Prepare for the worst, but hope for mediocre. Following the weak Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the better, but barely watched, Agent Carter series, fans have every right to be nervous about any new live-action Marvel shows. Where Marvel failed in trying too hard to adapt their storytelling to the conventions of broadcast television, Marvel succeed in adapting to the conventions of on-demand television. Marvel’s new series Daredevil is not only the best superhero TV series they’ve produced, it is to-date the best series produced for an on-demand streaming service.
Marvel have partnered with Netflix to deliver 60 episodes of superhero television. This is to be comprised of full seasons of:
1 x Daredevil
1 x Luke Cage
1 x Jessica Jones
1 x Iron Fist
1 x The Defenders (a superhero team-up series featuring Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist)
Most superhero TV series are largely awful, but Daredevil succeeds by working completely to the strength of what the format allows – niche, targeted story-telling that layers its characterisation and plotting over several episodes and rewards those who make an effort to consume it in a concentrated timespan. Daredevil takes its time in revealing all the key players in the series, their motivations, and even their names. It’s masterful.
Daredevil is built with the shape and form of a comic book. For years, comic fans have been reading stories that are written for ‘trade’ collections. These are collections of individual comic book issues (usually 5-8 of them) published in the one volume. As such, most story arcs are written to last for 5-8 issues, with each issue being its own individual instalment to provide a satisfactory story to the person reading month to month. It’s very similar to the way TV seasons now are written for full-season mass consumption, but with individual episodes offering its own multi-act structure.
We are still in the infancy of storytelling via streaming TV services. In-built to the structure is the ability to encourage the viewer to watch as much of the story as they want at any given time. This enables viewers to absorb a story at their own pace, with a structure unencumbered by the logistics of telling a story week-to-week. This is a structure that has been perfected within comic book publishing. The storytellers can be as nuanced as they want as the viewing is being undertaken by an audience who are fully invested in the experience presented by that shows world.
The only misstep that the debut episode makes is by opening with the origin of Daredevil’s abilities – a scene depicting a child injured by a chemical spill on the city streets that has rendered him blind. Most viewers will recall a similar take on the scene from the weak 2003 Ben Affleck movie. Opening with this scene builds a false expectation with the viewer that the show will re-tread the familiar. Had they repositioned the ‘origin’ scene later in the episode or season, it would have done wonders to tweak viewer expectation. What is special about Daredevil as a series is that the series feels like a new approach on bringing superheroes to television, eschewing many of the tropes one comes to expect from the first instalment of a superhero story.
Watching the Daredevil series, it is difficult not to draw comparisons with the recent Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films. Daredevil, as conceptualised in this series, is based heavily off the 1980’s Daredevil comics penned by writer Frank Miller, who later went on to redefine Batman through Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. These books were a significant influence on Nolan’s Batman films.
More than just sharing the Frank Miller DNA, it’s interesting to note how many cues Daredevil takes from The Dark Knight, specifically. This is a grounded, real world hero who operates in a tangible space. Every punch thrown in the film is felt and a punch is often not quite enough to take out an enemy in the world of Daredevil. Unlike most depictions of violence on TV, when facing an enemy, if Daredevil punches them he needs to keep on punching them until they stay down. This is a brutal, cold, and violent superhero series. And it’s absolutely captivating to watch.
Just as Daredevil owes a debt of gratitude to The Dark Knight, it also takes many cues from The Raid and The Raid 2. While the action scenes are rarely as visceral as either Raid films, the scenes feel just as real.
While it may be addressed in later episodes this season, this first episode never touches on why Matt Murdock (the titular Daredevil) dresses in a costume to fight crime. As a viewer, it is interesting (yet rarely ever adequately shown) how the hero takes that step from seeing that there’s a problem in the world to acknowledging that the best way for them as an individual to combat the problem is to dress up in a costume and punch bad guys. How does Matt Murdock take the step to see that as a legitimate choice? Often such a decision is legitimised by the character’s situation, but outside of perhaps Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film, it is very rare to see the steps needed actually rationalised. With the Daredevil character so heavily grounded as a street-level hero, this is a fascinating area of exploration. Furthermore, in a city that has recently seen significant action/devastation with The Avengers, what makes him believe that he can safely operate in a world of that scale?
Daredevil is compelling, wonderful TV that will hopefully find an audience beyond fans of the Marvel superhero films. This is a dark, nuanced TV series that is worthy of a wide audience. Daredevil is utterly fantastic and demands that you use all of your senses while watching.
Daredevil launches on Netflix worldwide from 10 April 2015.