8 February 2017 - 6:11 pm

Review: Netflix’s Daredevil Season 1

(Picture: Netflix)

Daredevil is one of those comicbook assets that I’m personally quite attached to. I collected the comics for a while, and I used to write in and run RP games around the character. As a result, I’m fairly familiar with the comic canon and always a little nervous when it is adapted to screen.

So, when I approached the Netflix incarnation of the franchise, I was trepidatious, but hopeful. (I am always hopeful that someone will do these characters and franchises justice.) And I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw.

Spoilers follow! For both the Netflix show and the comics. You have been warned.

Broad Strokes

Let’s start with the easy stuff. As a show, I think Netflix’s Daredevil did a good job in building the world, shaping the season, and giving us well-drawn characters to empathise with. It’s a fun ride, and they managed to build in far more elements from the comics than I had expected they would be able (or want) to.

Overall, I enjoyed it. A strong 4/5 from me.

It would have been 5/5, but there were a few key divergences from the canon that hurt the show in my opinion. Or at the very least, could have been better.

What they did right

Firstly, let’s acknowledge the stuff they did that worked, and worked well.

The plotting and pacing are great. On that level, they put the season together well, with the initial setup and the building towards the climax at the end. Very easy to watch, it carried me along to the end before I realised.

Matt is pretty much who I recognise from the comics. He’s not ginger enough, but the aesthetics are less important than his attitude. Yes, he can be self-involved and a bit of a dick, but that’s Matt Murdock.

I like that they didn’t shy away from his flaws, or the unhealthy dichotomy in the lawyer that needs to go punch people in the head at night. He’s a troubled boy, at war with himself as well as his frustration with the world around him and a legal system that can’t protect those who truly need it. The show acknowledges his Catholic leanings without making it glaringly central, and focusses more on Matt’s struggle with the morality of vigilantism and, ultimately, killing people.

This is key to many of Daredevil’s comicbook stories: his staunch opposition to killing and what that means. This first season focusses on him trying to make that decision for himself, which I like because it’s so fundamental to who Daredevil is as a vigilante and hero (like DC’s Batman). It’s great that they chose to make it so central. This arc is has some of the weaker areas of the season for me, though – more on this later.

They pitched Matt against his foil perfectly. Their Foggy Nelson is wonderful, lovable, capable, and often exasperated with his best friend. If you’re not annoyed at Matt on Foggy’s behalf, they’ve done something wrong, and they didn’t here.

Foggy is, in many ways, the heart of the show (while Matt is more of the fist-flailing tantrum), and he’s a very necessary grounding element, both for Matt and the show as a whole. He’s a voice of reason when Matt is getting lost in his own problems, and a reminder of what’s really important. In this season, he keeps both Matt and the story on track.

Without a good Foggy, any Daredevil story is going to be overly whiny and self-indulgent, and Matt will in all likelihood disappear up his own asshole. Matt’s friendship with Foggy is one of his biggest redeeming features. I’m so happy that they got this right in the show.

Netflix also did a great job with their Kingpin. I was dubious that they would find someone with the physical presence and sensitive acting chops to pull him off, but they hit the nail right on the head. I’ll be honest: I usually dislike Vincent D’onofrio’s acting work, but he was a great choice for Wilsin Fisk, and I was pleasantly surprised.

I was also (pleasantly) surprised by how much of Fisk’s backstory they put into the show, and how sympathetic it was. Netflix didn’t feel the need to make Fisk an evil man who is evil because evil. They made him a product of his background, experiences, and his own choices, and the show doesn’t get judgemental with artistic finger-shaking. It just shows the story of a man and how he ended up as the Kingpin of crime in NYC.

The show also isn’t afraid to let us see his softer side, the cracks in his armour, and the sweet man he can be under the right circumstances. In the comics, Vanessa is his wonderfully adored wife; here, she serves the same purpose as his girlfriend. We get to see them meet and court and fall in love, and she gives us a window into the parts of Fisk that he doesn’t let the world see.

Okay, she also encourages and supports him in some of his worst deeds, but if she couldn’t accept the man capable – and inclined – to reduce someone to bloody death with his own fists, she wouldn’t be a good partner for him. This is no love story where she makes him a better person; this is a love story where she makes him a better Wilsin Fisk. I love that they didn’t shy away from that, and that the love story in itself is quite beautiful and sweet. Other shows would feel the need to moralise about it and twist the relationship into something dark and sinful, but that doesn’t happen here, and it’s honestly a refreshing change.

