“It ain’t how ya hit the mat. It’s how ya get up.” — Battlin’ Jack Murdock
I never binge-watch any TV show — partly because I have many other shows I like to keep up with, partly because I like to make a good thing last a long time. That said, when Netflix released all 13 episodes of “Daredevil” at once, I thought I might be too weak to control myself. But, I managed. In fact, it was 5 days until I even saw the pilot and a full week until episode 2. Meanwhile, the rest of the world — I imagined, at least — were watching multiple episodes per week. Just like with other cult-favorites — e.g., “The Walking Dead”, “Game of Thrones”, “Orphan Black” –, I was several episodes behind everybody else.However, when a recent vacation threw my usual TV-watching schedule all out of whack, I took the opportunity to watch a few more “Daredevil” episodes. Then, I kept to a mostly bi-weekly schedule, and… I finally watched the season finale last week. So, this will be my first review of a new series where I watched the whole season first. I wonder, are there any genre fans who haven’t already watched the entire series by now? (If so, consider this a SPOILER ALERT!, though I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.)
I will admit that, as usual, there were changes from the comics that annoyed me. And, yes, I’ll refer to some of them below. But, for the most part, I will try to contain myself. In fact, I have to say that, despite my being irked by certain changes, overall the characters and the feel/tone of the show was… shall we say, reasonably faithful to the source material. Plus, whether I liked the casting or the writing or not, I thought all the performances were top-notch.
I thought the seasonal arc made for a decent story, paralleling Murdock’s initial efforts in crime-fighting with Fisk’s start as a mover-n-shaker in NYC, both in the criminal underworld and as an ostensibly (but not really) legit real estate investor and city benefactor. (More on them below.) Or, as producer Jeph Loeb put it more simply, “This season is about both the rise of the hero and the rise of the villain.” It made for pretty good drama and was certainly about more than just a costumed crimefighter battling punks and villains. (Especially since Murdock didn’t get a real costume or the titular nom de guerre until the final episode.) At the risk of using some overused descriptors, there was a very realistic, “gritty”, street-level feel to the series. This was partly due to the lack of any flashy superpowers but also because the fights were rather nasty & violent. Bone-crushingly, sinew-tearingly, flesh-rippingly, blood-drippingly brutal, in fact. And that’s a good thing.
Now, allow me to give my reactions to and impressions of the primary and main supporting players, beginning with the good guys:
Matt Murdock/Daredevil is quite impressively portrayed by a British actor who was not previously on my radar (pun alert!), Charlie Cox. Even if I had heard of him, I would never have thought of casting him for this role. In my opinion, the role calls for someone a bit taller and more muscular. (I suppose he might bulk up more for the second season.) Also, there is something about his mouth & jawline that doesn’t look right behind the mask, and I think it would be quite identifiable by anyone who knows Murdock fairly well. That could be a problem when you’re trying to keep your identity a secret. Plus, he didn’t seem to try to mask (hah!) his voice, either. So, for those reasons, Cox isn’t my ideal casting. But, he does have talent and did a terrific job showing the different sides of Matt Murdock — from loyal friend to driven vigilante. Also, it was good to see him struggling (as in the comics) with what he thought he needed to do “on the street” and when dealing with Fisk et al., as opposed to what the law allows and what his Catholic faith would seem to allow.
I don’t know why, but the people who adapt comics for the screen seem to have an aversion to red hair, especially for the heroes. Both Barry Allen (aka “The Flash”) and Matt Murdock are supposed to be redheads, but they both have dark hair on TV/Netflix, and I haven’t read anything about why they couldn’t apply a little coloring to keep the character authentic. Is that really too much to ask? Anyway,… Regarding Matt/Daredevil’s abilities, the martial arts and gymnastics were well-done. They need better F/X to demonstrate use of his radar-sense, though. As for the costume, it definitely looks bad@$$! (Or, DD looks bad@$$ in it.) I don’t know if he’ll ever get it completely red, but I think I can accept the red/black combination. Now, if we can just get a swingline (or whatever) to eject from the billy clubs, so we can see him swinging between buildings and onto rooftops and such….
