Marvel’s Daredevil “Into the Ring” Review (Episode 1) – Meet Matt Murdock

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DISCLAIMER: The purpose of these reviews is to take an in-depth look at each episode of Marvel’s Daredevil, to provide insight into the character’s comic book origins, and ultimately to celebrate — or dissect — this ambitious new series. This means the reviews WILL SPOIL THE SHOW.

But! They will NOT spoil the comics. If I recognize a story from the comics being adapted, I won’t tell you how that story ends. To me, that’s no different from book readers spoiling Game of Thrones plot twists. And we all know which hell THOSE people are going to.

(the special hell)

Marvel’s Daredevil – Episode 1: Into the Ring
 

MARVEL'S DAREDEVIL

If you were to grab any self-respecting comic fan off the street and ask them to pick ONE Marvel comic to turn into a TV series, their answer would almost certainly be Daredevil.

From the comic shops to the message boards, ever since the dawn of this new golden age of scripted television, the geeks (of which I proudly count myself one) have known the score: Daredevil was BORN for TV. Not just because of his low-budget power set and grounded exploits, but because the vigilante elements are underscored by genres a regular TV audience could find comfort in.

Daredevil could be a legal drama about a gifted protagonist, an outsider who uses what makes him different to solve crimes. It could be an organized crime drama about power struggles on both sides of the law. It comes with a strong supporting cast and enough potential to service any number of stories well beyond what inspiration can be drawn from the source material.

Daredevil: The Series was always the dream.

And, if I’m honest, I never really thought we’d get it. Or, if we did, I feared it would not be taken seriously by TV execs still trapped in their outdated notions of what superhero fiction was supposed to look and feel like.

So, it was with great hope, and great trepidation, that I approached Marvel’s Daredevil, the first of five planned Netflix adaptations exploring the grittier side of the Marvel cinematic universe. To my great delight, it measures up to the dream like few things have; and to my surprise, it does so in less than ten minutes.

The Devil in Him
 

MARVEL'S DAREDEVIL

The show’s cold open drops us right into the aftermath of the heroic deed that would come to define Matt Murdock’s life. His father, Jack, finds him lying in the street near an overturned truck, its toxic cargo scattered everywhere, including in young Matt’s eyes. As Jack tries to comfort his son, we get to see through Matt’s eyes as his eyes gradually… cease to see. The last image Matt is left with: the face of his father.

From there, we jump into a quiet confessional, where adult Matt tells his priest all about his dad, the boxer. It’s a fond remembrance at first, with Matt expressing true pride in how his dad could take punch after punch and never get knocked out. But his mood changes as he remembers his old man’s temper. How, sometimes, Jack would get hit hard enough that something in him snapped; how, in those moments, he’d stalk toward his opponent, arms at his side like he wasn’t afraid of anything, ready to let the devil out on any poor soul trapped in the ring with him. There are tears in Matt’s eyes as he says this, and we don’t really understand why. Not until the following scene.

It’s night on the waterfront and a gaggle of thugs are smuggling women inside a shipping container to god-knows-where.They’re set upon by a masked man who stalks toward them, arms at his sides like he’s not afraid of anything, before unleashing hell in flurry of martial arts, acrobatics, and at least one rebounding baton-throw. The girls are saved, but the masked man isn’t done with the criminals. Not by a long shot. Matt is his father’s son.

Then it’s on to the opening credit sequence (designed by the same studio who created the title sequence for HBO’s True Detective), where flowing red paint (or blood) slowly reveals the iconography of the series as a haunting theme song tells you this isn’t your typical superhero show. It ends with the familiar form of a red devil looming over the title logo.

Cut to black.

Something like 7 minutes has passed.

I am close to tears.

I’m not even kidding. I was near tears. You can’t imagine how amazing those opening minutes were for someone who has spent most of their comic-loving life *forgiving* the less-than-spectacular translations of their favorite characters to ANY screen — but especially the small screen. This was like Tolkien fans seeing Hobbiton for the first time; like Martin fans seeing their first dragon.

It showed that show creator and writer Drew Goddard, executive producer and showrunner Steven S. DeKnight, Marvel Studios, and Netflix all knew what they had in front of them. They understood its potential, and were making the most of it.

It felt like a gift.

It was also extremely savvy storytelling. What better way to invest audiences in the character of Matt Murdock, and Charlie Cox as him, than to show him at his most vulnerable, baring his soul to a priest, before showing his darkness? Who wouldn’t find that character intriguing?

We Don’t Say His Name
 

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Of course, Matt’s not the only intriguing character we meet in this episode.

We also get Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, played respectively, and with respect, by Elden Henson (rough around the edges, but charming) and Deborah Ann Woll (an expert at being perpetually distraught).

And we meet the inner circle of baddies who will no doubt make Daredevil’s life a living… yeah… in the coming season.

– Leland “The Owl” Owlsley, played by Bob Gunton; a somewhat mundane translation of the character from the comics;
– Anatoly (Gideon Emery) and Vladimir (Nikolai Nikolaeff), the Russian brothers whose human trafficking operation Daredevil foiled at the top of the episode;
– The enigmatic Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), who we later learn oversees a drug operation that exclusively employs the blind;
– The taciturn Nobu (Peter Shinkoda), whose secret plans for Hell’s Kitchen seem the only thing that can bring a smile to his face;
– And Toby Leonard Moore as Wesley, the mystery man who has brought them all together at the behest of his employer.

