When Marvel Studios announced plans to launch their Cinematic Universe, beginning with Iron Man in 2008, the team-up they promised seemed like a distant hypothetical. If Iron Man worked out and if the rest of the movie did too, maybe we’d see something along the lines of The Avengers. Seven years later, not only is Marvel about to perform the trick for the second time, they’re debuting a new one, albeit one that feels somewhat familiar.
Netflix’s Daredevil is Marvel’s first step toward bringing the Avengers model to serialized television, and in its first hour, the series suggests that replicating the Cinematic Universe’s success is most certainly possible on TV and that if everything goes according to plan, the big picture might be something even more rewarding.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the first episode, which considering Netflix’s all-at-once model, you’ve probably blown past on your way to the next 12.
The very first scene signals two things immediately: 1) we’re seeing the origin of Matt Murdock’s blindness, a traffic accident involving some nasty chemicals, and 2) Marvel on Netflix has a much different feel than Marvel on ABC. Daredevil has a distinct look that’s somewhere between the Cinematic Universe and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., definitely leaning more cinematic. It’s clear right away, as Jack Murdock, Matt’s father, finds his 9-year-old son, lying in the middle of the street. The boy managed to push an old man out of the way, but it costs him his sight, which we see the loss of from his point of view. I love how the show gets the most obligatory part of any superhero story out of the way in a few minutes, as if to say “This is how it happened. Everything else you need to know, we’ll fill in as its relevant to the larger story.”
Flash-forward to Matt as an adult, entering confession and giving Charlie Cox a nice, talky scene to get acquainted with the audience. People familiar with his work on Boardwalk Empire won’t need anyone to tell them this, but he’s pretty fantastic, lending emotional heft to his pre-confession (“I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.”) and making a believable ass-kicker in the next scene. Before the focus moves to the docks, Matt gives us a preview of what to expect. The Murdock boys, according to his grandmother, “have got the devil in them,” and Matt has seen his dad let it out in the ring. And lucky for us and a couple of would-be trafficking victims, we get to see Matt do the same.
No, Daredevil certainly doesn’t waste any time getting us to the action, and it was wise to do so, even if the first fight scene is a little too Batman Begins for its own good. Instead of going through the obligatory motions of telling us how Matt learned to fight and which store in SoHo he bought his ninja outfit from upfront, we meet an adult Matt who has already been dabbling in crime fighting. I’m sure we’ll see that other stuff down the road, but for now, entice us with some actual Daredevil action! Right off the bat(on), the fighting makes a good impression. The bouts are blocked with clarity, allowing us to see that Matt is very good at kicking ass, fantastic actually, and we believe it. Its action direction is akin to the Russo brother’s glorious fights in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, except with an extra dose of brutality. How’d everyone like the leg break? The sequence ends with Matt letting the devil out on the thugs’ leader. It’s certainly a dark moment, but it does the job of setting Matt apart from the other heroes of the Marvel Universe.
We’re just getting to the title sequence now?! To keep my reaction brief: I love the design of the blood-built New York skyline. Bonus points for not featuring a Regina Spektor song, but it loses some for not being Kimmy Schmidt’s theme.
Since this is the story of an urban, nocturnal crimefighter, there’s a rule that a scene of the hero waking up in bed, tired and bruised, must follow the first fight sequence, and that’s what we’re treated to as Matt’s law partner, Foggy Nelson, calls him. They have a meeting with a real estate agent that Matt needs to get up for, but Foggy has business to attend to first, specifically, bribing his childhood friend Brett, now an NYPD officer. At the perspective offices of Nelson & Murdock, the real estate agent explains that the building was one of the few not damaged during “the Incident,” or Chitauri attack during The Avengers—making that the series’ first concrete link back to the Cinematic Universe—and Foggy and Matt end up taking the space, even if their funds are a bit lacking. This might have to do with Matt’s client rules—he only reps innocent people—a policy that’s put to the test when Officer Brett calls.
Foggy’s friend in the NYPD has a client for them. The only problem is that she seems really guilty. When the police found Karen Page, she was hovering over the super dead Mr. Fisher, holding a bloody knife, but she adamantly maintains that she didn’t do it. Sounds like a case for Nelson & Murdock! The seven-hours-old lawyers arrive in the interrogation room to hear her story. She doesn’t have the money to pay them, but that’s all right. They’re short on clients, so Matt asks to hear her story. The whole ordeal started when she asked Mr. Fisher, her coworker at Union Allied Construction, out for drinks, because it’s “so hard to meet people in New York.” Sure, it is, former sex vampire Deborah Ann Woll. Anyway, they had just started talking at the bar when she blacked out. The next thing she knew, she was in her apartment with Mr. Fisher stabbed to death.
As Matt listens to her, the show gives us another glimpse at things from his perspective, this time focusing on his enhanced hearing. From the sound of Karen’s heartbeat, he knows she’s telling the truth, something that comes back up later in the episode. It’s a simple, smart way to build drama directly into Matt’s powers.
NEXT: More punching!
