In the fifth episode of the new Netflix series Marvel's Daredevil, lawyer-by-day, vigilante-by-night Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox) explains to his new friend Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) how he sees the world. Blinded in a childhood accident, Matt discovered that his other senses had become superhumanly sharp, allowing him to perceive far more than ordinary people. "You have to think of it as more than just five senses," he tells Claire. "I can't see, not like everyone else, but I can feel. Things like balance, direction, micro-changes in air density, vibrations, blankets of temperature variations. Mix all that with what I hear, subtle smells. All of the fragments form a sort of... impressionistic painting." It's a speech that offers insight not only to Daredevil's title character, but to the show itself, which often feels less like a straightforward narrative than an impressionistic work in its own right, zooming in and out of its story in a way that seems almost random. It's a novel approach, especially in genre TV, but one that hasn't entirely paid off, resulting in a series that is brilliant at points, but whose whole is curiously unsatisfying.
The third effort to bring Marvel's cinematic universe to the television medium, Daredevil is also the opening volley in a project that is the televized equivalent of the ambitious Phase I. Over the next two years, Netflix plans to release three other series--AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist--featuring Marvel characters and set in roughly the same environs as Daredevil, culminating with a team-up of the four shows' heroes in The Defenders. While the cinematic universe has been spectacularly successful, however, Marvel has so far floundered in its TV efforts. Agents of SHIELD remains so in thrall to the events of the larger story around it (it is currently setting up events that won't pay off until 2019) that it has yet to develop characters or a story that are compelling in their own right. Agent Carter has a dynamite main character and spectacular action scenes, but struggled to find a story to tell with them, even when limited to only eight episodes. Daredevil rather badly needed to make a splash, and perhaps for that reason it has struck a much darker tone than the rest of the MCU (another reason is that it draws on the work of Frank Miller, who has written some of the definitive Daredevil stories, and who acted as a consultant on the show). The core of the series is Matt's frustration with his belief that the city he loves (specifically Hell's Kitchen, the neighborhood where he grew up and still lives) is being lost to crime and corruption, and his struggle with the question of whether the best way to address this is as a lawyer, fighting for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, or as a masked vigilante, who beats up criminals and seriously debates killing the crimelords who control them.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Daredevil--and, initially at least, the most compelling--is how fully it takes advantage of the streaming TV model, and of the expectation that it will be watched in a single or at most a few large gulps rather than week-by-week. Freed from the need to win over an audience with standalone episodes (which hardly any genre show does well anymore, unfortunately) or to be accessible to viewers who tune in halfway through the season, the show allows itself to be structureless. There is no straight line running through Matt's crimefighting and his pursuit of the criminal gangs plaguing Hell's Kitchen, and the show feels free to elide the parts of the story that it finds boring or unnecessary. The first episode ends with Matt using his super-hearing to pick up the sounds of a kidnapping in progress. The second episode begins with Claire, a nurse, finding him badly injured in the dumpster behind her building. As she patches him up, he explains that he's been pursuing the kidnapped child and ran afoul of some people involved in the crime, but the show trusts that we don't need to see that connective tissue.
The expectation of binge-watching also allows Daredevil to draw out explanations of its world and title character. When we first meet Matt, he's already patrolling the streets and performing seemingly impossible feats. It takes five episodes for us to learn what his powers are and how he uses them; seven, to learn who trained him to fight and put the idea of vigilantism in his head; and ten for him to articulate why he decided to don the mask and how he justifies his violent actions. By the same token, the season's villain, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio), known in the comics as Kingpin, is only introduced at the end of the third episode, and the season's eighth episode is dedicated almost entirely to him and to laying out his past.
As the first season draws on, however, the shapelessness that was initially so intriguing becomes a burden. It saps tension from the story, which was anyway never particularly propulsive. Fisk actually achieves the bulk of his dastardly plan at the end of the fifth episode, when he bombs several city blocks which he plans to redevelop (as noted in this brilliant dissection of the show, Daredevil simultaneously oversells and undersells the evil of a villain whose master plan is basically gentrification). For the rest of the season, Matt is playing catch-up, trying to either prove that Fisk is a criminal or decide whether he wants to kill him. But instead of building to a climax, the story seems rather to stumble onto a solution that allows Matt to confront and defeat Fisk without doing most of the legwork required to bring him there.
As the season grows more slack, it also becomes easier to notice that a lot of the innovation that Daredevil supposedly brings to the MCU--the emphasis on class and on the effect that crime and corruption have on the poor, the central importance of an urban setting which the hero vows to protect, the use of rich plutocrats as villains--are things that were done just recently, in the first season of Arrow. To be fair, this is less a case of plagiarism than of two works drawing from a common source (more precisely, Arrow's first season is a blatant riff on Batman Begins, which in turn was heavily influenced by the work of Frank Miller). But there's no denying that there are elements in Daredevil that feel as if they were lifted directly from Arrow. Fisk's evil plan to save the city from corruption by destroying the parts of it that he has deemed too diseased echoes both Malcolm Merlyn on Arrow and Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins. The season's tenth episode, "Nelson v. Murdock," centers on the disgust and dismay felt by Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Matt's best friend and law partner, when he learns Matt's secret. The episode is designed to show Matt how a normal, sane person reacts when they learn that he has dedicated his life to violence, but Foggy's reaction is almost word for word the one expressed by Tommy Merlyn on Arrow when he learns Oliver's secret.
