Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), the whip-smart lawyer who doubles as the titular Manhattan avenger in Marvel’s Daredevil, grew up with a pugilist for a father, “Battling” Jack Murdock (John Patrick Hayden), a good-hearted Hell’s Kitchen fighter who got mixed up with the mafia. The fighting was what kept them alive, and became all the more important when a chemical spill blinded the younger Murdock. As depicted by creator Drew Goddard in Daredevil, adapted from Stan Lee and Bill Everett’s source material, street fighting and hand-to-hand combat are infused with the struggle of the poor and lower-middle class, and choreographed with thrilling uncertainty. In the second episode of the series, Cox’s hero fights off a gaggle of Russian thugs, in the hopes of saving a kidnapped child, and the tussle is shot largely in a single take, with the goons getting beaten and then standing back up to continue sparring. It’s an utterly spellbinding sequence, with the camera ducking and weaving with precision while Murdock’s frenzied fraying barely holds off the hooligans.
Goddard has seemingly taken notes from Oldboy and the Raid films in showcasing a clear, active sense of brute strength and physicality in these conflicts, and the result is some of the most involving action that the Marvel universe has deployed in any of its film or TV adaptations. All the flying fists are indicative of Goddard’s vision of Daredevil as a genuine crime fighter, and the world he’s created is as much Law & Order as it is Batman Begins. To that point, Murdock spends his days defending and prosecuting for clients that are barely making ends meet, with his sardonic partner, Foggy (Elden Hensen), at his side. There’s a constant detailing of how the neighborhood relationships that Murdock has fostered since childhood have created a community of people seeking justice, and the interactions between Murdock, Foggy, and the locals give a resonant feeling of people trying to be helpful to one another by way of a variety of concessions and good deeds.
Daredevil doesn’t even meet his main nemesis, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a.k.a. the Kingpin, until about halfway through the season, and even then, the series takes a methodical path to introducing Fisk as a human being. His first major sequence highlights the massive crime lord’s sensitivity and loneliness, as he attempts to woo a warm, flirtatious gallery owner, Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer). This attention to the softer emotional state of such an imposing figure not only makes D’Onofrio’s character feel more genuine, but renders subsequent scenes where he pummels a subordinate until his head is mush all the more horrifying and intriguing in its implications. D’Onofrio is so convincing in expressing the character’s immense hurt and fragility that the transition from embarrassed, hopeful gentleman caller to brutal executer feels utterly seamless.
The show’s entire narrative stems from Fisk’s quietly devastating plan to buy up most of Hell’s Kitchen for presumably nefarious purposes, but he sincerely believes he’s doing what’s best for his city, just as Murdock does. In this sense, Daredevil’s story does get a bit repetitive at times, but is broken up by an increasingly broad swath of subplots involving Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), a nurse who tends to Murdock’s more serious wounds, and Ben (Vondie Curtis-Hall), a dogged but strangely optimistic reporter who teams up with Karen Paige (Deborah Ann Woll), Murdock and Foggy’s secretary who, it’s revealed, might have information on Fisk’s plan. Whereas most Marvel projects are focused on ostensible gods, adorned with truly inconsequential narrative stakes, Daredevil seems determined to keep the elements of humanism and community front and center.
The show’s creators film the entire series bathed in shadows, to the point where it’s a struggle to clearly see people and actions during fights in alleyways or low-lit apartments. The obfuscated views would seemingly give us a sense of Murdock’s impaired vision, but it also speaks to the tendency for people to ignore crime in low-income areas, whether from street-level hoods or billionaire philanthropists with a thirst for power. Daredevil is himself a symbol of a desperate kind of law, the augmentation of Lady Justice to match an era where money is prized over the security of a powerful magistrate, and though Goddard never lets the cynicism of this world override the joy and wonder of Daredevil, it’s clear that he’s spoiling for a good fight.