Daredevil is pretty easily the darkest piece of storytelling that Marvel has ever attempted in live action. It’s brutal, bloody, and gruesome and while it was apparent the show would be going darker than prior efforts it was never quite clear just how dark things would be. Both in terms of tone and visual presentation, Daredevil is dark, playing in the shadowy, morally grey world that the films and television shows. This has not yet been shown in the Marvel cinematic universe.
It’s surprising that one of the most important things that has set the MCU apart from other comic films, and the DC film adaptations in particular, is its light touch. The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, the Iron Man films, and so on have all been defined by a jocular tone that indulges in the theatrics and excitement of superhero tales. Sure there are stakes and possibly catastrophic outcomes, but there’s always a “gee-whiz” undercurrent that leavens the affair despite the danger.
Not so with Daredevil. The show seems primarily and solely concerned with just how dirty the world can get, just how far it can crush Matt down, and just how much it’s capable of throwing his way, both mentally and physically. It’s a move that could be potentially deadening; too much of a grim tone almost never works out well. Luckily, while Daredevil is intent on playing on the rough side of the MCU it still knows how to balance out its darker impulses in a way that doesn’t undercut them. In fact the core of the series has started to reveal itself, and that core is taking the form of the relationships that bond these characters; contrasting the strong familial bonds growing between Karen, Foggy, Matt, and Claire with the darker relationship growing between Wilson and Vanessa.
That core also allows the show to find its way towards at least some lighter material, utilizing the easy chemistry between the leads for off-handed jokes and knowing character beats. Foggy and Karen’s scenes with Mrs. Cardenas could be leaden, or overly cutesy, but Deborah Ann Woll and Elden Henson find the right mix of familiarity and uncertainty to sell their relationship. Karen’s unsure of Foggy as a romantic partner, Foggy’s head over heels for Karen, and the whole thing sparks, allowing for both humor and gentle sadness amidst the chaos, which notably includes a whole lot of explosions here.
The fifth episode prominently features the continued courtship of Vanessa by Wilson, and it’s another surprisingly effective scene. While their scenes together have a clear utilitarian purpose in explaining Fisk’s ultimate goals and motives, the portrayal of Vanessa has helped lift them above simple exposition. Wilson’s different around her and she’s no fool, clearly seeing the danger that Wilson presents but not reacting with simple disgust. Watching her and Fisk look out over a burning Hell’s Kitchen and seeing Vanessa’s less than horrified reaction is compelling, exciting, and unexpected. It’s a relationship that’s not quite healthy, but one of surprising depth and emotion. Vanessa’s still something of a mystery, but her relationship with Wilson speaks to what the series has managed to find within its characters even as the plot keeps churning on.
The seventh episode is another strong example of this fact, as it features the debut of Stick, Matt’s trainer and pseudo-father figure. The episode spends a decent amount of time in flashbacks featuring the relationship between the pair, but, much like all of its other flashbacks, doesn’t delve too deeply, presenting only the most essential and important beats. What we see is just the beginning and end of Stick and Matt’s time together, enough to inform the present day and nothing more so as to not slow down the episode’s momentum. The core of the story revolves around the emotional connection that Matt sought from Stick and the rejection that came from Stick once he realized that Matt was more interested in a father than a trainer. (The end of the episode also hints at future appearances from The Hand, although this would presumably be either in The Defenders or a future season of Daredevil rather than this current run of episodes.)
Daredevil is revealing itself to be particularly focused on the power and drawbacks of strong interpersonal connections. Fisk mostly isolates himself but still considers Wesley to be a friend and cannot help but be drawn to Vanessa. Matt’s unwilling to take Stick’s suggestion to separate himself from those he loves, something that could have potentially disastrous ramifications for the ones around him; that’s a problem almost everyone on the show faces though. Urich worries about what will happen to Karen should their investigation be uncovered, Foggy can’t help but look out for Karen, and Matt is intent on protecting Claire even as his relationship draws her deeper into the dangers of his life. Even as far back as the pilot, the police officer who was blackmailed into killing Karen was done so due to the love he had for his daughter.
In Daredevil the world is pitch black and the most evil among us exploit the fact that in the darkness we seek out each other for help. It’s a frightening thought and a thought that makes it tempting to isolate oneself from others for fear of being compromised or responsible for causing others harm. And yet, the show seems to be positing that while there is that risk, the connections we form with others are what keep us going, keep us fighting and alive.
Surprisingly, it’s Vladimir who most strongly proves this thesis during the sixth episode. Dead set on avenging his brother Vladimir ultimately realizes that Matt isn’t the man responsible for his death and together, they work to escape the police Fisk has sent to kill both of them. Vladimir doesn’t escape, but in that brief moment he and Matt form a bond towards a common purpose. Vladimir may not be a man worth saving, but the show still manages to find at least some measure of good in him and it centers that good on the love he held for his brother. They may have been bad men but the bond they shared was real and powerful and Daredevil has tapped into many such bonds to illuminate just how these characters fight their way forward through the increasingly dark world of Hell’s Kitchen.