Dim and steaming with urban grit, personal pathos and intense violence, Marvel's great new "Daredevil" series for Netflix proves, once again, that no one understands the multiple-platforming world better than the comic book company originally, and fittingly, known as Timely Publications.
The much anticipated adaptation of Stan Lee and Bill Everett's blind protector of New York's Hell's Kitchen, premiering April 10 on the streaming service in its full-season glory, is the first in four Marvel series for Netflix. At once old-school and utterly new, "Daredevil" reveals a, if not the, future of television.
Pilot free and untethered from TV's traditional beats and measures, "Daredevil" assumes a high level of audience knowledge and completely embraces its delivery system: It's the first show effectively built for the binge.
Other series debuting on Netflix, Amazon or Hulu pushed boundaries of tone and content, but they followed the basic forms of television. "House of Cards" and even "Transparent" easily could have appeared on premium cable. But "Daredevil" would be an ill fit.
Breaking with narrative convention, the story begins not in high-pitched action or rigorous introduction but ambiguous back story. The panic of a man running to a scene of an accident that involves his young son gives way to the resolute calm of another man (Charlie Cox) in a confessional, speaking of his father's occasional near-murderous rage, a rage the son now understands. Putting on dark glasses, he asks forgiveness not for what he's done, but for what he's about to do. Which is beat up some truly bad guys armed with only his bare hands and a black mask.
So it's five minutes in before the show offers a clue to what it's about: A blind vigilante with mad ninja skills who serves only that equally sightless muse, Justice.
It's many more minutes before we know that the vigilante is actually Matt Murdock, a newly minted and highly idealistic young lawyer who, along with his less idealistic but goofily devoted best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), are establishing their own law firm, their first client being Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a young woman accused of a murder she swears she didn't commit.
That murder begins to draw everyone into a much larger web of crime (Russian mobsters! the Chinese drug trade!) that Matt, during his vigilante nights, has just begun to sense is strangling Hell's Kitchen and other parts of New York — but not before the story repeatedly sheers off into the past and present of many characters.
In fact, it's several hours before the source of that strangulation is revealed: A criminal mastermind brilliantly played by Vincent D'Onofrio, who comes with a back story and psychology that mirrors Matt's in complexity and significance.
The line that divides damaged hero from damaged villain is as common as duct-tape in television (see also "The Following," "Hannibal" and "Luther") and usually just about as subtle. Here it gleams like a deadly micro-filament: Each man shares a vision of the city; each man is willing to kill with his bare hands to achieve it. But one is a hero and one is not.
Unlike many other modern dramas in which a mixed wash of dark and light results in universal gray, "Daredevil" cleaves to a more straightforward morality and plays instead with form.
"Daredevil" is not an epic, like "Game of Thrones," but neither is it one man's chronicle, like "Breaking Bad." It has many elements of a typical super-hero tale but they are used in different ways. Like a game of checkers being played with chess pieces, "Daredevil" is only deceptively familiar.
As with ABC's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "Agent Carter," "Daredevil" exists in the Marvel universe, post-battle of New York. But references to the Avengers themselves are fleet and far between. The presence of alien life and homegrown superheroes matter far less the grimy threat of Hells Kitchen. Full of muggers, rapists and traffickers of drugs and humans, "Daredevil's" Manhattan feels like New York at the nadir of the Koch administration, before Times Square became a giant home theater system and Hell's Kitchen revitalized into its current state of Purgatory's Breakfast Nook.
In "Daredevil's" New York, the sun rarely shines, the streets sweat with dirty rain and no alley is lit. The contrast of shadowy old-school danger — fights occur at regular intervals on roofs, in alleys, under bridges — with modern storytelling is "Daredevil's" driving force.
Cox's hero is admirably, and importantly, human. Though clearly gifted beyond the average mortal, he suffers as often as he saves, and not just emotionally; he falls along with his foes (though he usually rises again) and is occasionally seriously wounded. That vulnerability is what makes him more interesting than a more indestructible super-hero, and also brings him into contact with Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), a nurse who becomes the one person who knows something of his whole self.
Some story lines are weaker than others — a pair of Russian brothers seem needlessly stereotyped as does an Intrepid Reporter — and though the body count is relatively low, certain deaths are unnervingly brutal (heads are literally bashed in). But the cast is universally strong and the writers — Steve DeKnight replaced Drew Goddard as showrunner two episodes in — remain resolute in their convictions.
This is not the splendid shiny gizmo-dependent Marvel, this is the comic book hero stripped bare: Blind, without benefit of costume or companion, fighting with his bare fists for truth, justice and the next wave of great television.