The last few years, some network TV executives have tried to do away with the pilot process, ordering shows straight to series based on a script, or even an idea, rather than spending a lot of money filming a pilot episode before deciding whether it's good enough to order to series. This is essentially like deciding to build a house on land that hasn't been surveyed yet and hoping that it'll hold the structure. The results have gone about as expected: “Hieroglyph”(!) was pre-canceled before a second episode was filmed, NBC decided to sell “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to Netflix rather than have to cancel it after three episodes aired, and other straight-to-series orders have been delayed, or similarly pre-canceled, or (as in the case of FOX's “Weird Loners”) sent off to die quietly.
Netflix has had more success doing away with pilots, but that's in part because no one but Netflix has any idea how the streaming service defines “success.” Still, even for Netflix and its secret, potentially magical, economic model, making a deal with Marvel for FIVE different shows, to debut in successive years, all sight unseen at the time the deal was made, seemed an enormous gamble – like building an entire housing development on unsurveyed land.
The plan was to do a TV version of what Marvel's movies did in leading up to “The Avengers,” by separately introducing the characters of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist before having the four of them team up as the Defenders. Yes, these were pre-existing characters with fanbases of varying degrees, but the deal was struck while Marvel's only TV show at that point was “Agents of SHIELD,” mired deep in its early-season 1 mediocrity. If “Daredevil” wound up generating as little enthusiasm, and/or if nobody cared about “A.K.A. Jessica Jones,” Netflix could have been trapped on a five-year path to a superhero team show built around characters the audience had long since rejected.
This was a very big risk, even for a company that seems to be rolling in money and can tell people how successful it is without anyone being able to question that. But the first five episodes of “Daredevil” (the whole first season debuts tonight at midnight Pacific) suggest it was a risk worth taking. This is easily the best of Marvel's three shows so far, and quickly moves towards the front of the overall superhero TV pack.
Thanks to the misshapen film with Ben Affleck, Daredevil is far better known than the heroes who will follow him on Netflix, or than the various SHIELD agents from the two ABC shows. Because of that, producers Drew Goddard and Steven DeKnight(*) do something very smart – something that many comic book adaptations don't have either the nerve or ability to do – in not devoting themselves entirely to telling a superhero origin story.
(*) Both have ties to Joss Whedon, as former writers on both “Buffy” and “Angel” (and Goddard as director and co-writer of “Cabin in the Woods”), but also have ample TV experience away from the almighty Joss, including DeKnight running Starz's various “Spartacus” series.
Yes, the series' opening scene involves young Matt Murdock being blinded by toxic chemicals after pushing an elderly man out of the path of the truck carrying them. And yes, the season has to get him to the point where he'll be calling himself Daredevil and wearing the familiar red costume (which appears only in the title sequence of these early episodes). But the show proper begins with Matt (played as an adult by “Boardwalk Empire” alum Charlie Cox) having mastered his powers – to the point where the producers don't even bother explaining to the audience exactly what they are (heightened versions of his other four senses, plus a new one that allows him to “see” in a different way) and how they work for several episodes – and already acting as a vigilante in Hell's Kitchen, albeit wearing simple black clothing and a homemade black mask. It's a much more exciting way to open the series (which still offers flashbacks to Matt as a child adjusting to his changed circumstance) than dwelling mainly on the origin because that offers an easy structure.
The black proto-costume, and many of the key story points, come from “Man Without Fear,” a 1994 miniseries from seminal Daredevil writer Frank Miller. His dark, violent take on the character isn't the only one (recently, Mark Waid has had great creative success bringing Matt back to his more light-hearted, swashbuckling '60s roots), but it's been the most popular version for 30-plus years, just as so many Batman screen adaptations have also been influenced by the work Miller did on that character following his initial Daredevil run. This is a brutal show, where the bad guys are particularly nasty and cruel (in one of the very first scenes, Matt busts up a human trafficking ring), and where we see limbs broken, faces impaled on spikes, and torture committed by hero and villain alike. The show commits to the idea of Hell's Kitchen as a place desperately in need of a hero (the Avengers are referred to in passing, but they have more important things to do), even if Matt at times comes too close to becoming the thing he is fighting against.
