Brooding, brutal 'Daredevil' shows the shadows of the Marvel universe (spoiler-free review)

The rain-soaked alleys and intense punch-ups of this new Netflix show are a million miles from the colourful adventures of the Avengers.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
3 min read

Charlie Cox proves justice is blind in "Daredevil". Netflix

"Be careful of the Murdock boys -- they've got the devil in 'em..." New Netflix show "Daredevil" opens with a confession that sets the foreboding tone for this brutal journey into the shadows of the Marvel universe.

By day, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is a defence attorney. But by night, he takes to the alleys and rooftops of Hell's Kitchen in New York to fight crime. His fighting skills make him a formidable opponent for mobsters, kidnappers and assorted thugs -- despite the fact that he's blind.

The contrast couldn't be more marked between the brooding, dimly lit "Daredevil" and the colourful, high-tech, effects-heavy Marvel superhero movies like "The Avengers" and "Iron Man". The fights don't involve gods punching giant monsters clean through a building -- it's two guys battering each other in dirty apartments and rain-slick alleys.

The fight scenes are definite highlights, with wide shots and clear editing giving you an unflinching look at the bruising, bone-crunching scraps. When stunt-assisted acrobatics are employed, it suggests not superpowers but unflashy skill and economical fighting technique, employed in the interests of putting the maximum hurt on the other guy.

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Daredevil himself is as human as his opponents, and even finds himself groaning in a dumpster or face-down in an alley, spitting blood into the rain. He's also as ruthless and unflinchingly brutal as his opponents, and possibly the most compelling element set up by the early episodes are the hints that he's inherited something darker than his boxer father's stubborn combativeness.

Still, your tolerance for squelchy sadism may vary, and while shows like "Breaking Bad" and "Sons of Anarchy" thrive on occasional moments of horrifying violence, I'm not sure "Daredevil" quite nails that tonal shift.

Wisely, the show cloaks the origin of the vigilante Daredevil in mystery -- the first episode is instead an origin story for Murdock and his friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) as they establish their legal practice, recruiting comely secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) along the way.

One troubling aspect of the first episode is the treatment of women. The main female character, Karen, spends the first episode soaked in blood and tears as she's repeatedly brutalised. Aside from a flirty realtor, the only other women are a container-full of women being trafficked -- and the enigmatic Madame Gao, who looks set to be the most delicious villain. Things get better when the unflappable Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) arrives to stitch up Murdock's wounds, however.

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"Daredevil" is set in a New York that's rooted in realism yet very different to the real world. Although no-one refers to the Avengers and other parts of the Marvel shared universe by name, the show is set in a post-cataclysm New York, scarred and rebuilding after the devastating alien invasion seen in the movie "The Avengers".

When you walked out of that movie you would have felt -- as that film's heroes did -- that the bad guys had been thoroughly duffed-up, the day had been saved and all was right with the world. But, as in another current Marvel TV show, " Agents of SHIELD", the events of the movies ripple into the wider world with unforeseen repercussions.

"Heroes and their consequences," sneers one bad guy, "are why we have our current opportunities." Exploring at length the human cost and street-level fall-out of big screen carnage is an intriguing opportunity for a TV universe attached to a movie universe, and something I hope to see more of.

That feeds into another promising aspect of the show, which portrays a city rotten from top to bottom. The first episode includes a montage of crime and corruption spreading from street-level violence to corporate wrongdoing, echoing the season-ending montages from "The Wire". In case this all sounds a bit real-world, we're shown a tantalising glimpse of a more fantastical, macabre masterplan that turns the screw on Murdock's defining characteristic.

All in all, it's a thrilling departure for anyone inured to the CGI slugfests and glib remarks of the movies. In some ways, with its street-level violence, political chicanery and serious tone, "Daredevil" feels like Marvel for people who don't like Marvel.

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All 13 episodes of "Daredevil" are available on Netflix around the world on Friday 10 April from midnight PT -- that's 3 a.m. ET, 8 a.m. UK and 5 p.m. AET. If you're not sure about episode one, stick around for episode two. It's a definite improvement.