[note: This review attempts to contain as little spoilers as possible. However, there is no guarantee that certain plot points won't be brought up that could be considered a spoiler. If you haven't seen Daredevil yet, read at your own risk]
If nothing else, I fully expected Marvel's Daredevil, the latest installment in Marvel's now hilariously epic sized MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), to erase the painful memory of the 2003 film that famously started Ben Affleck's mid career swan dive. I mean, it wasn't like that would be hard; have you seen that Daredevil film? It was less of an adaption of the famed character and more of a cross between an MTV music video and a watered down version of The Crow. Thus, it was no surprise that the first episode of Daredevil's second chance, "Into the Ring", erased most of the wrongs Affleck's film created. What was surprising was how "Into the Ring" set the tone for a series that would not only redefine Daredevil in the media of TV and film, but would become the best thing Marvel has done since Robert Redford lampooned his 1970's political conspiracy era in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Keep your Iron Man films, I'm rolling with the blind lawyer from Hell's Kitchen.
"Into the Ring" serves as an origin story that really isn't an origin story. There is a brief glimpse of the aftermath of the accident that makes young Matt Murdock (Skylar Gaertner), but we don't see the accident itself, and Matt's childhood is in fact kept to a limited amount of flashbacks. Instead, writer Drew Goddard and episode director Phil Abraham spend the majority of the time in the present, where Matt (Charlie Cox) and his partner/best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Hensen) are just starting out as lawyers. Their first case is defending Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a secretary framed for murder because who knows too much about a real estate conspiracy. A conspiracy, by the way, that involves a Japanese businessman (Peter Shinkoda), two Russian gangsters (Nikolai Nikolaeff and Gideon Emery), an elderly Chinese drug lord (Wai Ching Ho), a corrupt financial expert (Bob Gutton) and the mysterious employer of yuppie James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore). Yes, I am aware that sounds like the beginning of the worst joke since Dane Cook's last stand up special.
For those wondering, yes, Matt is a vigilante at the start of the season, and "Into the Ring" features two excellent fight scenes that book end the episode. If you're expecting to see Daredevil in his iconic red suit however, prepare for disappointment, as Matt's early costume resembles that of a ninja more than his more famous alter ego. While I'll admit that I was disappointed upon learning this, it definitely was the right call by Goddard and show runner Steven DeKnight (who took over for Goddard after he bolted to direct the now defunct Sinister Six film for Sony). Not only is it a homage to Frank Miller's excellent The Man Without Fear origin comic (where the character starts out in a similar costume he does here), but it perfectly highlights just how the character is going to be handled. Arguably, the Daredevil comics have never really been a superhero story; you could easily describe it as a crime saga in Hell's Kitchen that happens to involve a masked vigilante whose ideals are always being pushed closer to the edge (music and lyrics by 30 Seconds to Mars). Goddard, DeKnight and their crew understood that, and acted accordingly. The biggest reason why "Into the Ring" works is because it's not a superhero story, it's a story of Matt Murdock and how he learns to become his own man. Sure, there are mentions to other MCU events within the show (the Battle of New York is in fact the main catalyst for the real estate conspiracy), but in terms of influence, Daredevil and "Into the Ring" owes a lot more to the groundbreaking show The Wire than The Avengers (not a coincidence, made clear by long time Wire director Abraham's involvement in this and the second episode). This isn't a show for the faint of heart.
Of the cast, Bob Gutton's Leland Owlsly (a long time nemesis in the comics) is the only character that comes off flat here, and at times I felt the character bordered on camp. The rest of the group is excellent, particularly the three leads Cox, Woll and Hensen. While he'll take a step back in later episodes to allow other characters to shine, "Into the Rings" and the follow up episode "Cut Man" belong to Cox, who uses the time to establish Matt as an idealistic, determined, but flawed man who is a lot closer to the criminals he loathes then he likes to admit. He also takes a massive beating, a welcome idea to a Universe where the heroes are at times presented as too superhuman. Woll, who last starred in True Blood, equals Cox in every way. Karen Page has always been a complicated character in comic book lore, but Woll's version here has more layers than a cake, and she's splendid at playing a tortured victim who has a lot of good and a lot of darkness inside her. Hensen, most famous for playing Fulton Reed in the Mighty Ducks films, strikes a perfect balance of comic relief and seriousness as Foggy, though you will see more impressive work from him as the series goes on. Those expecting Vincent D'Onofrio's Wilson Fisk here will be disappointed, as he is only heard briefly during a telephone conversation with Wesley.
Bottom Line: "Into the Ring", despite being a title that makes me want to type Into the Woods repeatedly, is a great start for Daredevil, blending a character driven narrative with a gritty setting to create a compelling world. Those who prefer numerous comic book references and seeing big name characters will be disappointed, but those who enjoy great drama will not. In short, "Into the Ring" lays the ground work for what will surely be the best thing Marvel produces all year. Sorry Age of Ultron!
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