[This is a review of Daredevil season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
With Daredevil, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn't just make Netflix the delivery system for the next wave of hotly anticipated comic book adaptations. It makes Netflix the dimly lit street of the MCU; the kind of place where danger lurks around every corner; the sort of place where you'd have to be a fool to walk alone at night, unless of course, you were the fearless type – a man without fear, if you will. Like Hell's Kitchen, the Manhattan neighborhood Matt Murdock has sworn to protect, Marvel has staked out Netflix to be the home of a different kind of superhero – one that, despite being able to tell if someone's lying by listening to her heartbeat from across a table, feels decidedly more grounded than its summer blockbuster brethren.
That grounded series kicks off its 13-episode season (a.k.a. the next thirteen hours most of you will mainline like your life depended on it) with 'Into the Ring', an apt title for a series that uses the titular hero's proximity to and personal history with the world of boxing as a thread that, when pulled, reveals a series of threads woven deeper into a surprisingly dense tapestry - asking the kinds of questions that define a hero. Questions like: "Why do we fight?" and "What do we fight for?"
Writer and series creator Drew Goddard puts those questions into play early on, eschewing a lengthy origin of Matt Murdock's alter ego and/or heavy exposition on how or why a blind lawyer from Hell's Kitchen is donning a rudimentary black suit while punching criminals in the face at night - in favor of flavoring his protagonist with a dash of Irish-Catholic guilt. Fans of the comic book will recognize how important the threads of boxing and religion are to the pugilistic lapsed Catholic at the center of this story. And because Goddard uses those elements as seasoning, rather than making them the whole meal, Daredevil gets off to a thematically rich and satisfying start.
With some casual references to the events in The Avengers, the episode makes it clear that this is indeed the same universe inhabited by the likes of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, etc., but it isn't remotely the same world. While the Avengers are staving off intergalactic threats, and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are doing their clandestine thing, Matt Murdock is jumping off shipping containers in the middle of the night and riding assassins out apartment windows into a torrential downpour.
This is street-level MCU, and Director Phil Abraham (Mad Men, The Sopranos) does everything he can to make that abundantly clear. Abraham fills the screen with so much grit you'll be picking it out of your teeth. Like Murdock's body, everything looks a little bruised, on the verge of breaking down. The police station is covered in a convincing patina of filth, while the newly acquired law offices of Nelson & Murdock may have been sold as having seen better days, but it's pretty clear the burgeoning, idealistic law practice is the best thing to ever call those four walls home.
The attention paid to every battered detail makes for a great setting, but it isn't just window dressing; it's the key to an overarching narrative involving a corporate crime syndicate being run by the unseen (and unspoken of) Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio). Establishing the edges of a larger plot that was ostensibly kicked into gear by the alien invasion – referred to here as "the incident" – that leveled half of New York not only cleverly benefits from the shared universe, it also legitimizes the events of 'Into the Ring' by allowing it grow into something more than just an introduction to the cast.
Despite the manufactured nature of the murder that launches Murdock and Nelson's hours-old legal career, characters and their circumstances are introduced organically. After a cursory glance of the accident that robbed a young Matt Murdock of his sight, but granted him his other heightened senses, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) are brought quickly into the fold and made players in the episode's swiftly paced and surprisingly twisty plot - one that succeeds in not only in establishing who Matt Murdock's (Charlie Cox) alter ego is (even though he doesn't have a name yet), but also the kind of threat he will soon be facing.
But if the brutally choreographed fight sequences are any indication, Matt Murdock makes for one hell of a threat himself. As a television series committed to playing the superhero game, Daredevil has a lot to live up to in terms of delivering an appropriately action-packed product in an increasingly crowded television landscape. Facing some stiff competition from the likes of Arrow and The Flash, the series gets off to a great start by refusing to pull any punches when it comes to the nature of its fisticuffs. Faces are pummeled, limbs are dislocated, and bones are broken. But rather than feel like a bit of gratuitous one-upmanship, capitalizing on Netflix's lack of restrictions, the violence feels measured and deliberate.
Each bone-crunching punch delivers the maximum impact and heightens the stakes just a little more. The larger world maybe filled with gods wielding magical hammers and giant green behemoths running amok, but Hell's Kitchen is a place free from suits of armor and vibranium shields; it's a place where heroes bleed just as profusely as the villains they're trying to put down. And that makes this rough and tumble corner of the MCU feel substantial and distinct.
With its multi-cultural crime syndicate planning to make a mint off of rebuilding Hell's Kitchen, Matt and Foggy's nascent law firm taking shape, and Karen clearly starting over, the episode makes use of that distinctness and its titular crime-fighter's inherent street-level essence by starting at the bottom – or, as the name of the neighborhood would suggest: well below that. And, as it turns out, that's a great place for the series to be. With a premiere as dark and strong and ferocious as this, 'Into the Ring' gives every indication that Daredevil is primed for one hell of a rapid ascension.
Daredevil season one is available in its entirety on Netflix, but be sure to follow along with Screen Rant's upcoming coverage of the season over the coming weeks.
Photos: Barry Wetcher/Netflix