So who’s behind this shady business? The first episode doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’d wager that it has something to do with the sleazy guy in the suit, Wesley, who likes to violate personal space on park benches. The man he sits next to, Mr. Farnum, owes a debt that Wesley’s employer (*cough*Kingpin*cough*) has just acquired, and it puts the prisoner guard in a bad position. Wesley takes out his super cool Windows Surface tablet to show Mr. Farnum a livestream of his daughter. (That thing has a kickstand and a full keyboard?! My iPad can’t do that. Thanks, product placement!) Not only is there a camera focused on the girl, but Wesley has his thug, Rance, watching her. He promises that more will happen if Mr. Farnum doesn’t play along.
Meanwhile, Matt and Foggy discuss their defense options. Though his partner wants to go to the DA for a deal, Matt, naturally, wants to dig deeper, something that Foggy expected, given the blind lawyer’s predilection for beautiful women of questionable character. Their strategy becomes much clearer, however, when Mr. Farnum tries to strangle Karen in her cell. She barely manages to escape the cover-up attempt, but it gives her lawyers an obvious course of action. Since the DA failed to file charges within the 24-hour window, Karen is— for now—free to go and sue the crap out of the police department for allowing her assault, but something doesn’t add up. Why weren’t charges filed in such an apparently clear-cut case?
Karen reveals the answer back at the office. At Union Allied Construction, the company responsible for most of the reconstruction in Hell’s Kitchen, she worked as a secretary to a Mr. McClintock, the company’s chief accountant. One day, she mistakenly received a file labeled “pension master” and opens it. Inside is a massive ledger of most likely illicit transactions, moving in and out of the company. Worried about the file’s meaning, Karen goes to her boss, who dismisses the file, which in turn drives her to meet with Mr. Fisher, a member of the legal department and a married father. At the time of the blackout, she had only just begun discussing the file, leading her to believe that whoever didn’t want the information getting out has ears everywhere. The moment lends some solid gravity to the proceedings, and the credit goes to Woll, who makes Karen believable and empathetic.
Karen’s breakdown also makes it clear that whoever wants her dead has the power to make it happen, unless someone in a sweet ninja outfit stops them. Until then, Matt takes her back to his place—it’s not what you think!—so that she’ll be safer. After very casually getting naked in front of the blind guy, Karen asks the requisite two questions that everyone has for him. Was he always blind, and how does he comb his hair? “Honestly, you just hope for the best,” he tells her (See, Charlie Cox rules), before asking one of his own. Why would the people who want Karen dead kill Fisher instead of her? Matt hypothesizes that she has something they want, and that’s most likely the file. While she insists that she doesn’t have a copy, her heartbeat betrays her to Matt.
At this point, I was happy with what Daredevil was doing. A great cast with good chemistry rattling off smart dialogue in between well-choreographed fight scenes is something I’ll always be on-board for, but the scene with the criminal element of Hell’s Kitchen meeting in an unfinished skyscraper took it to the next level. It starts simple enough, as a gathering among the drug lord Madame Gao, traffickers Anatoly and Vladimir, some guy named Nobu,
the warden from The Shawshank Redemption Leland Owlsley, and Wesley, standing in for his (probably bald) employer. They discuss their recent issues, namely the bungling of the Union Allied case and the masked vigilante at the docks, who is a welcome addition to the city from Owlsley’s perspective. A new hero means new business opportunities, since it was the Avengers’ antics that opened up Hell’s Kitchen to Union Allied. This is another example of Marvel really thinking about their stories and the ramifications of superheroes in the real world. Yes, the Avengers saved New York, but they created opportunities for criminals to exploit. Now it’s Daredevil’s job to fix their mess, which puts him in an entirely unique position within the Universe, which in turn becomes a more morally ambiguous place.
Despite what Karen might think, Matt can both a) tell when someone is lying based on her heartbeat and b) hear when his client sneaks out the front door to return to her apartment and retrieve the secret flash drive she stashed there. And as virtuous as she might be, Karen didn’t notice that Rance, Wesley’s guy from the park, was hiding inside. Thankfully, Matt shows up, completely ninja’d out, ready to do what he does, which includes but is not limited to kicking, punching, doing flips, tumbling out the window, and having mid-fight flashbacks to his childhood. “Come on, Matty,” his dad tells him, “get to work.” I love that even as we’re completely invested in Matt’s fight with Rance, we’re still not entirely sure what drives him, but not in any way that feels lacking. The first episode does a great job establishing a character that we can feel familiar with quickly, but one that clearly has so much more to him that we need to learn.
After Matt delivers Rance and the flash drive to a newspaper that sadly isn’t The Daily Bugle, the rest is left for Wesley to clean up. Both Rance and Mr. Farnum meet sudden demises, “killing themselves.” Owlsley ties up the loose ends at Union Allied, and we see Madame Gao, Nobu, and Chechens kidnap a young boy. It suffices to say that there’s plenty of work left for Matt to do, so it’s probably a good thing Karen has volunteered to work pro bono in the office with him and Foggy.
I could use this space to write some more about how Daredevil begins by pulling the best elements from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a focus on the hero’s character, just the right amount of self-awareness, and clear action) and applying them to the TV format really well, but you probably already know that and are six episodes ahead at this point. So let’s keep going.