To be sure, Daredevil is often much better made than Arrow, particularly the early episodes which were quite dire (it also has an obvious advantage over Arrow in being a story about class whose characters actually come from a working class background). But it is not so much better as to completely distract from the fact that it's retreading very familiar ground, and in some cases it actually falls short. The most crucial of these, unfortunately, is Matt himself. Like Arrow, Daredevil is the story of how its title character grows into heroism, but the show rarely seems willing to commit to actually depicting that process. It spends a lot of time explaining Matt's background to us, but very little time on Matt himself. Cox is very good at showing us the various masks that Matt presents to the world, but when it comes to the anger and ugliness that lie beneath, he's rarely given enough to work with.
Matt's character arc over the course of the first season revolves around the dilemma of whether he should kill Fisk. That's a fairly inert plot--no story that puts so much emphasis on whether or not our hero will kill a single bad guy is going to end with him doing the deed--and made even more so by the lawyerly way in which the show phrases the question--in the second episode, Matt brutally tortures a man for information and throws him off a roof, but it's OK because he lands in a dumpster and only ends up in a coma. Arrow was actually much smarter about this issue--it started with Oliver already an unrepentant killer, and let him slowly walk back from that state over the course of its first season. One of the problems of telling a superhero story in a gritty, "realistic" tone is that the closer you get to setting your story in something that resembles reality, the clearer it becomes that superheroes are actually a really bad idea, and that people who choose to go out at night in masks to beat up criminals are pretty messed up. So giving your hero some space to become a better person without actually giving up the vigilante lifestyle, as Arrow does, is a good idea. Daredevil, in contrast, paints itself into a corner--if Matt commits this particular murder, he's damned--and has nowhere to go from that point. It ends up embroidering around the question, sometimes in ways that are very compelling--Matt's conversations with a priest (Peter McRobbie) who challenges him to decide whether he's looking for a reason not to kill Fisk, or a justification for doing so, are a consistent highlight of the season--but never in a way that leaves him room to grow or change.
Matt's flatness stands in even sharper contrast when he's compared to Fisk, who is simultaneously Daredevil's greatest accomplishment and its biggest stumbling block. Played to perfection by D'Onofrio, Fisk is at once ruthless and deeply vulnerable. He is also one of the series's most emotionally available characters. In one of his earliest scenes, he makes an awkward but extremely sweet pass at a gallery owner, Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer), whose relationship with him is the season's central romantic plotline. He has a strong, supportive friendship with his assistant Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), who seems to genuinely care for his boss, and whose affection is clearly reciprocated. In a show full of masculine posturing, Fisk is the only character who allows himself to behave in decidedly unmasculine ways--when Wesley is murdered, Fisk sits for a long time holding the dead man's hand in his own, and plants a kiss on his forehead before leaving. And yet Fisk is also a deeply damaged man, scarred by the abuse of his father, whom he murdered to protect his mother, and harboring deep reserves of rage. When his first date with Vanessa is interrupted by one of his criminal associates, Fisk kills the man in a fit of incandescent, irrational anger, shouting "you embarrassed me in front of her!"
It's an impressive, complex portrait, and I very much hope that genre prejudice will not preclude D'Onofrio from receiving some award attention for it. But it's also a huge problem for the show that contains it, because Fisk turns out to be massively more interesting than anything else on screen, including of course the show's titular hero. As a lot of superhero stories do, Daredevil mirrors its hero and its villain--both come from a working class background, both had violent fathers (though Matt's father, a boxer, was never abusive towards him), both care deeply about their neighborhood and believe that it has fallen to them to save it, and both struggle with deep-seated rage. There's even an obvious echo of Matt's condition in Fisk's defining moment, when he stares unseeing at a blank wall, unable to drown out the sounds of his mother being beaten. But the parallel runs so deep and Fisk is such a dominant figure in the story that it feels less as if Daredevil has mirrored Matt and Fisk, and more as if it has given them the exact same character arc, and let Fisk do it better. By the end of the season, it is Fisk, not Matt, who has had a complete character arc and experienced a transformation (and it is Fisk's decisions, not Matt's, that move the plot, his own bad choices that lead to his downfall far more than Matt's heroics). In a way, this was inevitable the moment the show chose to center itself around the question of justified violence--Fisk, who is not a hero, can come to the logical conclusion of this dilemma in a way that Matt never could, embracing his own villainy in the season's final moments. By the end of its first season, Daredevil feels a lot more like Fisk's story than Matt's, and though this is interesting and clearly the result of deliberate choices, it's also unsupportable, especially within a universe as fundamentally conservative as the MCU.