Another character that appears in all his unflattering glory is Stick. I was curious to see if they’d include him and how, and was pleased to see that Netflix doesn’t shy away from just how much of an asshole Stick is. For all that he’s fighting on the ‘good’ side of a ninja clan war, he’s a terrible person and he damages every young person he comes into contact with in fairly fundamental ways (in the comics, he’s responsible for training and then emotionally damaging both Matt and Elektra, more so in the latter case – but more on that when I get to reviewing Season 2 of the show).

In the Netflix show, his relationship with Matt is strained and somewhat contentious, and I like how complicated it is. Stick was Matt’s teacher and walked away from the kid, and so there is a lot of mixed feelings going on there. However, they added a father-figure element that felt out of place to me, and that spoiled what was otherwise a fairly faithful presentation of how Matt learned to kick ass and got so messed up in the head. More on this below.

Deliciously geeky nods

Marvel has such a rich, much-written-in world to pull from, and I loved the smaller elements that appeared in the show. Turk is as annoying and useless as I would expect. I loved Melvin Potter’s appearance and role in the season (though I’m still hoping he makes Gladiator’s Costume Shop a thing!). Claire Temple was an interesting (and welcome) addition, a Night Nurse reference that seems to be threading through all of the Netflix shows so far.

Matt’s initial costume was a curious call-back to the first, hurried costume he used in flashbacks in the comics, when he tried to save Elektra at college. (That’s the only similar version to that costume in the comics that I can recall offhand.) I love that he develops towards the traditional dark/red Daredevil costume through the season in a logical and sensible way, including the way he doesn’t use (and isn’t called by) the name ‘Daredevil’ explicitly (as far as I could spot, he’s only referred to as the ‘Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ in the show).

Other familiar features include Josie’s Bar, though I was disappointed that Matt and Foggy would ever deign to drink there, and not once did Daredevil throw someone through the front window. If Josie isn’t complaining about having to replace her window because Daredevil came looking for some scumbag and got into a fight, you’re not doing it right. Sorry, Netflix!

Changes they made

It’s natural that, with any adaptation, there are differences from the original. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t.

For example, Karen Page is a lot less annoying and way more interesting in the Netflix show than she ever was in the comics. I like that she gets to have a personality and an arc all her own, and has some things happen to her that ripple through into the next season (more on that in a separate review).

Karen Page is one of my least favourite characters in the Daredevil comics, so it was nice to see her updated and made somewhat palatable. She’s still fairly whiny and annoying in places (and one of the weaker elements of the show), but a distinct improvement on the original.

That said, I was puzzled over why both Foggy and Matt were looking like romantic options for her, and why she kept getting moon-eyed over Matt when they had no real connection or chemistry. The relationships felt forced to me, partly because Matt isn’t presented as the casual dater/hook-up artist that he is in the comics and partly because they barely spend any real time together, and it all seems like more complication than he needs at that time. (Plus there’s the whole, more believable relationship plot with Claire Temple.)

I got the feeling that the only reason Matt and Karen were together by the end of the season is that someone felt the need to tick that box to match comic canon. (The relationship’s path in season 2 bears this out; it fizzles because there’s simply nothing there, and neither of them seem to really care about it.)

Another change they made was to make Ben Urich black. The only reason I’m mentioning it is because they made it work for the character (and others are likely to comment on it), and it’s the type of change I welcome. He is still the respected veteran reporter that doesn’t put up with anyone getting in his way, but at heart a good, moral person who does the right thing.

It was a shame that they had to move him to a different paper, most likely because the Daily Bugle and J. Jonah Jameson are tied up with the rights to Spider-Man. Without Jameson to shout at him, I felt Ben’s story lacked something; part of Ben’s charm is how well he handles Jameson’s unreasonable bluster (mostly by completely ignoring it, without being rude), and how much he knows that Jameson needs him way more than he needs Jameson. He’s not nasty about it, but he doesn’t let Jameson get in his way, either.

I was disappointed about the end of Ben’s story in this season of the show. On one hand, it’s brave of the show’s makers to kill off such a key character in this part of the MCU. On the other, they’ve cut off so many future avenues and plot lines. It makes me sad that we’ll never see Ben and Jessica Jones trolling J Jonah Jameson like they did in Alias. Or that Ben will never become the holder of Manhattan’s heroes’ secret identities. He’s another very grounding character, and I think his influence will be missed.

