How many blind men does it take to screw in a light bulb? No, this is not the tagline for Daredevil, which has allowed a suitable space of years to distance itself from the Ben Affleck-starring movie adaptation; perhaps though, it would have been appropriate to ask, “How many blind men does it take to beat up endless hordes of henchmen?”. In the case of the Netflix original series, the answer is one, and there are a lot of henchmen.
Netflix have been breaking new ground for a while now, producing exclusive series like House of Cards and Marco Polo. The refreshing thing about these is that they tend to be high quality and are released as an entire season in one go (their Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul is an exception to that rule). It allows a level of engagement that can be otherwise hindered by having to wait a week for the next fix. Better to be able to watch it as you would a boxset, and allow space to let the piece breathe, like one long movie.
Daredevil is, technically, a superhero show. That said, it makes major strides to distance itself from this by playing it as a crime thriller/action programme. No Flash-type light fluff here either, even evoking shades of the Hannibal TV series in its opening credits sequence. It’s dark, very dark. We’ve been here before, of course – in the latter Batman movies.
That particular influence is prevalent right from the opening salvo of the first episode, as a group of thugs are taken down in a flurry of punches and kicks by the hero as he flits like a shadow between a clutch of large storage crates. Daredevil himself does his best to channel Christian Bale’s rasping half-whisper as he demands answers to such pertinent questions as, “Who do you work for?”.
So it’s just a Batman rehash, right? Well no, not really. Sure, there are plenty of similarities like the ones mentioned, but these play more like homage than blatant mimicking. While Bruce Wayne’s “spelunking” suit was all rippled and honed effectiveness, Daredevil’s pre-suit get-up evokes memories instead of Brandon Lee’s The Crow and then, once he gets his obligatory superhero groove on, Night Owl’s in the Watchmen movie. And then there’s the fighting style.
This is where the show really comes to life. Anyone familiar with the bone-crunchingly excellent The Raid 1 & 2 (not to mention Ong Bak) will immediately recognise where it’s drawn from. It’s brutal. Head, knees, elbows, fists – they are all used in equal measure. Almost every fight sequence is an onslaught. What sets it apart is the choreography and the sheer athleticism of all involved in these brawls. No one lets the side down. You almost begin to feel sorry for the stuntmen as they are kicked, punched and generally assaulted with a plethora of everyday objects.
But action scenes are nothing without sound camerawork and, again, Daredevil excels itself here. The camera pans and sweeps around each set piece like a disembodied entity, admiring and bringing new perspectives to what could be standard fight scenes. One sequence in particular stands out, with a fair amount of the “wow” factor about it. In it, Daredevil, already truly battered and bruised, enters a building to rescue a young kidnapped boy. The gangsters standing in his way are spread out across two rooms, separated by a corridor. The camera stays fixed, pointing down the corridor as he comes into view, and enters the room to the left. The door closes, and you can hear it all kicking off out of shot; suddenly he comes crashing through the door and the fight spills into the corridor. As it progresses, there is again a short sequence that is heard, but not seen, in the room stage-right, before everything reaches a bottleneck back in the corridor and the camera slowly pans in to capture this in all its glory. Such innovative framing is littered throughout the episodes and demonstrates an impressive level of technical nous.
So what about the story and the acting? Charlie Cox in the lead role is well-suited, a perfect balance of brooding menace and easy charm. And he has a knack for switching between the two seamlessly. Vincent D’Onofrio, no stranger to playing the warped and damaged type, is a suitably daunting big bad, Wilson Fisk, aka: Kingpin. The crucial, central interplay between protagonist and antagonist is well measured and mesmerising. So too is the blurring of moral lines that each of them broaches. Although they are respectively good and bad, grey areas abound.
Daredevil justifies, and agonises over upholding the law to the degree where he can successfully defend a criminal, and then cross the line as his masked alter ego to administer vigilante justice. Several times he is even chided by the bad guy he’s just taken down, as holes are picked in his flawed sensibilities. He refuses to kill, but seems to revel in the violence, subtly begging the question, is he getting some perverse kick out of it all?
D’Onofrio, in turn, adds layers to his character. He speaks sadly, and convincingly, about how he gains no pleasure from suffering and violence and then, with his next breath, explains exactly why he will happily destroy the city so that he can rebuild it in an image more fitting to his ideal of what a kingdom should resemble.
The acting isn’t hindered by the support players either. Each of them are given moments to shine.
So to the plot. Early on, there are worrying hints that it might be easing into twee episode-of-the-week storylines. But these are merely feints, designed to distract as the wider plot sneaks into position around the fringes before bursting startlingly into central focus. The writers have the good sense to punctuate the action sequences with scenes rich in dialogue and character beats. The actors and directors deserve high praise too for executing these so effectively.
And what of the novelty of the central character being unable to see? For the most part, this is developed pretty well and used as a device which adds an extra dimension to proceedings. But there are times where his enhanced non-sight related senses are stretched as a premise, almost to breaking point, rendering his blindness as almost irrelevant; no more than a parlour trick which is pulled out when convenient. It would be good to see the writers play with this a bit more, introducing instances where his lack of sight does actually hinder him. After all, if you’re going to hobble your main character in some crucial way, you have to address that and balance that weakness against the counteractive strengths that it gives rise to.
This is a minor quibble though, because the rest of this particular meal is rich with flavour. Overall, there is far too much that is good about Daredevil. It is smart, kinetic, engaging and, above all else, must-see entertainment.