In a TV universe that already includes “Banshee,” “Strike Back” and “Arrow,” the bar is awfully high for action, but the “Daredevil” stunt team does an excellent job of conveying how a single man, even one with enhanced senses, could be such a threat to the underworld. (And, like “Arrow,” the show takes advantage of filming most of its fight scenes at night without actually hiding the stunt work in darkness.) One episode has an extended brawl that's presented as a single take – if you know where to look, you can spot where the edits were hidden, but it's impressive even then – to give you a sense of just how dangerous Daredevil is, and also how much punishment he can absorb in any one skirmish. (On occasion, you may wonder why someone doesn't just shoot him, but there are enough instances of people trying and failing to do it that you should be able to suspend your disbelief.)
Cox deftly balances the lightness of Matt the lawyer with the steeliness and Catholic guilt that defines him as Daredevil. (The English actor also does a passable enough American accent that it's easy to focus on how strong the overall performance is.) As Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, who are respectively Matt's law partner and secretary, Elden Henson and Deborah Ann Woll(**) are incredibly likable; there's a subplot in one episode where they go on a pub crawl to take her mind off her problems, and they're so charming together that I would have watched at least a full hour of it without a single appearance from their superpowered associate. As nurse Claire Temple, (a '70s love interest of Luke Cage's), Rosario Dawson makes a strong foil for Cox. And Vondie Curtis-Hall invests investigative reporter Ben Urich – working in a dying industry where his skill set is no longer valued – with so much humanity that a story arc involving him and Karen quickly becomes compelling even though it has very little to do with Daredevil in the early going.
(**) “True Blood” vet Woll is a public fan of cosplay, having appeared at different comic book conventions dressed as Hit Girl and Axe Cop. Her longtime boyfriend, E.J. Scott, is legally blind, and he attended the L.A. premiere with her dressed as Matt Murdock. I don't know if that's the primary reason she took the job, but all involved with the show are very lucky that she did. She's terrific.
As secretive (to the point where saying his name out loud in public can lead to a fate worse than death) Hell's Kitchen kingpin Wilson Fisk, Vincent D'Onofrio doesn't have the otherworldly size of the character in the comics – but then, not even the late Michael Clarke Duncan quite measured up in the Affleck film. Other than that, though, D'Onofrio is everything the show could ask for in an arch villain, as he and the creative team bring a great deal of complexity and shading – in his own way, Fisk seems himself as the hero of Hell's Kitchen, and Daredevil as an obstacle to healing the neighborhood – to the role.
DeKnight, Goddard and company also understand that this is a show likely to be binged over a weekend by many of its viewers, and play with the format accordingly. There's a long serialized narrative about Matt learning the vigilante trade and Fisk consolidating his power, but each episode is structurally different from the one before, so that it doesn't feel monotonous even when watched all in a rush. The first episode's a bit generic (even with Matt already in action, there's still a lot of exposition to get through), but following that, you get a very claustrophobic story about what happens after Matt has been in a fight where he's gotten punched, kicked and stabbed multiple times; then an episode focusing largely on Matt and Foggy's legal practice (which, as in the comics, provides a secondary story engine so the show doesn't have to always lean on the superheroics); then a Kingpin spotlight; etc.
It definitely gets grisly at times, but in a way that feels true to the world of the show and to the most dominant version of the source material. Even though Matt never uses the phrase “radar sense” (the visual depiction of it is both surprising and cool), this feels in every way a series committed to and unapologetic about its comic book origins. Some comic book adaptations struggle to appeal to the widest possible audience, and from seemingly answering to too many different corporate masters: just look at the schizophrenic, overpopulated “Gotham,” or the bland, some-things-to-some-people early days of “Agents of SHIELD.” Because this show's being made for Netflix, the home of a thousand niches, no one involved has to worry about making this anything other than the most kick-ass “Daredevil” adaptation possible.
So far, they've succeeded at that, and made me even more eager to get a look at the other heroes who will eventually partner up with Matt Murdock.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Reviewing every episode of a Netflix show is impractical for me under the best of circumstances; at a time when “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “Justified,” “The Americans” and “Louie” are all airing new episodes, it's impossible. Whenever I have time to finish the season (and it may be a while), I'll write something additional, but in the meantime, our own Donna Dickens is planning to write up each episode on her Harpy blog over the next week or two.