Central changes

Some of the most obvious and telling changes they made in the Netflix show were to Matt’s backstory, relating to the death of his father and his training with Stick. It’s a collection of fairly small changes, but the more I think about it, the larger the implications are (as a writer, I’m often considering the impacts of events on characters, so this sort of thing stands out to me).

In the Netflix show, Matt’s father is shot after refusing to throw a boxing match when the kid is pretty young (12/13?). Matt hears the shot and somehow knows who the victim is (I’m not sure how). The shooter gets away, though the cops know who it is (which leads into a plot point in season 2).

After this, Matt is picked up by Stick and is trained in fighting and using his altered/heightened senses. However, Matt starts to think of Stick as a father figure, so Stick abandons him and disappears, after telling him off for getting too emotionally attached. After this, he winds up in the care of nuns at an orphanage.

So, we have a boy tragically losing his father, and left with a pile of daddy issues in relation to Stick. Pretty simple and straightforward: Matt learns nothing through this except that getting emotionally involved is bad, and possibly some daddy and abandonment issues.

In the comics, it’s more complex than that (at least, in the comics that I’ve read; it’s entirely possible that Marvel have several versions of his backstory, as that’s not unusual). Battlin’ Jack Murdock is killed for the same reason – refusing to throw a fight – but he’s beaten to death (not shot) and Matt overhears the whole thing. He’s able to identify the handful of guys responsible.

Before this, a short time after he was blinded, Stick found him and started to train him in secret. He taught a kid how to make sense of the world without his eyes, through his newly heightened senses, how to look after himself, and how to fight. He was tough and cruel, but he was also a teacher.

He had two simple rules: Matt wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about the training – not even his father – and he must never use his abilities in front of anyone without explicit permission from Stick.

So, when his father is killed, Matt knows how to use his heightened senses and can not only identify who was involved, but track them down. Maddened with grief, he chases them down, one at a time, and beats the crap out of them. When he gets to the last one, however, word has got around about what he’s doing and the guy is expecting him. The guy is terrified, and winds up having a heart attack and dying right in front of Matt. Matt doesn’t kill him, but he does cause the man’s death.

Stick learns of the kid’s grief-addled rampage and that Matt broke his second rule: he didn’t have permission to go beating people up. So, Stick leaves, without an explanation or single word to the kid.

In a single night, young Matt loses his father and his mentor, the only two people he really has in his life. He has just accidentally killed someone, and most likely feels that Stick’s abandonment is at least part punishment for that. He then winds up in a Catholic orphanage with the nuns.

As you can see, the changes in themselves are fairly minor. However, the original version gives us a fairly good setup for who Matt is going to be: the focus on fisticuffs; his willingness to go vigilante in search of justice; his willingness to break the rules; and his aversion to killing.

The TV show version gives us none of that, and it’s particularly a shame in light of Matt’s personal story through this first season: whether he should kill or not. He’s trying to decide what kind of vigilante he will be. His aversion to killing doesn’t seem to have any real basis, except a natural tendency, and while that’s not unreasonable or impossible, it feels thin. We see him battle against only a personal moral preference, rather than a horrible personal experience that reinforced and solidified his moral preference. To me, the latter would have been more powerful, with higher personal stakes for Matt because it challenges something he promised himself many years ago. It would have made it a tougher decision as the situation with the Kingpin forced him further and further towards believing the only solution was to kill the criminal.

(Season 2 also undercut this whole plotline by having a flashback in which he has the opportunity to take his revenge on the man who shot his father. So, he has faced this decision directly before, but we get none of it here in season 1, when it’s particularly relevant and personal. What the hell, Netflix?)

I think part of my frustration with this change is that I can’t fathom why the show-makers would bother. The original version would have supported and deepened the story they were telling, while the TV show version didn’t add anything of real value and weakened what it could have been.

The main differences we end up with are this weird daddy-issues relationship between Stick and Matt, and the unresolved murder of his father. The latter is addressed in season 2 (as mentioned above), but he could easily have faced the man who ordered the hit instead. The Matt/Stick relationship didn’t need messing with – the comics has the ‘you abandoned me when I needed you most’ aspect, so there’s plenty of tension between them to play with.

Missed opportunities like this frustrate me as a reader or watcher, because it could easily have been so much better. Changes like this smack of laziness or lack of insight, and it’s a real shame. Dammit, Netflix, you could have done better.


That all said, I think they did a great job overall. In the scheme of things, the small changes are still pretty small, and they did so much more right. The first season is a fun ride into the dark and difficult world Matt lives in, with a wonderful villain and a heap of tough choices, and I love it. Definitely recommend this one to watch!

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