After taking a few months to digest Marvel's Daredevil, I think I can make this pronouncement: We should crown it the best thing Marvel Studios has done in the superhero genre since the inception of the so-called "Marvel Cinematic Universe."
Since the release of the first Iron Man feature in 2008, Marvel has been relentlessly tying every piece of its universe together on screens big and small, from The Avengers to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Comic-book movies weren't able to do that kind of unified world-building before; copyright law and licensing agreements prevented it. It's certainly something from which Marvel has benefited, doing its best to replicate comic books' serialized feeling of a giant shared universe that ticks by one issue at a time.
As hard as the Marvel movies try, though, they don't quite get there. These films and shows are adaptations of comics, but they often don't cut to the heart of what we love about the published medium. Their limited running time and high budgets force producers and directors to make decisions and compromises that provide the most bang for the buck. The cliffhangers and serialized nature of the story feel more like vague references extraneous to the films proper rather than a truly shared storyline.
When I was a kid, the comics I always seemed to hate most were adaptations of movies. Ever read the adaptation of Batman Returns? Or Dick Tracy? Even the more recent adaptations of the X-Men movies from the early 2000s fell flat. They all felt like pale imitations of the source, which was in itself an imitation of a real comic.
That's how many of these new Marvel movies feel to me. They're one-shot specials that don't fit into what we know or love about the medium of comics. They're entertaining, sure, but something is off about them.
Daredevil, however, has transcended these problems and captured what makes superhero comics great in a way no other Marvel property has so far. Part of it has to do with the format. A 13-episode limited television series replicates the pace of your average graphic novel, only more densely. Matt Murdock's superhero origins are expertly folded in to a story with a driving mystery and the most compelling villain the Marvel Universe has created. Vincent D'Onofrio's Wilson Fisk—the Kingpin of Crime—is allowed to develop nuance and dimension that the movies simply can't acheive. We alternate between rooting for him and against him because we love to hate him (and hate to love him) so much.
Some might wonder why I'm not singing the praises of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. if it's the TV format that's important, but that's only part of the equation. From the beginning, S.H.I.E.L.D. has never felt as though its writers had an endgame in mind; its sprawling narrative is so tightly tied to the aforementioned Marvel movies that it easily loses its focus. It constantly has "shiny-keys" syndrome and, since it's on a major broadcast network, can feel a bit ... homogenous.
Daredevil manages to keep a laser-tight focus on a small group of characters in a very narrow spot in New York City. The events of other movies are mentioned—hell, the events of The Avengers and the destruction wrought on New York City create the backdrop for Daredevil—but no compromises are made. Meanwhile, Marvel Studios release of Ant-Man includes at least three completely unnecessary scenes that feel tacked on in order to build the broader universe. Daredevil's focus seems to get tighter and tighter as the show goes on.
Daredevil is the lightning in a bottle that Marvel should be trying to replicate; I haven't been more riveted by a superhero comic-book adaptation than I have during my time watching it. And with the promise of The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal as fan-favorite antihero The Punisher, my guess is we're going to get something special out of Season 2.
If they keep this up, I won't need another Marvel movie again. They've got three more Netflix series coming: Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and The Defenders. If they're all as good as Daredevil, Netflix can just give Marvel all my money for me.
Bryan Young is the editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com