Back in February we posted what was then a look ahead at the Marvel/Netflix Daredevil series, noting that it looked to be a promising transition toward a grittier superhero world for Marvel. The series was uploaded to Netflix in April and promptly binge-watched by droves of fans. But now that even those who prefer to take their time with streaming series (and if you’re among this group, you have admirable restraint) have likely caught up, it’s about time for a review.
Simply put, Netflix nailed it. Daredevil is not the best piece of cinematic entertainment to come out of the mighty Marvel empire, but it’s a lot closer to the top than the bottom, and sheer quality aside it’s refreshingly unique. The prevailing observation that swept the Internet upon release of the show’s trailers—that Marvel was going “dark and gritty”—proved to be accurate. Daredevil is more of a modern noir crime drama than just another superhero origin story, and that alone lends it its own tier among Marvel projects.
One of the most important things to point out in reviewing the Netflix series is that any viewer ought to throw out the old Ben Affleck Daredevil film as any sort of foundation for the new project. The two have almost nothing in common other than basic characters and subject matter. In fact, if there’s an example of Daredevil in entertainment culture that can be said to have preceded the Netflix series, Betfair Casino’s Daredevil slot machine is actually a better example than the film. The game’s dark imagery of a sleek-suited Daredevil in between darkened city buildings under a full moon calls to mind the basic atmosphere of a Daredevil comic. While the game itself focuses largely on characters from the Affleck film (Bullseye and Elektra are both icons on the slot wheel), its general vibe does a better job of providing a foundation of what this hero is all about than the previous film.
Such a foundation can be handy for viewers going into a Daredevil binge simply because he’s become one of Marvel’s lesser-known heroes, hidden in the shadow of the Avengers for younger generations. But whether you play the Daredevil casino games, watch the old Affleck film, or even read up on some old comics, you’re still in for a treat when you watch the show.
And it’s not entirely the dark and gritty feeling that helps the show succeed. In fact one could argue that the best thing Daredevil has going for it is actually a darkness of action rather than one of atmosphere. This is to say, the violent and chaotic actions of some of the core characters are at times nothing short of shocking coming from a studio that’s been pretty tame when it comes to bloodshed. Netflix Life went so far as to pose the question of whether the show might be too violent, either for viewers accustomed to a more Disney-like approach or simply in general. To be clear, this is a series in which a villain bashes a guy’s head to pieces by repeatedly slamming a car door over it—more Grand Theft Auto than Marvel. While the violence was likely too much for some viewers, it was refreshing for a superhero series.
Daredevil might have been a little too dark had it not been saved by some pretty strong performances across the board. Charlie Cox is a delightful new Marvel hero in the role of Matt Murdock/Daredevil. He strikes a balance between the weighty responsibility and boyish loyalties of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, and the defiant nature and the cocky self-assuredness of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark. And for a lot of viewers and critics, Cox wasn’t even the highlight. Vincent D’Onofrio’s vulnerable, tortured take on comic villain Kingpin was the consensus top performance in the show.
If there was a shortcoming to the series, it’s that a little bit too much time was spent on familiar exposition. One reviewer in a Polygon roundtable actually suggested just the opposite, praising the show for moving past tired tropes regarding a hero’s call to duty. However, the truth is that this show does take a while to get up to speed. We all know the idea: misfortune grants power, “with great power comes great responsibility,” the city is in need, and a vigilante is born. The harshest criticism that can be applied to Daredevil is certainly that it does very little to stray from this formula.
Fortunately for Daredevil, the reason this formula is so familiar is that practically no superhero show or film strays from it. It would have been nice to see something new, but ultimately the show is no worse than any other bit of Marvel content in this regard. And within the popular story arc, the aforementioned brilliance of the lead actors coupled with the genuine creepiness of both atmosphere and action make for a pretty great overall experience.