It would be an understatement to say that the entertainment industry is currently preoccupied with superhero stories. Enamored might be more appropriate, and currently, the industry’s infatuation has led to an emphasis on the more grandiose aspects of comic adaptations. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will premiere on May 1, the second movie in a series defined by bombastic action and character alliances. The combination of the Avengers, the upcoming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016), and even the team-up episodes of the “The Flash” (2014-Present) and “Arrow” (2012-Present) — wherein characters visit each others’ shows to battle evil — seem to prioritize the wow factor for viewers. There appears to be a race among studios to have the best CGI, greatest stunts, biggest explosions and biggest revenue. As a result, quality can often be sacrificed for scale.
But Marvel’s newest television endeavor, “Daredevil” (2015), a Netflix-original show that was released on the platform on April 10, diverges from this effects-based formula. “Daredevil” is more subtle than its Marvel movie and television counterparts. For one, the stakes are lower: the show isn’t about saving the entire world, but rather saving one specific neighborhood of New York City: Hell’s Kitchen. There are no superpowers, no magical objects or powered suits. It’s a small story about the existence of morality in a post-catastrophic landscape. “Daredevil” is so excellently written, plotted and acted, however, that it should be counted as one of the best works Marvel has produced.
“Daredevil” stars Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, a lawyer who was blinded in a chemical accident as a child. Matt has heightened senses, and uses his gifts and a variety of impressive martial arts skills to fight against the gangs, kingpins and abusers of Hell’s Kitchen. In his day job as a lawyer, Murdock undertakes a righteous quest against the corporate and gang interests attempting to rule the neighborhood. Cox is incredibly appealing as Murdock; he subtly handles the character’s personas as both charismatic lawyer and ruthless vigilante. He is aided in his attempts to improve the city by his law firm partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and employee Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). The primary villain of the story is Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a criminal leader attempting to gentrify Hell’s Kitchen at the expense of its people. D’Onofrio portrays Fisk brilliantly, lending compassion to the character such that the viewer is able to see the ostensible bad guy’s point of view. Both he and Matt are products of Hell’s Kitchen, and their moral struggle for the neighborhood’s soul is the focal point of the first season.
There are numerous fight scenes, both beautifully choreographed and expertly shot, but these sequences are reliant on the skills of the actors and stunt men rather than on special effects. These scenes can be brutally realistic in terms of gore, but they are defined by a close-up style of filming which contributes to the same sense of intimacy and immediacy that characterizes the show’s refreshingly local focus. The events of “The Avengers” (2012) are only mentioned in passing, briefly connecting the show to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The destruction of New York, which occurred in that film, is a 9/11-style trauma for the characters of “Daredevil,” a catastrophe that defines the reconstructive actions of both the heroes and the villains. This close competition over how to rebuild the neighborhood enhances the story and heightens the stakes; “Daredevil” is truly a gritty 1970s-esque political thriller disguised as a superhero story.
The weakest aspect of “Daredevil” is its presentation of Hell’s Kitchen. The Manhattan neighborhood is an important part of the show’s narrative as a home and battleground for both Murdock and Fisk. But while great importance is placed on the setting, “Daredevil” does not accurately portray the area. The Hell’s Kitchen presented in the show has narrow alleyways, low buildings and trees lining every corner. These are characteristics of Brooklyn or the Lower East Side, not the infamous neighborhood in midtown west. This lack of attention to detail is a rare misstep for “Daredevil,” although it is probably a mistake that will only annoy people actually from Hell’s Kitchen.
Overall, “Daredevil” is entertaining and engaging, with an undercurrent of political and moral complexity that makes it more interesting than Marvel’s typical fare. While big-budget spectacle may be the primary vehicle of superhero stories these days, “Daredevil” proves that the simple story can still pack a punch.