Daredevil. That's not entirely wrong, since Nolan's style can be seen peeking through here and there in the show.
But giving all the credit to Nolan ignores the work of artist and writer Frank Miller. Miller became a comic book god in the '80s, and Daredevil was the book that lifted him to superstardom. Before he took the reins, the book was a middling Marvel title, a designer-impostor Spider-Man. Miller, inspired by film noir, took the book's art to the place where nightmares are made. His New York City was as sublime as it was menacing, peppered with haunting water towers and looming skyscrapers where his villain, a sophisticated bald-headed golem dubbed Kingpin, orchestrated his evil.
The series brings Miller's vision to life, even if it's incongruent with present-day New York City. Hell's Kitchen, a relatively safe and gentrified neighborhood in real-life New York City, here is a shadowy, rotten pit, bloodied by gangs and drugs. And it acts as a singlehanded corrective to Marvel's previously blithe violence — the neighborhood got this way thanks to the fallout from the final battle in The Avengers.
As in Miller's work, this darkness can be as beautiful as it dangerous. Instead of sun-splashed, sweeping shots filled with color, Daredevil plays with shadows and thoughtfully uses elements like water and light. This results in splendid fight scenes, like this one-shot, Old Boy–inspired fight scene directed by Phil Abraham:
Abraham plays with olive greens, hazy yellows, and dark shadows. There's no natural light here, resulting in an ominous feel. It implicitly sends the message that Daredevil isn't so much a knight in shining armor as the lesser of two evils.
The show's use of sound and music also allows it to play around with things the comic book can't. The series smartly underplays Murdock's acute sense of hearing in a fashion that doesn't require hand-holding or needless exposition.
The musical choices are also fascinating. In the last episode of the season, as various villains are cuffed and arrested by the FBI, the aria "Nessun Dorma," from the opera Turnadot, bursts forth on the soundtrack. The song's lyrics seamlessly fit with the theme of Daredevil and the battles that take place in the shadows:
No man will sleep!
No man will sleep!
But my secret lies hidden within me,
No-one shall discover my name!
Oh no, I will reveal it only on your lips
When daylight shines forth!
3) The characters are more human than super
The most fascinating thing about the fight scenes in Daredevil is how exhaustion is baked into the sequences. The geography of the space and the patterns of movement are distinctly defined and simple to follow. But it's the exhaustion — both Daredevil and henchmen sucking wind — that we hardly see in other superhero stories.
You don't really see Iron Man or Thor get hurt the way Matt Murdock gets hurt. It drives home that all this crime-fighting is a risk, rather than a duty. It's the clearest sign that Matt is human.
The show's other characters don't get to fight, but they're just as richly drawn. Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), the show's class clown, has a depth that gradually reveals his humor as a shield. Woll's Karen Page is damaged and scarred. Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) wields his journalism like a weapon, but he is ultimately a frail, fragile man. And though D'Onofrio's Fisk is a terrible human being, you understand all the reasons he is the way he is.
It's a testament to the show's actors, writers, and directors that the humanity of these characters shines through. And it's true to the comic, too.
In the face of evil, Daredevil/Matt Murdock's defining quality is his unflinching optimism. An attorney by day, he believes in the purity of the justice system. And ultimately, the violence and evil in this show is as much about corrupting that system and the absence of justice as it is about evil men doing evil things.
It's no wonder Murdock has to fight back.
4) Daredevil offers a glimpse at Marvel's future
Daredevil isn't perfect. There are moments when it becomes far too predictable. Sometimes Murdock's Catholicism feels hollow, rather than integral to his character. And the show's portrayal of women (a victim, a healer, a high-powered pretty woman, and a saint) relies too heavily on tropes.
But what there is to like here vastly overwhelms what doesn't work — particularly the way it redefines the idea of a Marvel superhero story.
This is another sign that Marvel's grand design is working. Marvel's dominance in the publishing and film industries has been set in stone for a while. But the company struggled a bit when it made a move into television. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled to find its way and sank in the ratings as a result.
Daredevil and the affable Agent Carter, however, show that Marvel is learning quickly. It can compete in the television world and maintain a freshness in its work.
Daredevil is just the first of Marvel's four planned shows for Netflix. Other minor heroes like Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and the Iron Fist are on their way. And if those shows are half as good as Daredevil, they can't get here quickly enough.
The first season of Daredevil is streaming on Netflix.