Franklin “Foggy” Nelson is ably played by baby-faced Elden Henson, another actor that I was not familiar with. I know I’ve seen him here and there, but nothing really stands out in my mind. I don’t know if I would have considered him for Foggy, though he does fit the general physical description. On the other hand, the character was written as a bit more jovial and playful (and with longer hair) than he is in the comics. I would have preferred sticking to the original characterization, but maybe they decided the show needed someone who was (usually) a little more fun and able to joke a bit amidst the doom & gloom. I didn’t care for his relationship with the lawyer (their former colleague) at the big firm. It just seemed like a really unlikely pairing, and the only reason he let her treat him like that was because she was hot and would “sleep” with him.
Deborah Ann Woll does a fine job as Karen Page. My gripes are that she is too tall and, to be honest, not pretty enough. (My personal preferences, of course.) She can look quite attractive, especially with red hair. I just wanted someone with a very different look. So, I obviously would not have cast her. But, acting-wise, I thought she was very good. They obviously gave her a different “origin” than in the comics and had her be more personally involved in the case(s) in the show. There were hints at her instant attraction to Matt but a growing attraction to Foggy. (Of course, she spent more time with Foggy, who is also a more open person.) It will be interesting to see how her relationships with her two bosses develop next season, as well as how involved she gets in the cases. Also, will Matt reveal that he is Daredevil to her? I suspect he will, especially if they get romantically involved, though I don’t think it is as necessary as it was to reveal it to Foggy.
Ben Urich is played by the terrific actor/director Vondie Curtis-Hall. He did a great job as the dogged-yet-weary investigative journalist. Unlike in the comics, they gave Urich some extra, emotional stuff to deal with — namely, his wife’s slowly succumbing to dementia and the financial struggles to continue her care. His interactions with Karen Page were interesting, and I can’t help but wonder if she will eventually start a blog of some sort. (Sort of like Iris West did in the early episodes of “The Flash”.) The Urich character is white in the comics, and as usual, I would have preferred a white actor. However, Urich’s race is not integral to who he is, so I did not mind the change. And, while Curtis-Hall is a few years older than the character should be at this stage in DD’s career, I couldn’t have asked for a better talent to portray him. That is what makes Urich’s fate in this series doubly troubling. (I think it was a mistake.)
To be honest, I don’t remember the Claire Temple character from the comics. Maybe she appeared at a time when I wasn’t reading “Daredevil” for awhile? A quick check of Marvel’s wiki reveals that she had connections with Luke Cage and Bill Foster (aka “Black Goliath”) but it says nothing about Daredevil. (Will she show up in Netflix’s “Luke Cage” series?) Nevertheless, I think Rosario Dawson was a great choice, and she knocked this version of Claire out of the park. As suspected, Scott Glenn’s portrayal of Matt’s gruff, pain-in-the-butt mentor, “Stick“, was spot on. My only complaint is that he was only in one episode! We need more Stick, even if only in flashbacks to young Matt’s earliest training. Matt Gerald’s Melvin Potter is also pretty good. I think the writers made the character a bit more dim-witted than in the comics, but generally they got him right.
Fisk’s “business associates” are an interesting bunch and each deserve a brief mention. The Russians, Vladimir and Anatoly Ranskahov, are played by Nikolai Nikolaeff and Gideon Emery, respectively. The characters were stereotypical, macho bullies — Vladimir in particular — but well played. Too bad they weren’t around longer, but they did serve as, er, object lessons re doing business with Fisk. Yakuza representative Nobu is played by Peter Shinkoda, who brings a sufficiently serious (and cocky) air to the character. Wise and wizened Madame Gao is a great character, played by the wonderful Wai Ching Ho. I hope we see more of her next season, or maybe after that. The only “business associate” not created solely for the Netflix series is that of ruthless financier, Leland Owlsley. The comics version creates his own small criminal empire, calling himself “the Owl” and his organization “the Owl’s Gang”, and becomes one of Daredevil’s persistent foes. He also gains powers of limited flight, enhanced strength, enhanced senses, and sharp talons. Of course, this version pushed Fisk too far and will not be able to do any of that. (He did refer to a son, though.) Still, Bob Gunton does a fine job playing the role of the perpetually perturbed “money guy”.
Famed Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer was an interesting choice for Vanessa Marianna. I would never have thought of her for it, but, of course, she did a wonderful job. (I don’t find her particularly attractive, but that’s neither here nor there.) Though I don’t know a lot about the comics version, I do know that she and Fisk married and had a son long before Daredevil appeared in Hell’s Kitchen. In fact, the adult Richard Fisk would become a deadly thorn in his parents’ side. That Vanessa was eventually driven to try to clean up the underworld (while Wilson was out of the picture for awhile), but died of “heartbreak”. I am curious how any of this may play out in the Netflix series, though I doubt there will be any Fisk heir to cause trouble. I also wonder if Vanessa will get the white streak in her hair like the original has.
