Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. But with that love of comics and the characters they feature comes an intense interest in the various adaptations that have been made of comic characters. Each month, in Off the Page, the Fanboys will take a look at a piece of comic-inspired media, whether that be a movie, television show, live performance or even a radio drama.
Nick: Aaaaand we’re back, ladies and gentlemen! After a CW-like unexplained hiatus, the Hard-Traveling Fanboys have returned following the holy weekend of comic book fandom. The first weekend in May has become something of a holiday in geek culture, as Free Comic Book Day coincides each year with the release of a major Hollywood comic book film.
And while we all know every person on the planet headed out to their local theater to see Avengers: Age of Ultron this weekend, we’re here this week to take a look at a different side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Greg: Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock … or you’ve just been away from the Internet, you know that April saw the debut of Marvel’s “Daredevil” on Netflix. As is the case with all its original shows, Netflix dropped all 13 first-season episodes in April, and reports indicate the show is a hit, with a second season already greenlit for next year.
Never ones to be left in the pop culture dust, we’ve decided to offer our takes on the show. How does it measure up to other superhero television offerings? How does it fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Most importantly, is it good? We’ve got answers. The right ones? Probably not, but gosh darnit, we stand by ’em.
Nick: One of the major things about this release was that all 13 episodes were dropped onto Netflix at the same time, making it ideal for an all-weekend binge viewing. Sadly, yours truly has been slowed due to various circumstances and has only been able to get through a handful of episodes. So, for the purposes of this review, we’ll be dealing exclusively with the first four episodes.
Greg: It should prove an interesting recap, as it’s not unlike our Longbook Hunters reviews — I’ve seen the entire series, whereas Nick has only seen some of it. In that way, it’s like me reading Ultimate Spider-Man for the first time last year.
Nick: In any event, let’s jump in. From the getgo, it’s made clear that this show exists in a different corner of the MCU, mainly because the difference in tone between this and most of the Marvel films is staggering to say the least.
The violence and general darkness of the show is set from its opening scene, in which a relatively inexperienced Matt Murdock takes down a group of thugs involved in human trafficking.
Greg: If I were some Twitter-happy comics fans, I’d instantly start slamming the show for being “grimdark,” too gritty and lacking humor. Of course, I feel exactly the opposite. This is exactly the tone a Daredevil show should have. Street level characters should not be written the same as cosmic deities or laser-blasting quick-witted superheroes. Daredevil’s a character who has been written a number of different ways, but by far the most popular and iconic version is the one popularized by Frank Miller — the, yes, grim and gritty street soldier who always seems to get knocked down by life but never gives up.
Marvel is to be commended for having the courage to have a show like this exist alongside a fluffier show like “Agents of SHIELD” and summer blockbusters like “The Avengers.” I instantly loved the way this show was filmed, lit and written, and I felt the first episode was among the best — a great introduction to Matt Murdock (played expertly by Charlie Cox) and his world.
Nick: Yes, I, too, loved the tone of this. It’s wholly different from the rest of the MCU, which isn’t to say I dislike the tone of Marvel’s movies. As I’ve said before, the MCU hasn’t given us a bad movie yet. However, I’m all for variety — a variety of characters, stories, styles, tones and approaches.
So, this show was able to carve out its own niche in a highly impressive way. As Greg said, we get a fantastic portrayal here from Charlie Cox. The other classic Daredevil elements are here as well, as we got introduced to Matt’s partner Foggy Nelson, who largely serves as the show’s comedic relief. We also get a first glimpse at Karen Page, Matt’s on-again, off-again romantic interest from the comics. Here, she serves as the very first client of Murdock & Nelson when she is accused of murder after a coworker turns up dead in her apartment.
Greg: Elden Henson is a perfect Foggy Nelson. He embodies all the innocence, heart and quiet heroism that have made the oddly named sidekick stand the test of time in the comics. You mentioned his role as comedic relief, but he also helps ground Matt in the real world. Beyond all the theatrics of fighting the criminal underworld in a ninja costume, there’s a world of normal people out there trying to make a difference, and that’s what Foggy brings to the table in virtually every episode. He’s also quite funny.
