Not every situation calls for a flag-waiving superhero or a thunder god.
The first time we meet this incarnation of "Daredevil," the oft-dismissed street-level protector of Hell's Kitchen at the center of Netflix's first foray into comic book-based drama, he's not easy to distinguish from the set of human traffickers he's come to dispatch.
As soon as Matt Murdock arrives, the women he's come to save scream in terror. His enemies are put down in brutal fashion. Bones snap. And when the fight's over, as Murdock towers over the thug who has the misfortune of being the last man conscious after this donnybrook, our "hero" doesn't offer a Spider-Man like quip. He doesn't show restraint.
He beats the ever-loving hell out of this man, raining down a barrage of punches I have to assume lasted long after the title sequence blocked our view.
After just eight minutes, Netflix's "Daredevil" makes it abundantly clear you're not watching a superhero show. This is a crime drama whose protagonist just happens to wear a mask.
I've seen the first five episodes of "Daredevil," and in hindsight, the series' pilot (titled "Into the Ring") is actually the weakest of those offerings, but it does an excellent job of tying itself to a Marvel cinematic universe anchored by "The Avengers" films without letting any of the smiles and "save the day" mentality of that world infect this one.
The show doesn't divorce itself from its superhero roots, but it blends those elements here in subtle fashion, allowing you to immerse yourself in this crumbling version of Hell's Kitchen and the world of Matt Murdock, which wears shadows like a second skin.
"Into the Ring" is juggling a lot of balls. In 50 minutes, the pilot manages to weave in bits of the event that blinded Murdock as a child and turned him into the Man Without Fear, introduce Karen Page (one of Daredevil's two great loves from the comics), and lay the foundation for the overarching scheme of Season 1 that links us to the movie universe. (In short, it seems the Loki/Chitauri throwdown from the end of the first Avengers film led to large-scale destruction in Hell's Kitchen, bombing the neighborhood back to its 1970s high-crime heyday, rather than the neighborhood where I find street parking before taking in a Broadway show now).
I know most of you have likely binge-watched past this point by now, but for those who gave "Daredevil's" opening salvo a try and walked away feeling lukewarm, I urge you to stick around. The A-plot of "Into the Ring" is fine, if not somewhat standard "Law & Order" fodder. Karen Page is wrongly accused of murder after rubbing against a corporate scam that links back the criminal elite of Hell's Kitchen, and it's up to Murdock and law partner Foggy Nelson to drag her out of harm's way. But it's the surrounding performances, and the elements the show will make more use of later, that really keep this episode afloat.
Charlie Cox is excellent as both Murdock and his costumed alter-ego, presenting as an awkwardly suave and determined attorney in the Murdock guise, and a brutal, if not entirely sure of himself, vigilante at night. The action sequences of "Into the Ring" are top notch, especially the episode's closing battle between Daredevil and Fisk's knife-wielding assassin. The show handles Murdock's radar (it hasn't been explained yet, but in comics lore Murdock can see because his other four senses are incredibly heightened) expertly, honing in on sounds and dark corners of the arenas where he does battle, rather than relying on the sort of "sonar vision" employed in that Ben Affleck movie that we're never going to speak about again.
Murdock's victory is not effortless, he barely gets out in one piece, and that puts a few extra miles between this show and the rest of the Marvel universe. Daredevil doesn't have a suit of armor or a star-spangled shield to protect him. This is a man on a mission, and the only things keeping him alive are his fists and feet. When Iron Man falls from a building he makes a tepidly funny remark and walks away. When Daredevil falls from a building, he bleeds. Ribs break. This guy is literally fighting for his life every time out, and that adds a kind of tension that is often lost in the superhero genre.
Like I said, though, this isn't a superhero drama. But it is a good one. Keep watching.
Random Thoughts Without Fear:
- So, for the 12 of you who read my "Sons of Anarchy" or "Justified" recaps, you know I'm all about honing in one episode at a time. Since the Netflix model basically begs you to power through these episodes in large chunks, I'm going to try and write these as quickly as humanly possible, while giving readers a chance to see some episodic reviews rather than one large season recap. These will be published sporadically, but I'm hoping to have all 13 done within a week or two of the premiere.
- I was surprised that, outside of a disembodied voice, we received next to no Vincent D'Onofrio here as Fisk. While it's probably smart to let Murdock grow on his own before splitting screen time with the series' antagonist (a character who has always been given far more nuance as a Daredevil villain than when he appears opposite other Marvel heroes), I was a little disappointed to see almost none of Daredevil's rogues gallery in the premiere.
- Hooray for the use of the black, "Man Without Fear"/Frank Miller costume. I'm not partial to the red leather and horns of the typical DD get-up, but I also fear this show will have the same problem as "Arrow" when it comes to fight scenes. Much like Oliver Queen's dark green hood, this DD look sometimes makes it hard to tell good guy and bad guy apart when the fists fly ... though that works thematically here.
Well, Foggy's kind of incredibly annoying. Sure, some of the comic bi-play with Murdock is funny, but he mostly serves as an exposition machine and irritant. Maybe it's just me, as I had a problem with Foggy in the comics as well before he learned of Matt's double life and served as his confidante, but for now, his screen time is less than pleasant.
- Comic Book Reference You May Not Have Noticed #1 - Leland Owlsly (played by Bob Gunter, of "Shawshank Redemption" fame) is among the crime honchos seemingly involved in the shady business dealings of Hell's Kitchen. While he has the namesake of the low-level Daredevil villain The Owl, he mercifully lacks his talons, bird-like face or stupidity.
- Comic Book Reference You May Not Have Noticed #2 - The poster for a Battlin' Jack Murdock fight seen before the episode's closing montage lists his opponent as Crusher Creel, AKA The Absorbing Man, a fairly dangerous enemy of The Incredible Hulk
- Speaking of that montage... wow. That was a perfect summary of the darkness Murdock will be up against, just institutionalized graft.