THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SEASON TWO OF DAREDEVIL. DO NOT READ IT IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE SHOW AND DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED.
So, first of all, I want to apologize for not getting this up earlier. I was out of town, and then I got really sick. So everything got pushed back. Anyway! Here’s the review!
This time last year, we were all blindsided (pun intended) by the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil. It was exciting, original, well-cast, and found a way to be dark without losing the comic book feel (something that DC and Warner Bros still haven’t figured out how to do). To top it off, Daredevil was, in essence, more of a 13 hour movie than a TV series, and it managed to tell the simultaneous origin stories of Daredevil and Kingpin, which is something I have never seen done as well as it was presented there. Daredevil surprised us all and made everyone eager to see what came next. What came next was Jessica Jones, a show I talked at length about in its own review, so I will not rehash that here, but that show impressed in all new ways. So now here we are several months later with Daredevil season 2, and a question: did they step it up yet again? The answer is rather complicated.
The second season of Daredevil does not have the advantage of novelty that the first one did. We have seen this character before, and we have seen the type of show Netflix is creating with these properties twice now. So, instead, this time around, Daredevil needs to rest purely on the quality of its content. This is relieving in a way. When there isn’t an origin story to deal with, there is a lot more room to explore the lead character. This is, in a lot of respects, more like the second movie in a superhero film trilogy than the second season of a television show. And those have a tendency to be pretty strong: Spider-Man 2 is a better film than Spider-Man, X-Men 2, ditto, The Dark Knight, etc. And right from the get go, we see them taking advantage of that. The very first scene of this season is Daredevil taking down some bad guys in costume and making the status quo clear to the audience. This has become part of Hell’s Kitchen now: Daredevil is its protector. And, it is that status quo that is challenged throughout the rest of the series with the inclusion of The Punisher.
The Punisher is a character that just does not work as a lead character. I know that I will get some flak for this, and it’s not that I don’t like The Punisher. He’s just a little boring on his own. Once the newness of a gun-wielding hero who is willing to kill people wears off, there simply isn’t a lot left to explore. He works GREAT when he is used as a foil for another character. He’s a great character to play off of and to play off of others, and that is precisely how he is used here. There are several moments throughout the series where Matt Murdock is forced to question whether or not he is different from Frank Castle. How much distance does “not killing” buy him? Aren’t they both just taking the law into their own hands? These moments are interesting, but what really sells the Daredevil/Punisher dynamic is Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle. Bernthal has enough range to sell both the emotional heart-to-heart scenes and the moments of cold resolve that allows him to open fire in a hospital in deadly pursuit of his target. As a viewer, I understand Castle’s code of ethics, and yet I am not asked or expected to agree with it in order to do that. That is a difficult thing to accomplish, but Daredevil does it. When Matt and Frank are forced to work together at times, this dynamic really shines through. There is a tension there of two people with very strong and opposing codes of ethics that are basically on the same side. Frank Castle doesn’t stop trying to kill the bad guys, and Matt is forced to both fight the villains and try to prevent Castle from killing them. The Punisher is definitely the standout character this season, and Jon Berthal sells every scene he is in. That said, let’s talk about the other new major character we got.
This season also saw the first appearance of Elektra. Now, a lot of critics are displeased with her portrayal, but I actually am mostly okay with it. She’s unfortunately not given enough room to develop in a way that does her character justice. And she does, admittedly, lose a lot of the agency she had in the comics by tying almost all her major decisions (up until her appearance in the show, at least) to Stick. That said, I felt she served a similar function to Frank Castle here by throwing Matt Murdock into relief. This is actually kind of clever, because, while Castle does not know Matt/Daredevil’s secret, Elektra does, and so she is able to act as a foil for Matt directly, even out of costume, providing him with opportunities where he must deal with conflicting priorities. I liked that. What I didn’t like about Elektra? The stupid Black Sky plot. This has got to be the worst thing this season did by far. Making Elektra a Black Sky (whatever that is! Because we STILL don’t know) was completely unnecessary and just added bloat and confusion to what was otherwise a pretty tight narrative. I don’t know why the showrunners decided to do this, unless it was to set up something really important for season 3, but I have a feeling that it’s just going to lead to a really boring and overdone plot where Elektra gets resurrected and is evil, and Matt needs to find a way to bring her back to the good side or… whatever… Anyway! That part of the Elektra character was truly groan-worthy, but the rest of her I didn’t mind. She was charismatic, funny, and dark. Also, she kicked some serious ass. So there’s that…
The rest of the acting and casting this season was just as top-notch as it was in season 1, with Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page and Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson actually having more room and screen time to grow as characters, so you really got to see how good these actors and characters were. I actually have almost no complaints about their plotlines, and I love that we finally got to see how good of a lawyer Foggy is. Of course, the biggest surprise was the return of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk AKA The Kingpin.