While Woll’s Karen Page doesn’t get off to the best start in the first episode, by the second one she’s firmly entrenched as one of my favorite characters. She comes in as a flawed, damaged person who is making the best of a bizarre situation. In short, she’s probably the most like an average person. She makes mistakes, but it’s always in search of trying to do the right thing. In some ways, I guess you could say she’s Matt’s mirror image as much as the villainous Wilson Fisk seems to be.
How did these characters work for you in these four early episodes, Nick?
Nick: Foggy is great and quite possibly my favorite non-villain character in the show thus far. Again, I’m only five episodes in, so while I like Cox’s portrayal of Matt, it seems at times like he’s a great Daredevil but a little bland as Murdock. Foggy, meanwhile, is an actual human being. Funny, yes, but you get the impression that it’s more of a defense mechanism than anything else. He also proves to be quite the asset to Nelson & Murdock, as his legal skills get the pair out of a tight spot a few times.
Karen, meanwhile, I’m still up in the air on. I like Deborah Ann Woll’s portrayal well enough, but I haven’t yet seen enough of Karen to know how I feel about her as a character.
The real show-stealing side character for me despite my limited exposure to him is Ben Urich. This might be the best depiction of a journalist I’ve seen in a long time, as the show confronts the all-too-real image of a great reporter whose undeniable skill doesn’t translate into financial security. Ben is a brilliant guy, but one whose career choice and story selection has left him at something of a dead end in his life.
Greg: Yeah, I think both of us were drawn quickly to Ben, as we have both spent significant time in the journalism business (that’s a shoot, brother!). Vondie Curtis-Hall does a great job playing a talented, ethical but ultimately tired man who has seen his industry go through changes that conflict with everything he believes in. Ben is struggling with the idea of “selling out,” but he’s just too worn-down to really fight against it … at least so far.
Nick: The first few episodes also take great care in establishing the criminal hierarchy that Daredevil will face off against over the course of the show. We see an alliance between the mysterious Madame Gao, the experienced Leland Owsley (an updated version of one of Daredevil’s earliest comic book foes, The Owl), the Russian Ranskahov brothers and Nobu, who seems to have Yakuza ties. They are joined in this alliance by Wesley, who represents a larger figure. In fact, Wesley’s ominous mentions of his “employer” are a major focus of the first few episodes. So, even though every comic fan worth their salt knew he was coming, when Wilson Fisk finally appears, it feels like a big deal.
Greg: Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore) is an amazing heel. His arrogance simply jumps off the screen every time he appears. He has an incredibly punchable face — no offense to Moore, who is exactly as smarmy as he should be. To further the wrestling analogy, Wesley is a heat machine. There is no character in the show, Fisk included, that I wanted to see Daredevil pummel as much as this slimy toad.
Nick: There’s also Vanessa, Fisk’s love interest. We see the beginning of their romance in the show’s early episodes, and it’s clear that she is neither oblivious nor entirely innocent.
Greg: Ayelet Zurer plays Vanessa with a quiet confidence, and she serves as one of the show’s most mysterious characters throughout the series. She’s also essential in humanizing the Kingpin, played impeccably by accomplished actor Vincent D’Onofrio.
The greatness of D’Onofrio’s Kingpin is evident as early as his first on-screen appearance, when we see him staring at a painting, completely immobile except for constantly twitching fingers. I knew, as early as that scene, we were in store for something special.
Nick: Both are excellent, and thus far I don’t find them so much detestable as I do completely enthralling. Of all the characters on the show, these are the two I’m most fascinated by and can’t wait to find out more about.
Let’s switch gears here and talk a bit about the show’s action scenes. We’ve both praised Arrow as the pinnacle of superhero fight scenes on the small screen, but Daredevil is a clear threat to that throne. Everything, from staging to choreography to cinematography, has been nearly impeccable in the action scenes I’ve seen.
