Welcome to the streets.
With Daredevil, the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes its first steps into the world of street-level superheroics with a gritty action drama that offers a more grounded perspective on this fantastic world, exploring how the actions of people with extraordinary power have consequences that negatively impact the lives of normal civilians. It’s a side of the MCU we haven’t seen yet, and the show’s creative team uses this opportunity to deliver a product that is unlike anything Marvel Studios has attempted in the past.
Easily the studio’s darkest project in terms of both tone and visuals (this is a show covered in shadows), Daredevil is a brutally violent series targeted at an adult audience, dealing with more mature themes than the usual Marvel superhero fare. The closing montage of “Into The Ring” shows just how far removed this show is from the high-flying action of The Avengers as it cycles through various Hell’s Kitchen horrors. An assassin hangs in his prison cell after a botched job. A young woman doing laundry discovers her dead father, who has seemingly shot himself in the head. An elderly Chinese woman supervises a drug-distribution assembly line of blind workers. A young boy is abducted after watching men pull his father out of a car and beat him on the street. This tableau of terror is Matt Murdock’s world, and he’s chosen to be the hero that will stop his city’s suffering.
“Into The Ring” wastes little time getting to the costumed action, quickly covering the essential elements of Matt’s backstory before diving into Daredevil beating the tar out of some thugs on the docks. Drew Goddard’s script begins at the moment that changes Matt’s life forever, opening the episode with his father Jack (John Patrick Hayden) walking through the chaos that erupts after his son jumps into the street to save an old man from an oncoming vehicle. It’s not immediately clear what is happening as the unidentified middle-aged man makes his way through a crowd, sirens blaring all around him, but the picture starts to take shape for the viewer as Jack pieces things together. It’s a tactic that puts the audience in the character’s shoes, creating an empathetic connection that heightens the trauma when Jack holds his blinded, screaming son in the middle of the wreckage.
The first thing Jack knows is that something has happened to his son. As he surveys his surroundings, he sees the truck and the car and the old man that thanks Matt (Skylar Gaertner) for saving his life, but Jack doesn’t notice the barrels of hazardous materials until Matt starts screaming about his burning eyes. The depth of Jack and Matt’s relationship is immediately clear from the pained look in Hayden’s eyes when Jack sees his son, and the intensity of Hayden’s performance as he rushes to his child’s aid reveals how important Matt is to his father. Gaertner does chilling work in the moments when Matt loses his sight, fully realizing the fear and panic that overtakes Matt as he screams “I can’t see!” over and over again, and the combination of these two powerful performances makes for a riveting start to the show.
The father/son dynamic gets even more attention in the following scene, which jumps to an adult Matt (Charlie Cox) sitting in confession for the first time in a long while. Catholicism is an important part of the Daredevil mythos, and having the first present-day scene take place in a confession booth establishes Matt’s religion as a key element of the series. How Catholic is this show? The opening sequence is a series of images formed in red candle wax, like the candles in a Catholic church. And one of those images is of a church, complete with a solemn angel statue. The audience learns that Matt is a Catholic before knowing he’s a lawyer, so when he first jumps into action and starts hurting others, the internal conflict isn’t between the lawyer and vigilante, but the Catholic and the Devil.
Cox delivers the first of this episode’s expository monologues in this second scene, which would be a slog if it weren’t for Cox’s performance and Phil Abraham’s direction. The key section of the speech is captured in one tight shot on Matt’s face, showing how these words are impacting his emotional state as Cox becomes more vulnerable and frightened. Goddard’s script gets pretty blunt when it starts breaking down the major themes of the show—Matt’s father always got back up on his feet after being knocked down in the boxing ring, Matt’s grandmother warned people to “be careful of the Murdock boys, they’ve got the devil in them”—but Cox’s performance convinces the viewer that Matt needs to say these things at this exact moment so he can rationalize what he’s going to do when he walks out of the confession booth.
What drives a man to put on a mask and a costume and fight crime? That opening monologue suggests that for Matt, being Daredevil is the way he honors his dead father by summoning forth the shared demonic spirit that bonds the two Murdock men. And the series exposes that devil inside through powerful, intricately choreographed action sequences. This show is very violent, but the violence serves a purpose, revealing a dark side of the character that connects him to the villains he’s fighting. The show will delve deeper into that idea as it continues, but the seed is planted in this first episode’s two action sequences.
