Marvel Television’s plan to bring second-tier heroes to the screen has found a logical and hospitable home in Netflix, a subscription service that should benefit from capitalizing on the ardor of the fanboy base via a multi-series relationship. First up is “Daredevil,” a character with a spotty track record, from the 2003 Ben Affleck movie to a backdoor pilot a quarter-century ago in an Incredible Hulk TV movie. Dark, brooding and violent, the slickly produced series casts the blind hero as Marvel’s version of Batman, a masked vigilante as apt to get roughed up himself as pummel the bad guys.
That blindness – the byproduct of an accident that gave the young Matt Murdock (“Boardwalk Empire” alum Charlie Cox) superhuman senses as compensation – actually serves a more practical purpose in TV terms, since the advantage Daredevil gains while battling in darkness also tends to obscure the limits of a made-for-TV budget. And since purists often gripe about such things, it’s worth noting the costume isn’t the traditional red design but a black ninja-style get-up that resembles the one sported in the aforementioned “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk,” from the bad old days of comic books on TV. (In a later episode Murdock wryly describes the outfit as “a work in progress.”)
Otherwise, the series – from “Spartacus” veteran Steven S. DeKnight and Drew Goddard – does reflect the desire to inhabit a “darker, edgier, more mature corner of the Marvel universe,” as content chief Joe Quesada has put it, while capitalizing on the serialized format to gradually spoon out the character’s origin story, trusting that plenty of fans already know it.
As a consequence, the first episode hits the ground running, introducing Murdock and partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) as they’re launching their law firm, while quickly jumping into a case of corporate corruption involving a woman (“True Blood’s” Deborah Ann Woll) whose path has crossed the holdings of the mysterious Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a.k.a. the Kingpin, who’s name is treated with more hushed reverence by underlings than that of Lord Voldemort. Indeed, a bald bad guy hasn’t spent this much time speaking from the shadows since Brando in “Apocalypse Now.”
A subsequent episode also brings a wounded Daredevil (actually referred to in the five previewed episodes only as “the man in black,” not to be confused with Johnny Cash) into contact with a helpful medical worker (Rosario Dawson), which certainly comes in handy given the amount of punishment he endures.
The luxury of a series allows the producers to add pathos to the plight of Murdock’s father, the pug of a boxer who wanted better for his son, while indulging in side trips like a romantic subplot for the Kingpin. At its core, though, this is a pretty faithful retelling of the comics, while embracing a tone similar to Frank Miller’s invigoration of the character in the 1980s.
The pulpy style and brutality (torture is one of Daredevil’s tools) clearly seek a higher sense of realism, which must be balanced against the notion of a blind superhero who can shimmy up walls and whose spectacular hearing lets him function, among other things, as a human lie detector. Helpfully, Cox brings the necessary mix of grit and Marvel-esque self-doubts to the dual role.
Compared to Marvel’s experience with “Agents of SHIELD” for ABC, operating in Netflix’s pay-to-view world is clearly liberating, in much the way animated direct-to-DVD titles enable the comics companies to cater to knowledgeable fans without needing to worry too much about luring the uninitiated into the tent. And the binge prospect should be helpful in getting people hooked on the overarching adventure, complete with Russian mobsters and feuding crime factions building toward the inevitable Daredevil-Kingpin showdown.
By that measure, Marvel has shrewdly expanded its portfolio, and Netflix has upped its must-have quotient with a fiercely loyal segment of consumers. Viewed that way, costume or no costume, “Daredevil” looks dressed for success.