Toby Leonard Moore does a great job as Fisk’s multi-talented and always reliable right-hand, James Wesley. In the comics, the character is never given a first name, seems rather quiet and bookish, and is only seen in four issues of “Daredevil” — in the “Born Again” storyline (see below). Moore’s Wesley is a bit more calm and cold-hearted, but it works for this version, this Fisk, this story. I just wish we could see more of him next season. (Perhaps a twin or clone…?)
My thoughts & feelings about Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk are rather mixed. On the one hand, D’Onofrio is a wonderful and talented actor who did a terrific job revealing the intellectual and emotional layers of the latest screen-version of Fisk. Some might even say it was “masterful”. There were interesting eccentricities — from Fisk’s social awkwardness (especially with Vanessa) to his oddly-paced speech patterns to his sudden and deadly fits of rage. The problem for me is that none of that — with the possible exception of the rage — is part of the Fisk/Kingpin who I grew up reading. The comics version is much more confident, for one thing. He is also clearly a brutish thug with only a veneer of control and respectability. D’Onofrio’s version, it could be argued, was that, but it just wasn’t the same. These and other elements (e.g., the bit with his mother) make me think that the writers/producers were trying to make Fisk more relatable and sympathetic, despite his ruthlessness. IMHO, this was a wrong move.
Then there are the physical issues. D’Onofrio is in his mid-50s, which seems a little too old for this stage in his and DD’s careers, but that’s a minor point. While D’Onofrio is a large man, 6’3.5″ and barrel-chested, he is nowhere near big enough to fill the Kingpin’s shoes. However, I have to admit that it would be difficult to find someone who is over six-and-a-half feet tall, roughly 450 lbs. of muscle, and have sufficient acting ability to do the character justice. (Btw, Fisk is supposed to be trained in multiple martial arts, sumo being his primary discipline, and the comics often show him working out.) So, that being said, D’Onofrio was probably quite a coup.
Fisk’s character arc, if you can call it that, had two major focuses: 1) dealing with his criminal business associates as they all tried to keep their plans on track; and, 2) figuring out how to attract the lovely art dealer, decide how much to tell her about his business, and then allow himself to be loved (or some such thing). Of course, Murdock vexes Fisk et al. in both of his identities, which was very faithful to the source material. The bit about Fisk’s childhood was, as far as I remember, not in the comics, but it was believable for someone who turned out the way he did, and it served the writers’ apparent purpose of making him a tragic figure. Not sure how I feel about that. What was more interesting was how they gave Fisk a real love for Hell’s Kitchen, much like Murdock’s own, so that he really is trying to help in his own, twisted way.
I don’t think anyone ever called Fisk “(the) Kingpin (of Crime)” in this season of the show — perhaps because he is only beginning to form his criminal empire. If he returns for season 2, perhaps he will then take on that appellation. I also hope that he will begin wearing his trademark white suits and carrying his jewel-topped cane. Those nods to the comics would help fans like myself accept him even more as “The Kingpin”.
Despite my misgivings over areas that break from established comics history & characterization, I greatly enjoyed Netflix’s “Daredevil”. As I said, for these versions of the characters, the performances were fantastic. The story was pretty good (though not great), and I eagerly await the second season, which we already know will include Frank Castle (aka “The Punisher”). Hopefully, we’ll get a few more familiar faces — Bullseye? Elektra? Rosalind Sharpe? Avengers cameo? Keep your fingers crossed….
P.S. I highly recommend reading the TPB titled Daredevil Legends Vol. II: Born Again (or, just Daredevil: Born Again) by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, which reprints one of the best and best-known story arcs for the title and possibly within all of Marvel. One might even call it “iconic” in many respects, in terms of characterization of the main characters — especially Matt/DD and Fisk/Kingpin. (Note, this is the one where Karen betrays Matt by selling his secret identity in exchange for drugs.) There have been other notable runs, of course, but this one is certainly representative of a significant time in Matt/DD’s life and career(s), not to mention Karen’s. It also demonstrates Fisk’s physical size, the size of his empire (at one time, anyway), and just how patient, sadistic, and menacing he can truly be.