Daredevil can’t see you, but he knows you’re coming. His new show is so good, it might catch comic book fans by surprise.
The blind vigilante’s superhero tale is retold in a new Netflix original series, the first of four character-based collaborations with comic book megahouse Marvel. But “Daredevil” stands alone as an artful, gritty ensemble drama that could elevate the superhero origin story like HBO’s “True Detective” did for the crime procedural.
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Blinded by a toxic chemical spill at the age of 9, Matt Murdock developed the ability to hear and smell trouble from blocks away. He can also whip pretty much anyone in hand-to-hand combat, partly thanks to his upbringing in a boxing gym.
Murdock can also tell from people’s voices whether they’re lying, which comes in handy in his official, on-paper life as an ambulance chaser with a busy bedroom, a wisecracking partner and absolutely zero business.
As Murdock, Charlie Cox projects regret, rage and pain through dark sunglasses or a knit mask. He’s joined by a perfectly chosen supporting cast, including Elden Henson as his law partner Foggy Nelson and Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, who reluctantly becomes their first client after a murder arrest.
“We are aggressively pursuing new clients,” they tell her.
“How long have you been practicing law?” she asks.
“Daredevil” takes its time fleshing out Murdock’s childhood trauma, and it’s standard Marvel Universe stuff: the absent mom, violent exposure to our toxic world, the loss of a father figure in traumatic fashion. Unlike Peter Parker, Matt Murdock never gets to soar over the rooftops of Manhattan. But when he starts tossing bad guys off them, he annoys the human traffickers of Hell’s Kitchen and is soon broken, bleeding and desperately seeking refuge in a stranger’s apartment.
Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is an off-duty nurse who takes pity on the battered vigilante, but his presence puts her in danger almost immediately, with a suited mob assassin going door to door in her apartment building.
“He’s on the third floor,” Daredevil warns her. Not only can he hear him, he can smell him.
“You can smell a man on the third floor?” she asks him.
“You’ll smell him soon enough. He really likes that cologne.”
There’s a lot of wry humor, most of it from Henson, who can’t match his buddy’s success with the ladies and whines, “I’ve got to get this blind thing going on.”
But this is no giggle-a-minute “Iron Man” flick. Its tone is closer to Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” than Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” Frank Miller was the most influential writer for the Daredevil series of comic books, and his dark universe of shadows and hard punches has been carried over to the small-screen version.
“Daredevil” fits snugly into the Marvel universe of movies and TV, referencing the Battle of New York that ended the first “Avengers” movie in 2012 and gave rise to ABC’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” All that Hulk-smashing to defeat Loki’s alien army means lots of rebuilding in New York, and the mob loves a construction contract.
So “Daredevil” sets a deliberate pace, concealing the face of head villain Wilson Fisk for three episodes so that Vincent D’Onofrio can make a dramatic entrance. D’Onofrio spent years as a head-tilting, fingernail-sniffing eccentric detective on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and he brings all of Detective Goren’s physical unpredictability to Fisk.
People are so afraid of Fisk that they’d rather impale themselves through the eyeball than deal with the consequences of betraying him. Whatever he does to people, it must be pretty bad, because his henchmen keep getting up to have another go at Daredevil, who just has to beat them down again.
Daredevil is a low-tech superhero — Iron Man can fight the aliens, he’ll take the street hoods — and so this show’s fight scenes don’t waste time with a bunch of wire work or lame CGI. The camera follows one lovingly planned fight scene at the end of Episode 2 down a hallway, through the center of the melee and back again to show us the mayhem from all angles.
And all that punching, kicking, bludgeoning and stabbing takes a toll on Murdock, whose protective gear is little more than a ski cap and black cargo pants. The title sequence — Netflix loves a good title sequence — previews the iconic dark red superhero armor Murdock might be changing into sometime soon.
That can’t come soon enough. He’s going to ruin all his suits if he keeps bleeding through his crisp white dress shirts in court. Early on, Murdock goes to a priest to sort out the flexible comic book morality of looking for trouble. He wants forgiveness in advance.
“That’s not how this works,” the priest replies. “What exactly are you going to do?”
Murdock’s answer is to tell him a story about watching his father’s boxing matches, about that moment in every fight when his father’s eyes would go dark.
“My dad would catch him, trap him in the corner. Let the devil out.”
Later, dangling an evil mobster from a rooftop after a child kidnapping, Daredevil tells him, “I need you to know why I’m hurting you. It’s not just the boy. I’m doing this because I enjoy it.”
To reach Sara Smith, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.
Where to watch
Thirteen episodes of “Marvel’s Daredevil” begin streaming Friday on Netflix.
Coming soon to the Netflix/Marvel universe: “AKA Jessica Jones,” featuring “Breaking Bad” actress Krysten Ritter as a former superhero turned private investigator; “Luke Cage,” featuring “The Good Wife” actor Mike Colter as a super strong hero with unbreakable skin. Also in the pipeline: an “Iron Fist” martial arts series. They’ll all team up in the miniseries “The Defenders.”