His employer is undoubtedly Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of crime, but the show is playing that close to the chest for now. We only hear Fisk’s voice (a gravelly Vincent D’onofrio) in a brief phone exchange, just enough to let us know the show is playing the long game. With several more important characters reportedly cast, but not yet making their debut, it’s clear Marvel’s Daredevil is in no hurry to show all its cards. A refreshing change from the network model of “cram everything into the pilot and kiss your pacing goodbye.”

It’s only one of several notable departures Daredevil makes from the typical superhero formula, the biggest probably being its age rating. After eight years of keeping the level of violence or profanity in its productions to a moderate PG13, Marvel has allowed DeKnight and co. to create a truly adult show. Call it PG16. It’s doesn’t shy away from blood, but narrowly avoids being a splatter fest. There are no F-bombs, but plenty of S’s, and even an instance of tasteful sideboob.

(Tasteful Sideboob should be a band name)

The show would seem at home on networks like FX or AMC. It doesn’t curb its characters language, and it’s not afraid to show you realistic consequences for the violence so many other movies and shows treat as mere popcorn entertainment.

In the music department, we have a score by The Maze Runner composer John Paesano. Paesano’s music supports the visuals well. It’s moody when it needs to be, and turns percussive and synthy when the action heats up, but rarely does it stand apart as something special. Only the opening credits theme and its rocking reprisal during the final montage are noteworthy. If it stays this way throughout, the music may turn out to be the weakest aspect of the series, but even then it would still be thoroughly enjoyable.

The Incident
 

MARVEL'S DAREDEVIL

This review is already running long, so I’ll have to save my thoughts on the portrayal of Matt’s heightened senses (which provide my other favorite moment from the episode: Matt’s questioning of Karen in his apartment) for another review. I’m sure I can find a relevant spot for it.

There’s one thought I want to leave you with. It’s already been cited everywhere that the show pulls major inspiration from gritty 70s crime movies like The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon… but there’s another movie, one more recent, that kept coming to mind as I watched (and rewatched) the pilot: Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour. Part of that comes from a similarity of visuals — The 25th Hour gives us an insider’s look at New York City, with the camera work alternating between raw, found footage, and instances of saturated color; Daredevil does the same.

But it’s also a similarity of circumstances. The 25th Hour was one of the first movies to acknowledge and voice an opinion of, on screen, the September 11th attacks. One of the movie’s most memorable moments has two characters overlookingn the Ground Zero construction site as they reflect on the state of the city after the attacks. The movie’s narrative all but halts for Spike Lee to hammer home, in operatic fashion, the tragedy of the location. Daredevil never goes thaty far with its depiction of Hell’s Kitchen — which is a good thing, because it would be kind of tacky. The destruction that acts as backdrop and plot device in the show is entirely fictional; the result of Loki’s failed invasion from The Avengers.

The thing is… Daredevil never quite comes out and says that. There are mentions of “The Incident,” and “death and destruction raining from the sky,” but that’s where it stops. If you were to watch the show with no frame of reference for the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe, it could just as easily be referring to the 9/11 attacks. I doubt this was so overtly intentional, but it adds a level of realism and depth to the proceedings. It makes me appreciate the show all the more to imagine that it could exist on its own, separate from Marvel’s other exploits. It’s nice thinking of this show as existing in its own little bubble of perfection.

Of course, once I’m done imagining, I go right back to freaking out over the prospect of Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock crossing paths with Ruffalo’s Banner or Evans’s Cap. (Those two especially, since their meetings in the comics have provided some significant moments for the ‘Devil.)

On that note, let’s go Easter Egg hunting, shall we?

Easter Egg Hunt:
 

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– “If there’s a stunning woman with questionable character in the room, Matt Murdock’s gonna find her, and Foggy Nelson’s gonna suffer.” Matt kind of has a history of dating beautiful women of questionable character, so Foggy COULD be talking about anyone. (Maybe even Black Widow, who Daredevil DOES have a history with in the comics.) But, I think we all know he’s talking about Elektra Natchios, Matt’s college ex-turned-future assassin. I doubt she’ll pop up this season, but if we get a season 2, I’ll be very surprised if we don’t get some Elektra.

– Check the byline on that Union Allied Expose’ at the end of the episode. Ben Urich (played by Joe Pantoliano in the 2003 movie, and by Vondie Curtis Hall (who, I love reminding people, directed the “Our Mrs. Reynolds” episode of Firefly)), is one of the most important and integral characters in the Marvel universe, let alone Daredevil’s. We’ll see more of him soon, but it’s cool that they were able to slip that reference into the pilot.

– Fogwell’s Gym, where Matt goes to beat on the heavy bag during the ending montage, is a location from the comics where Matt… does pretty much what he’s doing here. The scene is pulled almost directly from the Man Without Fear mini-series.

– …AHHH! Turk! That was Turk! Ladies and gentleman, the man with the bandage on his nose at the end of this episode, who was also the leader of the human traffickers from the opening, is none other than TURK BARRETT, the eternal loser of Daredevil’s rogue’s gallery. In the comics, Turk is a professional lackey who drifts from one boss to another, never failing to run afoul of DD and usually stick his foot in his mouth in the process.

Turk and his ever-present sidekick, Grotto (oh god, was Grotto there too?? I have to go back and see if Grotto is credited) are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Daredevil mythos… if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were known for badmouthing Hamlet when he was standing behind them and getting themselves thrown through barroom windows.

And we’ll end it there for this episode. Thanks so much for tuning in. Look for my review of episode 2, “Cut Man” coming… soon!

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