Greg: Daredevil takes advantage of a few key factors to create compelling action scenes: an evidently solid budget and an edgier TV-MA rating. Neither of these aspects is essential to good fight scenes, but they certainly help, in the same way a stipulation can help a wrestling match. The fight choreographers and stunt doubles can really lay in their attacks without fear of being too harsh for network restrictions.
Another key decision the producers clearly made before filming was a desire to create more balanced, realistic fights. Nowhere is this more evident than the sprawling battle in an apartment complex between Daredevil and a number of nameless thugs. This and many of the fights throughout the series appear heavily inspired by the brutal scenes in the classic Hong Kong revenge film “Oldboy,” When taking a punch, the thugs don’t just fall to the ground and fade away like in a video game (or, in fairness, a number of great Hollywood action films). Instead, they wobble, kneel down, gasp for air and then come back for more. Likewise, Matt takes his fair share of punishment, seeming close to defeat on several occasions.
It all adds up to some brilliant stuff, and it’s likely mind-blowing for those who have never experienced such fight scenes before. I’d put that scene from episode two against any fight scene in any superhero film. It’s that good.
Nick: Yes, as you said, the TV-MA rating allows the fights to get bloody and brutal. The hallway scene you described is the best fight scene I’ve seen anywhere since Arrow’s midseason finale last year, but it isn’t the only one. In episode three, there’s a standout confrontation between one of Fisk’s henchmen Healy and Daredevil that ends with Healy taking his own life in tremendously painful fashion.
It’s constant touches like these that make this feel so distinct from any other Marvel project. Yet, there are other references to the rest of the MCU that remind you of its existence without distracting from Daredevil’s own story and feel. All in all, this show is a tremendous accomplishment not just for Marvel, but for the comic book adaptation GENRE as a whole.
Greg: HOHO WOW! I sure do agree!
Let’s circle back to Charlie Cox for a moment. You mentioned enjoying his Daredevil more than his Murdock, but I see things a bit differently. I’ve always imagined Matt Murdock having a soft, kind voice, so I really appreciate Cox’s portrayal. It’s easy to understand why so many people are drawn to Matt, as he has a way of making people feel at ease when they’re around him. It’s also a nice contrast to Foggy’s bombast, which makes them a perfect legal team.
In fact, one issue I found with the show is that there aren’t enough courtroom scenes for my liking. Granted, Nelson and Murdock have no real clients, but I found the legal wrangling to be among the show’s best aspects, so it could’ve helped build Matt’s character a bit to display the attributes that make him a good lawyer.
Nick: I can’t fully comment on how well the show addresses the legal aspects of Nelson and Murdock, but I will say that anytime the pair get an opportunity to interact with clients, the police or any representative of the judicial system in the early episodes, the scenes are always extremely effective and leave me wanting to see more of their professional acumen.
Greg: There were a few other problems with these episodes, at least for me. Episode two begins with Matt lying in a dumpster, and we’re never shown the events that led to that, though he describes them to Rosario Dawson’s Night Nurse. That felt a tad lazy on the part of the writing staff, especially so early into the show, when we hadn’t yet seen Daredevil get the crap kicked out of him.
The Russian brothers are somewhat interesting, but much of their character development appears to go nowhere. We’re shown footage of them surviving torturous conditions, but in these episodes they never really rise above mildly inconvenient threats to the main players, except for the aforementioned off-screen beating.
Despite those minor faults, this show is incredible and one of the best comic book-inspired TV shows I’ve seen, live-action or animated.
Were there any aspects that didn’t work for you in these episodes?
Nick: Honestly, outside of my aforementioned lack of connection with Cox when he’s portraying Matt’s daytime persona, not really. I thought the show hit on almost every note, and does so to a degree that any adaptation, television or otherwise, should strive for.
Greg: Well there you have it, folks: Daredevil gets the HTF Seal of Approval, which in this case is a random comic book image.
We hope you join us next time, when we count down our favorite comic book moms, just in time for Mother’s Day!
Nick: Until then, you can give us your thoughts on Daredevil through Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com) or through the Place to Be Nation Comics Facebook page.