A lot of what made that first season memorable can be credited to D’Onofrio. His Wilson Fisk is an intriguing and understandable villain, but not one that the audience is asked to side with. That was a big deal, and we didn’t really see that done as well again until… well, The Punisher this season. So when it is revealed around mid-season that Castle was going to be working with Fisk in prison, I was all kinds of excited, and it totally paid off. What we are treated to is some of the best of both characters. Their confrontations are tense on multiple levels, and Frank’s eventual betrayal at the hands of Kingpin leads to one of the best fight scenes in the series. And then one of the best one-on-one confrontations in the series when Castle meets with Fisk later. Perhaps most important of all, though, the series sets up Fisk to continue to be a big player in Hell’s Kitchen, even from within prison, which is a very Kingpin move. I am extremely excited to see what happens with Kingpin in season 3, and I get the feeling that we might be building up to Daredevil: Born Again. We will see.
Characters aside, this season of Daredevil has a lot going for it. The action scenes have actually improved dramatically (and they were pretty good to begin with). They even manage to top the phenomenal, critically-acclaimed hallway sequence from episode two of the first season by having Matt fight a horde of guys in close quarters again this season through a hallway and down a stairwell, except THIS TIME with one hand taped to a gun and the other wrapped with a chain. It’s a great scene that really showcases the really superb camera work that this show has, as well as reminding us how good the choreography in Daredevil can be. About half-way through the first season, I kind of felt like the fights tapered off a bit. It’s not that there aren’t impressive and edgy fights (that fight with Nobu is both incredibly well choreographed, and also brutal to watch), but they just never rose to the level of that hallway scene again. In this season, there are several action sequences that I felt raised the bar on what we expect from superhero television fight scenes. Further, the real strength this season is that they make those fights interesting in different ways. In the scene I just referenced, Matt is stuck in a narrow passage, and he is forced to use the weapons that are bound to him, rather than the ones he’s familiar with. Later, he is fighting a seemingly endless wave of gang members, while attempting to prevent Frank Castle from killing any of them. Then there is a fight where he is attempting to stop both Elektra and Stick from killing each other. They are always finding new ways to make the combat in this show engaging and new. I feel like without the ability to rely on the show concept itself being novel, they had to create originality in how they used that concept. That is smart writing and directing, and it’s when this show is really at its best.
That isn’t to say there aren’t times when things seem sluggish. I actually can’t tell you much of what Matt was doing when he was skipping out on Frank Castle’s trial to run around town with Elektra, because a lot of that just was not particularly interesting to me. I found myself longing for the scenes of Foggy in court, because he was engaging and interesting, and we got to see a new side of him. What Matt was doing during that time was just fighting more nameless ninjas and digging into the mystical plot that the show still hasn’t really made me that interested in. There are good moments there, but it’s the low point of the season for me, at least as far as Matt’s story is concerned.
Then there is the ending… The end of this season contained so many loose plot threads. We saw the fall of Nelson and Murdock, Foggy’s move to Hogarth, Chao and Benowitz (and Nelson, apparently?), Karen’s move to be a reporter for the Daily Bulletin, Elektra’s death, then maybe imminent resurrection?, The Punisher donning the iconic skull logo that they had been teasing all season, and Matt’s surprising reveal to Karen that he is Daredevil! (You walked there with your mask in a paper bag, Matt? Really?). All of these are fine individually, but what really bothers me about them is that they make the season feel less cohesive as a whole. These are a lot of things to hang off a cliff, and we don’t know when we will see a third season of Daredevil. We know that there is, apparently, some sort of deadline for filming The Defenders, which may mean that with Luke Cage in fall and Iron Fist next spring, we may not see Daredevil season 3 until two years from now and AFTER The Defenders airs. So… are we going to leave a bunch of these things unresolved until then? Are we going to get to see Karen’s reaction? Who knows! I was a bit disappointed that they chose to end the show with so many balls in the air. On the other hand, I think Marvel can be reasonably confident that a third season will happen, so this is less frustrating than the cliffhangers at the end of season two of Agent Carter.
The sophomore season of Daredevil was a fun ride. It continues to show like a thirteen hour movie in a series of thirteen hour movies, rather than a television show, and that allows for a few interesting dynamics that we don’t usually see in television series or movies. We get slower, more fleshed out character growth and examination. We got a deeper look at Frank Castle, for example, than we would ever have gotten in a feature film, and yet the season still feels like it has a really cohesive arc in a way that television series usually don’t. The action scenes and cinematography continue to be at the upper level of television and even better than a lot of major feature films, and the casting remains some of the best we have seen. All of these Marvel/Netflix shows are serving as examples of how good your cast can be when you are not limited to only casting whatever the biggest names in Hollywood have been in the last five minutes. Marvel and Netflix continue to impress me with their offerings of these street level superhero shows, and I cannot wait for Luke Cage in fall.
Aww, missing out on that trial for ninjas sounds quite disappointed.
So far, I’ve run one game of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and I started it with a Civil War style court battle with Tony Stark prosecuting Wolverine who was represented by She Hulk with Kitty Pride acting as a character witness. I should probably actually read some She Hulk at some point.
You almost certainly should. She Hulk is a good comic. Also, that sounds fun!