When the first reviews for Marvel’s Daredevil began to trickle in, I was cautiously optimistic. I’m not typically the biggest fan of the MCU movies, but this represented something new for them. Daredevil is typically a more grounded character, working to save his neighbourhood rather than the entire planet. And I thought doing Daredevil as a television show rather than a movie might allow them to give us a story with a little more substance.
Then I noticed a trend in these positive reviews. Almost everybody who loved this show couldn’t help but gush over how “dark and gritty” it was.
“Dark and gritty” makes me nervous. This description is often used to describe shows that sacrifice any attempt at substance in an attempt to look cool. Or movies that try to rip off Christopher Nolan’s Batman, without managing to capture any of the elements that made it genuinely great. “Dark and gritty” is the common denominator in the directorial output of Zack Snyder.
As a result, I approached this show with mixed expectations. However, the first three episodes really grabbed me. I was pleasantly surprised by the level of quality on display. The show wasn’t incredible or anything. Not yet. But it had so much potential.
The cast has been, for the most part, very well selected. Charlie Cox (Stardust) is highly charming as Matt Murdock. Elden Henson (The Butterfly Effect) is lovable enough as his partner Foggy Nelson, though this has been contested by some. Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) is thoroughly sympathetic as the secretary Karen. And all of the main cast have plenty of chemistry together.
The show also looks absolutely stunning. I’m not someone who values the aesthetic of a show on the same level as the performances or the script, but this is maybe the most visually striking show that I’ve watched in some time. It might be dark and gritty, but it’s still very pleasing to look at.
The opening episodes hint at a lot of fascinating directions for the show. And I was excited to see what the writers did with some of these ideas.
The pilot begins with Murdock sitting in a confessional, asking a priest for penance for a crime that he has yet to commit. The show makes it clear right from the beginning that Murdock is a practicing Catholic and that he may struggle with the moral implications of what he has to do later as a vigilante. It was fascinating to me that this character might have to juggle three very different moral codes: those of a Catholic, a lawyer and a costumed vigilante.
As the episode progresses, we are introduced to the Nelson & Murdock law office. Matt has chosen to open a small law firm with his friend Foggy. The office is small and shabby but full of character; perfect for a show dabbling in noir. Matt and Foggy are dreamers who want to fight for the downtrodden, rather than simply protecting big businesses. It’s an overused trope in courtroom shows, but here it actually works. The concept of a superhero show that doubled up as a courtroom drama was immediately interesting to me. And there was the obvious possibility that when Murdock could not do enough to help his clients as a lawyer, he would put on the mask and start doling out vigilante justice.
Murdock’s powers themselves are intriguing. The show never goes into too much detail on how or why he gained these abilities. But early on, it does a good job of showing us how he knows certain things. He can tell someone is lying by listening to their heart rate, he knows someone is about to strike him by feeling the movement of the air, and he can identify people by their scent. However, while his abilities compensate for his blindness, I was looking forward to seeing him deal with hazards that could not be instantly avoided thanks to his other enhanced senses.
There are also a number of flashbacks in the early episodes, showing Murdock as a child and developing the relationship he had with his father. The character’s origins are more compelling than one might expect, and young Murdock is surprisingly well acted. I was eager to see more of the child’s development: why he came to love Hell’s Kitchen, and how he eventually became Daredevil.
After three episodes, I was fully on board with this show. I was genuinely excited to see what happened next. Then all those things I was looking forward to just … didn’t happen.
The middle of this season was a struggle to get through. It represented a whole bunch of missed opportunities, and with each episode I became more and more concerned that the show may never live up to its potential.
If you decide to watch the first season of Daredevil because you’re interested in seeing a superhero show mixed with a lawyer show, then maybe don’t bother watching it. The lawyer stuff is just background noise. The show doesn’t really care about it. Murdock and Nelson only appear in court in a single episode. They are occasionally shown doing research or working some other aspect of a case, but not with any kind of regularity. This show is much more interested in Murdock as a vigilante.
Murdock’s Catholic conscience is also not as thoroughly explored as it could have been. Thankfully this theme does retain some importance, but it is mostly just touched on at the beginning and end of the season and ignored in between. Also, while Murdock occasionally acknowledges that he’s having trouble making these complicated moral decisions in conversations with his priest, that uncertainty rarely seems to manifest itself in his actions. He’s reluctant to kill, but outside of that, he seems strangely comfortable using violence as the solution to every problem. He never hesitates.
Murdock’s blindness never seems to have any negative impact on him either, which detracts from what draws many people to Daredevil as a character in the first place. In fact, his blindness limits him so little that apparently many viewers who were unfamiliar with the character spent most of the season believing that he was simply pretending to be blind. So that people would not expect him of being a vigilante.
Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good idea.
For an example of how Murdock’s blindness could have been handled in a more interesting way, we can look to the Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. One of the best characters in this show is Toph Beifong, a blind twelve-year-old earthbender. Through feeling the tremors in the earth, she can sense everything that’s going on around her, and she quickly establishes herself as one of the most badass characters on the show. But every now and then she finds herself in a situation where her powers can’t help her, and the audience quickly becomes aware that this badass fighter is also a very vulnerable, blind child. Every time it happens it feels like a punch to the gut.
The flashbacks end after a few episodes too, though only after providing us with some of the best moments in the entire season. I’m hopeful that they will make a return in Season Two.
Even the chemistry between the actors almost goes to waste, as the main cast spends a surprisingly small amount of time on screen together. It’s not until the end of the season that we get any real impression of how Murdock interacts with his co-workers and how he feels about them. There is a strange moment later in the season: Matt, Foggy and Karen have all been arguing with each other and Karen mourns the fact that they never see each other anymore. This comes during a period where they’re spending more screen time together than they have been all season.
After watching certain episodes, so little seemed to have happened that I struggled to recall what the screen-time had actually been spent on. Usually a lot of it had been used in long, dramatic fight scenes. These are well choreographed and well shot, but often drag on too long to have any real impact. One of the strongest aspects about the fight scenes is that Murdock actually shows real pain and fatigue throughout. This is a refreshing change from many superhero shows and movies where our heroes constantly appear invincible, lowering the stakes dramatically.
Unfortunately, this is another area where the show lacks follow through. While Murdock shows real pain and fatigue during his fights, often in the next episode he will be completely fine again; running around as if he’s not completely covered in nasty wounds.
The rest of the show’s running time is used to establish Wilson Fisk and his motley crew of assorted villains. Fisk is played by Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket), and his depiction of the Kingpin has been somewhat contentious. Some people love him in the role, and others do not. Personally, he hasn’t won me over yet. Though his assistant Wesley and associate Leland were among the highlights of the season for me.
Fortunately, the show does start to pick up again towards the end of the season. Fisk starts to come into his own a little more as a villain, the main characters start to interact a little more, Murdock is forced into making more difficult moral decisions, and the long fight scenes have more tangible consequences. It still doesn’t quite manage to rise to the heights that it could have achieved. But it does enough to keep me hopeful for Season Two.
All the ingredients are still there for a truly amazing season of television. Next time, I hope they make something out of them.
RATING (out of 100): 60, “Average”
Steve Hanley is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.