The first fight on the docks is a chaotic frenzy as Matt faces off against multiple opponents, leaving viewers breathless when the scene ends and the opening credits roll. Getting to the Daredevil action early is a wise choice, giving the episode a strong burst of forward momentum that gradually diminishes out as the plot shifts to the birth of Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and Matt Murdock’s law practice and establishing the current crime climate of Hell’s Kitchen. But the energy dramatically picks up again with the second fight that begins in Karen Page’s apartment and spills out onto the street, offering destructive close-quarters combat before a thrilling brawl in the rain.
Goddard’s script makes excellent use of recent events in the MCU to create a Hell’s Kitchen that resembles the troubled neighborhood of Marvel Comics rather than the gentrified location it’s become in real life. After the climactic battle of The Avengers left much of New York City in ruins, Hell’s Kitchen is a slum overtaken by crime, but developers are waiting, eager to rebuild the area at great financial gain by employing less-than-legal methods. As shady accountant Leland Owlsley (Bob Gunton) gleefully explains to the heads of the various Hell’s Kitchen crime families: “Every time someone punches one of these guys through a building, our margins go up three percent.” So the arrival of a new player in a black mask can only be good for business.
Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) enters the story because of her connection to one of these developers, becoming Nelson & Murdock’s first client when she’s framed for murder after uncovering a huge discrepancy in the pension fund for Union Allied, the company handling most of the government contracts in Hell’s Kitchen. The plot is a little too convoluted for its own good—why go through all the trouble of framing Karen when there are far simpler ways of getting information out of someone?—but it does give Karen a bigger role in the narrative beyond “Matt and Foggy’s secretary.” That’s a wise decision because Woll is great casting for the part.
Woll has a girl-next-door appeal that makes it easy to sympathize with her, but there’s also a lot of strength in her portrayal. Karen isn’t helpless: When her prison guard tries to strangle her, she plays dead and waits until his guard is down so she can claw at his eye and escape. She’s a victim of the crime that has overtaken Hell’s Kitchen, but as we’ll see in the next few episodes, she uses that as motivation to fight against the rising tide of corruption rather than letting it keep her down. Woll also has great chemistry with Cox, and their intimate conversation in Matt’s apartment creates a lot of romantic tension that will surely be explored over the course of the season.
The best part of Daredevil should be Daredevil, and Charlie Cox has all the charisma and conviction that make Matt Murdock such a captivating character. He’s incredibly charming, and his cockiness is balanced by the vulnerability we see in that confession scene and his conversation with Karen. It’s no wonder why Matt is a ladies’ man: All he has to do is talk about how he would give anything to see the sky again and hearts melt. But it’s not just a line, it’s how he really feels. Matt knows that he’s supposed to embrace what’s different about him now, but he remembers what it was like to see, and he can’t deny that he wants that back. It’s a feeling that I imagine many people who become disabled later in life have felt, and it reminds the audience that even with all his gifts, Matt Murdock is still dealing with a major disability.
Matt is incredibly engaging, but the same can’t be said for his partner Foggy. Elden Henson has a very boyish look that is appropriate for Foggy Nelson, but he’s a bit too aware that Foggy is comic relief, delivering a performance that doesn’t feel like it belongs in the same world as the rest of the cast. Hopefully Henson will become more comfortable in this environment, because he serves a valuable purpose in the series by providing levity to counteract the potentially overwhelming darkness. Luckily, there are other sources of humor, including Leland Owlsley. Bob Gunton is a veteran actor that often plays these types of slimy characters, and I’m eager to see more of him on the series. (Owlsley is the supervillain/crime boss known as The Owl in Marvel Comics, and it would be fun to see Gunton step into a bigger role as the show progresses.)
And what about Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), this show’s big bad? We hear his voice in this episode, but we never see the man, instead discovering his character through the actions he orchestrates, which are carried out by his right-hand man Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore). Some people may not see the point in delaying Fisk’s appearance, but it’s an effective way of showing how Fisk does business. He doesn’t like to appear in public, operates by proxy, and punishes anyone that says his name out loud; keeping him hidden helps build the myth behind Wilson Fisk, and even though we don’t see him, his influence is felt throughout. The scene where Wesley blackmails a prison guard by threatening his daughter is a disturbing introduction to what Fisk is capable of, and it’s important to remember the unpleasant events of this first episode when the Kingpin finally appears and the tortured man behind the terrifying myth is revealed.
