Marvel’s films and television shows have often been accused of lacking variety. Daredevil, taking its cue from Frank Miller’s comic book miniseries The Man Without Fear, shattered that perception. It wasn’t bright and colourful, nor was it snappy and lighthearted. But it wasn’t "dark and gritty" in the same washed-out and humourless way that something like Man of Steel was. It was raw, it was intense, and it was very violent. But it was also incredibly human, and that’s what made it all work.
Matt Murdock wasn’t flying around in an indestructible suit. He wasn’t wielding an enchanted hammer. He didn’t even have super strength. All he had was enhanced perception, a fair bit of training, and a ton of will, but he was as mortal as the people he protected. Fighting wasn’t an effortless dance of fancy moves for him, like it would be for Black Widow. It visibly wore him out, he took many a severe beating, and his body was no stranger to injury. We often saw him panting, bleeding, struggling to get back on his feet—while his opponents did the same. The people he fought weren’t quickly dispatched, knocked out by a single punch like nameless henchmen often are. Just like him, they kept coming back, and it took some effort to keep them down. This set Daredevil apart from most superheroes we’re used to seeing and made his plight involving and the fight scenes gripping in a way no amount of good choreography can achieve. But make no mistake: the choreography was superb. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the fight scene at the end of the second episode, ‘Cut Man’, was one of the best things I’d ever seen on television.
Another weakness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe had been the absence of memorable villains aside from Loki. Daredevil changed that as well, as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk was an even better antagonist than Loki, and Marvel’s best to date. The comic book version of Fisk was little more than a caricature mobster, but D’Onofrio’s interpretation was radically different and much more interesting. He was introverted, lonely, and emotionally vulnerable. He struggled to form words when he spoke, his face twitched, and he obsessively fiddled with his cufflinks. His backstory revealed him to be a damaged child in a grown man’s hulking body. Like Daredevil, Fisk was presented as a human, and like Daredevil, he believed he was doing what was best for his beloved city. But at the same time, he was terribly intimidating. His emotional vulnerability meant that he was prone to terrifying fits of rage, made all the more alarming by his overwhelming physique and ability to throw a mean haymaker, literally pummeling people to death. The show did an excellent job building up his mystique, allowing him to be a shadowy figure whose very name his underlings were terrified of uttering, a name that wasn’t even revealed to the audience for three episodes. And when, at long last, he was finally introduced, there he was: just a lonely man in an art gallery, awkwardly—almost adorably—asking a woman out on a date.
The rest of the characters were strong as well. The trio of Matt, Foggy, and Karen worked great together, often delivering the bulk of the show’s much-needed levity and heart, thankfully without being reduced to a love triangle. Karen was a very active member of the group, pursuing justice on her own at great personal risk, and enlisting the help of Ben Urich, another well-known character from the comics. Foggy and Matt’s friendship was played really well and hardly required any selling. One of the season’s best episodes was the intimate and emotional one dedicated to their relationship. The nurse Claire, played by Rosario Dawson, provided the same kind of heart to the vigilante side of Daredevil that Foggy and Karen did to the Matt Murdock side. Scott Glenn was perfectly cast as Matt’s mentor and trainer, Stick, a character that might as well have jumped onto the screen right off the page. Finally, I have to mention Fisk’s assistant Wesley, as slick and charismatic a bad guy as they come.
If I were to have a minor issue with Daredevil, it would be the season’s length. As Agent Carter showed, shorter seasons allow for tighter storytelling, and though Daredevil‘s 13-episode first season is almost half the length of traditional shows, I believe it would have been even better with just 10 episodes. For example, the ninth episode was easily the best of the series, and the show naturally needed some recovery time after its explosive events, but that time was stretched across three episodes where one would have sufficed. I say this in retrospect, of course, as at the time I never wanted it to end.
Simply put, Daredevil has set the bar. Even in this golden age of superhero television, and especially this year with the awesome first season of The Flash, Daredevil still very clearly stood out as the best superhero show yet.