Dark, gritty superheroes aren't anything new - in fact, they're quickly becoming stale - and yet this trope has previously gone unexplored by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel's feature films are hopelessly Disney-fied, with the network television endeavors following suit. However, with Daredevil, the first of five planned Netflix shows, Marvel has decided to step out of its comfort zone and attempt something completely different - an apt beginning for the Man Without Fear.
The gritty, noir tone of Daredevil will be welcomed by comics fans, who are still likely trying to wash the taste of the 2003 Ben Affleck film from their mouths. The series stays incredibly faithful to Daredevil's pulp roots and does something delightfully unexpected - trust its fans enough to spare us a long, drawn-out origin story about how blind attorney Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) decided to put on a mask and become the vigilante defender of Hell's Kitchen.
That's not to say Daredevil isn't without painfully forced exposition. The first few episodes are riddled with unnecessary flashbacks to Matt's childhood with his father "Battling Jack" Murdock, a boxer who was murdered after refusing to throw a fight. But thankfully, these moments soon fade into the shadows in favor of more subtle, cinematic drama.
There is an intimacy in Daredevil that hasn't been possible yet in the MCU, where battles between heroes and villains have previously been fought on a global, or even intergalactic, scale. But by restricting the series to the dark, oppressive confines of Hell's Kitchen, every obstacle Daredevil faces becomes inherently personal. This is only heightened by the expertly choreographed, close-quarters fight sequences, which more often than not leave Matt bruised, battered and in some cases, barely alive.
Matt's physical vulnerability is a wanted break from the typical superhero world, which too often shies away from the life-or-death stakes of the business. It also leads him straight into the arms of Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), a nurse who first becomes Matt's savior, then his confidante and soon his love interest.
Outside his self-destined mission to create a better, safer Hell's Kitchen using nothing but his fists and heightened senses, Matt is also a freshly minted attorney starting his own law practice with his partner and best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and the assistance of former client-turned-secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). Though the legal practice takes a backseat to the spiderweb of underground crime Matt faces as the yet-to-be-named vigilante, every scene Foggy and Karen appear in is a breath of fresh air, allowing viewers a welcome respite from the suffocating turmoil that seemingly engulfs the city. In a true show of moxie and strength, Karen even begins her own form of amateur crime-fighting when she partners up with a burned-out newspaper reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) to help dismantle a vast system of corporate corruption (one that will surely become more closely linked with Matt's own battles by the season's end).
This dedication to creating a well-rounded ensemble and allotting crucial attention to Daredevil's non-superheroes is one of the series' greatest strengths. But the most compelling character in Daredevil by far isn't a hero at all. Vincent D'Onofrio steals the show as Wilson Fisk from the moment he's introduced at the end of the third episode. The Kingpin of New York crime rules the city unseen, preferring to quietly growl orders to his right-hand man Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) rather than get his hands dirty (for the most part, at least). But underneath Fisk's chilling demeanor is a childlike vulnerability exposed through his crush on his art dealer Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer). In a wonderful change-up, Fisk respects Vanessa enough to not use his power to intimidate or buy her affection, nor does he attempt to deceive her about his profession. Instead, he does something unthinkable for a villain - he lays it all out and gives her the power to decide whether to walk away. It's an oddly satisfying subversion that will have you rooting for Fisk and Vanessa wholeheartedly.
And sympathizing with Fisk is exactly what Daredevil wants. Though it's easily to delineate who the "heroes" and "villains" are supposed to be, the show makes the parallels between Fisk and Matt abundantly clear. Both men with dreams of a better New York, Fisk and Matt each deem it necessary to go outside the lines of traditional justice to fight for what they believe in. And watching the ways Fisk and Matt excuse their uses of violence in the name of the greater good is a fascinating study in ego and altruism, and one with no clear right or wrong.
However, Daredevil is far from a perfect show. The pacing is dreadfully self-indulgent, with scenes dragging on for no apparent reason beyond the fact that they can (even the opening credits last an ungodly full minute, a strange choice for a show that is meant to be binged in rapid succession). But Daredevil is still leagues above Marvel's other forays into television and bodes well for Marvel's future Netflix projects.