Stylistically, Daredevil has the strongest identity of any of Marvel’s television properties. Agent Carter had fun with the retro time period for costume, set, and prop design, but the setting didn’t inform the way the series was filmed like it does in Daredevil. Phil Abraham worked on The Sopranos as a cinematographer and director and won an Emmy for his cinematography on Mad Men, so he’s deeply familiar with filming grisly crime drama and has a strong skill for capturing the atmosphere of an urban environment on camera. Daredevil has the look of a prestige cable series, devoting more attention to lighting, color, camera movement, and shot composition than you find on Marvel’s ABC series.
One of my favorite images in this episode comes during the quiet scene between young Matt and his father, who has just come home after being pummeled in the ring. When the blind boy touches his father’s face to get an impression of the damage, there’s a close-up shot of Jack that is shrouded in darkness except for the swollen skin on the side of his face that Matt is touching. It’s a great image that highlights the violence that defines Jack’s life as well as the darkness within his soul, and the specificity of the show’s visuals enhances the impact of the script. Matt’s future is written on his father’s face, but rather than unleashing the devil in the ring, Matt lets it loose on the streets, fighting to get his city back on its feet after being knocked down. As his father tells him in the flashback, it’s time for Matt to get to work, and he has a hard, bloody road ahead of him if he’s going to get the job done.
- I know the entire season dropped today, but PLEASE don’t post spoilers in comments without a big huge spoiler warning for anyone that hasn’t had time to binge-watch 13 episodes.
- This episode doesn’t spend too much time explaining the way Matt “sees” the world through his enhanced other senses, instead using sound cues as a way of indicating to the viewer that he’s tapping into his radar sense. The script trusts that viewers will be able to figure out that Matt listening to Karen’s heartbeat while she’s being questioned is his way of seeing if she’s lying rather than explicitly stating that he’s a human lie detector, which is refreshing.
- What is it about throwing baseballs in the air that stimulates the minds of men so much?
- I’m going to excuse Karen telling Matt and Foggy that the dish she cooked for them is intended for the man she marries as the panicked word vomit of a woman that has just undergone a traumatizing few days. No one just says that kind of stuff.
- I know it probably won’t happen because this show was likely filmed before casting decisions were made, but I would love to see some of the characters from A.K.A. Jessica Jones, Marvel’s next Netflix series, appear on Daredevil in some capacity. Take advantage of that shared universe, Marvel! (I’m sure there’s someone who has already watched the entire season and can tell me I’ll be disappointed.)
- “You be quiet, I’ll let you have a bucket.” Ladies and gentlemen, your introduction to Turk Barrett, the small-time crook that has been a recurring presence in Daredevil comics for decades. I have a strong affinity for Turk, and Rob Morgan does a great job showing how much of a scumbag he is with his short appearance in this episode.
- “I gotta get the blind thing going. So unfair.”
- “She just curtsied. It was adorable.”
- Matt: “‘The Incident,’ is that what we’re calling it now?” Agent: “Well, it sounds so much better than ‘death and destruction raining from the sky nearly wiping Hell’s Kitchen off the map.’” Matt: “Shorter too.”
- “What is it about college girls and Monet T-shirts? Open composition and spontaneity reflecting this transformative time in their lives perhaps? Or maybe they just like the color blue.”
- Matt: “How would I even know that she’s a beautiful woman.” Foggy: “I dont know. It’s kind of spooky actually. But if there’s a stunning woman with questionable character in the room, Matt Murdock is gonna find her, and Foggy Nelson is gonna suffer.” Matt: “[Laughs.] I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying.” Charlie Cox is so damn charming during this exchange.
- Karen: “How do you comb your hair?” Matt: “Honestly, you hope for the best.”
- “It’s freezing this high up. Next time we’re meeting at Per Se.”
- “Yes, it’s perfect ‘Chechens kidnap a preschool’ weather.”
- “What the hell!”