Comic-book storytelling has long seemed more compatible with the arc of a television season than it is with film: For all the success of superhero movies that can devote their inflated budgets to special effects, two hours simply isn’t enough time to do anything truly interesting with plot. Marvel has been playing with longer narrative arcs for years now with its films, which are knitted together within one big, interlinked universe. But the strong first season of Daredevil, which just dropped on the binge-friendly Netflix as 13 episodes, proves the material might have finally found its perfect medium.
Comic-book adaptations may well be reaching saturation point for casual fans, and if not yet, they probably will soon with the amount of competing “cinematic universes” on the horizon aping Marvel’s approach. But all the comic-book company (now a multimedia conglomerate owned by Disney) is doing is repeating a formula that has worked with readers for more than 50 years—replicating the thrill of keeping up with long, evolving stories that can bump into and cross over with each other. This has mostly taken place on film, involving godlike heroes like Thor or Captain America, but with Daredevil, Marvel is smartly building out another vital branch of its brand—the smaller-scale heroes who patrol the streets of New York and save a few people—rather than whole planets or galaxies—at a time.
Daredevil centers around Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), an attorney in Hell’s Kitchen who was raised by a big-hearted, small-time boxer and blinded at a young age by some requisite mysterious chemicals. When Daredevil was created by Stan Lee in 1964, Hell’s Kitchen was the West Side Story-esque bad neighborhood of old Manhattan, not the gentrified place it’s become now, and this Daredevil sticks to the original vibe without getting too hokey. By day, Matt is a do-gooder lawyer trying to set up a practice with his law-school buddy Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson); by night, he battles organized crime in a ninja outfit, taking advantage of his remaining heightened senses and magical radar vision to keep one step ahead of everyone.
As a comic-book character, Daredevil has always felt most evocative when New York is in dire straits. Writer and artist Frank Miller’s brooding take on the character in the late 70s and early 80s, when the city was mired in recession and rising crime, remains the definitive one. Brian Michael Bendis’ four-year run as writer, starting in December 2001, acknowledged New York’s long shadow of post-9/11 paranoia and fear. Those separate arcs clearly serve as the major inspiration for the show’s creator Drew Goddard and its showrunner Steven DeKnight; their Daredevil is pitch-dark and gritty, sometimes to the extent that you can barely tell what’s happening on screen.
While most Marvel movies are bright, cartoonish adventures, being on Netflix gives Daredevil a little more leeway to make its violence more graphic and its ethics a bit more muddled. Murdock doesn’t dispatch foes easily, brutally drawing out even a simple battle with mob minions; and since he doesn’t heal easy, he forms an alliance with a local nurse (Rosario Dawson) who helps sew him up while trying to decode his motivations. There’s a real sense of risk to Murdock’s endeavors, something sorely lacking from many a comic-book property, where future sequels starring the hero in question are already being advertised. It helps that his adversary is the Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio), a hulking mob boss who manages to be one of the rare Marvel villains who’s actually interesting.
Usually, there’s too much going on in a Marvel movie to devote any time to building up a villain—outside of Tom Hiddleston’s florid, Shakespearean Loki, there’s no memorable adversary in this sprawling superhero world. D’Onofrio is too interesting an actor to let the Kingpin be simply big and scary—he speaks softly and is surrounded by a cloud of indefinable menace long before he does anything truly villainous. So when he does act, it’s seriously chilling, which helps make the case for the longform approach Netflix has taken here. Kingpin doesn’t need to enter a scene and crush someone’s head between his hands to prove he’s a bad guy; he’s allowed to evolve alongside Murdock as they head toward an inevitable showdown.
Daredevil is the first in a series of shows Marvel is making with Netflix, all street-level dramas that will eventually unite into a miniseries called The Defenders, because the studio can’t do anything without thinking three years ahead. There are certainly kinks to work out in the formula, but while every other studio is rushing to replicate what Marvel accomplished on the big screen, this new bulwark seems like an exciting next step. The idea of a serialized superhero narrative, with every season working up to a showdown with some “big bad,” came to television through Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was steeped in the history of comic books.
Daredevil brings that format full circle. No problem gets solved within one episode, but as soon as the credits are rolling, Netflix is prodding you to watch the next chapter. It’s no different than buying a trade paperback and devouring a year of comic-book storytelling in one sitting. A network show like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC has some obligation to keep things simple enough to follow along with week to week; Daredevil is its graphic-novel cousin, meatier and more ambitious, and succeeding on those grounds even though the pace is slower. Since embarking on adapting its own properties, Marvel has done well to make its adaptations accessible to the general public. Daredevil represents a leap into more niche territory, and the results are encouragingly different.