The impressionistic storytelling, the shapeless plotting, the choice to humanize its villain and place his story at its center--these are all ways in which Daredevil tries to work within the conventions of prestige crime shows like The Wire or True Detective (and one of its core problems is that, well made though it is, it lacks the level of writing that can take these challenging tropes and weave them into a compelling story). Another example is the over-emphasis on male characters at the expense of any women in the cast. There are three women in Daredevil's main cast, and none of them feel particularly well served by the first season. Claire appears in only a few episodes (Dawson is apparently intended as a crossover character between the different Netflix shows, and as her character in the comics has connections to Luke Cage she will probably be seen in his show) and seems to function primarily as a caretaker and sounding board for Matt, though she also has enough good sense to shut down their nascent romantic relationship when she realizes that he has no intention of stopping his vigilantism. Vanessa gets more screen time, but her relationship with Fisk is frustratingly one-sided. We learn enough about him to understand why he falls for her so deeply and so quickly. But we learn almost nothing about Vanessa (who is hardly ever seen away from Fisk--there is only one scene in the first season that she does not share with him), much less anything that would explain why she's not only willing to date a man whom she knows to be a violent criminal, but so quickly ties her life to his, involving herself in her crimes and agreeing to go on the run with him at the season's end.
The one bright spot on the female character front is Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a client of Matt and Foggy's who becomes their receptionist. Unlike Claire and Vanessa, Karen is the driver of her own story, in which she investigates the criminal conspiracy that led to her being falsely accused of murder, and which inevitably leads to Fisk. Woll is excellent at conveying not only Karen's determination, but the hint of mania that underpins it as she browbeats and steamrolls her way towards the answers about the events that tore her life apart. Though driven by noble intentions, Karen's zeal to get at the truth and find justice for herself and others leads her to act recklessly and often unethically, and unlike Matt there is space in the show for her to become somewhat unlikable without completely losing her way. Unfortunately, Karen's plot strand is also the season's least successful, least interesting aspect. Her investigation somehow manages to be simultaneously too detailed and not detailed enough, drowning the viewers in a flood of meaningless names and places while signposting major breaks in the case that don't actually make any sense. In the season's later episodes, Karen and her partner, the journalist Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), discover that Fisk killed his father--not so much by being ace investigators but because the truth more or less falls in their laps--and walk around convinced that they have a smoking gun, even though it should be obvious that a twelve-year-old boy who killed his abusive father would be a figure of sympathy, not scorn. It's a story undeserving of its main character, and it helps to cement the feeling that Daredevil is a lot less interested in the women in its story than in the men.
(Much has been made of the fact that the people behind the show's scenes are almost entirely men--only one of the season's episodes, for example, was co-written by a woman--and one of the ways in which this feels most obvious is the show's handling, or rather its failure to handle, women's relationship with violence. Both Claire and Vanessa choose to become romantically involved with men whom they know to be violent, and at no point is it ever suggested that they fear that violence could be turned onto them. It's obviously not unrealistic for women to ignore the danger that their romantic partners pose them, but the show itself never seems to consider that this is a questionable choice--despite showing us repeatedly that both Matt and Fisk have deep reserves of rage which they often have trouble controlling, we're apparently meant to take them at face value when they assure the women in their lives that "I would never hurt you." Karen, meanwhile, comes to Matt and Foggy's attention after she's drugged while on a date with a man, and yet the obvious implications that such a setup would have for most women are never considered--drugging her is merely a means to framing her for her date's murder. This is not the only way in which Daredevil's pretense of "realism" runs aground on the shoals of its limited perspective--for a show about poverty and class, it's jarring that the perspectives we see belong almost exclusively to white people, and it will be interesting to see the show analyzed from a disability rights perspective--but to me it was the most obvious.)
Sporadically brilliant but ultimately inadequate, Daredevil is a marked improvement on its predecessors, but still not the home run that Marvel needed to launch their Netflix experiment. There's probably a longer discussion to be had about why Marvel does so well in its movies, but has so far struggled to expand its universe into television (while DC has had the exact opposite results). My previous theory was that television series need room to grow and become their own story before being folded into a wider universe (one of Arrow's problems in its lackluster third season has been that so much of its storytelling is in service of jumpstarting more and more spin-offs set in its world). But Daredevil is undeniably its own thing--even as it cribs to blatantly from so many sources. Perhaps the problem is simply that Marvel's TV shows have the same storytelling flaws as their movies, which tend to half-ass their plots and cover for it with fun character moments and exciting action scenes. That's not an approach that can work in a multi-part story, and especially not when your main character can't quite hold the spotlight. There's still a lot here worth watching for, and certainly enough to build on in the second season, but I hope that future Marvel series have a stronger sense of their main character, and a more interesting story to build around them.