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Sympathy for the Devil

Daredevil is good, but D'Onofrio's Kingpin steals the show

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Not everyone is going to like Daredevil, Marvel and Netflix's first collaborative entry into the ever-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. Parents are going to be frustrated that a show based on a classic comic-book character has visceral depictions of violence — bones poking through flesh, strangulation, skulls crushed to literal pulp — peppered throughout the season. Those expecting blind-lawyer-cum-masked-crime-fighter Matthew Murdock (Charlie Cox, Boardwalk Empire) to be a Spandex-clad, wise-cracking do-gooder in the vein of Spider-Man might be turned off by the moral ambiguity offered in a scene where the hero tortures a suspect to find the location of a kidnapped boy. Those who expect the central conflict of the show to be established in the first episode may give up early, just as viewers abandoned ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But those people are going to miss out.

The creator and show runner behind Daredevil, Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight respectively, seem to revel in being able to take thirteen hours to tell a year-one story about a fledgling vigilante hero, pacing the show as a slow burn rather than an over-the-top action spectacle. Plots are intricate. Scenes are long. Characters develop over time. The show spends as much time showing Murdock's co-workers Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll, True Blood) as they collaborate with reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall, Chicago Hope) to unravel the central criminal conspiracy, as it does tracking Murdock's development as a superhero.

But where Daredevil's room to breathe really pays off is in Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of criminal Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin. When we're first introduced to him he almost seems meek, whispering his lines in an echo of the character's desire not to draw attention to himself. Over the course of the season, we learn, of course, that there is a fountain of rage just below the surface, waiting to erupt into shockingly violent outbursts. But there is vulnerability as well. In an early episode, we get to see the mighty Kingpin brought low by the awkwardness of asking Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer), an art dealer whom he has a thing for, to dinner. As we learn more and more about his motivations and his past, the more sympathetic Kingpin becomes, to the point where his main objective — gentrification of a shitty neighborhood — seems to make a lot more sense than Daredevil's — beating up everyone in a shitty neighborhood.

Daredevil, then, comes off as Marvel's Cinematic Universe version of The Wire. Black and white, good and evil, are muddled into shades of dark, dark gray. The roles of various institutions are explored, from criminal organizations to courts to law enforcement. Though there is an inherent un-reality that permeates a show about a man with super-senses who is secretly trained in martial arts, the show goes a long way toward making the world in which it takes place feel flawed, relevant and real.

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