Overview: Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), blind lawyer-by-day and vigilante-by-night, crosses paths with Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), better known as The Punisher. While Daredevil tries to operate within the boundaries of the law, his opponent puts criminals down for good. His world is further complicated by the arrival of Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), an old flame with dubious morals and a dark secret. 2016; ABC Studios/Marvel Television; TV-MA; 13 Episodes.
A Change of Pace: Season one of Daredevil was brutal and occasionally brilliant, setting up the world of Matt Murdock, lawyer-by-day and vigilante-by-night, and a darker side to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The introduction of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk as the antagonist brought things to another level. It was a strange, unpredictable performance that was elevated by some excellent characterisation. As if stunned by its own villain, the show then kind of had to tread water for the back half of the season, which was great whenever D’Onofrio was on screen, but the rest of the time we were watching Foggy and Karen play catch-up to what we had found out hours before. The ending was standard superhero fare, which stuck out like a sore thumb in a show that had gone to such great lengths to convince you of its realism and “serious” tone. Daredevil season 2 starts with similar aims, but like the hero himself, more confidence and skill. The costume looks a lot better (well, the cowl looks good but the rest still looks like motorcycle gear), and the fight choreography is excellent, especially a stairway action scene that blows the first seasons long-take corridor fight out of the water. There are also considerably fewer drawn-out storylines to stretch the series out, so the pacing feels far more in-keeping with the format.
Punisher MAX: The smartest move the show makes is in its depiction of Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, and his thematic and narrative placement. He’s the boogeyman stalking the streets, a Jason Vorhees-like monster who emerges out of the darkness to take on the criminal element. He challenges Daredevil, who draws the line at killing, with the statement “You put them down, they get back up – I put them down, they stay down”. What’s remarkable is that these moral debates never have any firm conclusion but allow for two well-written characters to intersect and define each other by their differences. Castle is a badass for sure, but clearly damaged and in constant emotional pain. He rarely acts as wish-fulfilment for the audience or Daredevil himself, but a man so far past the line that turning back would be as tedious as going over. Jon Bernthal is incredible here and is the series MVP by a long stretch. He is played as both villain and anti-hero, sympathetic and scary at once. Bernthal doesn’t let the different sides of The Punisher contradict one another but instead brings a complex emotional state to all his scenes.
A considerable amount of his story, and even a whole character arc, is wrapped up in the first third of the series. It’s a wise choice, giving them the freedom to weave the character in and out of the story as other elements come to the forefront. The decision to have two A-plots, bringing in the conflict with Elektra and The Hand in halfway through, means that we can have short, satisfying arcs, while the overall plot can develop without things getting tired. It is also a huge relief to return to Rosario Dawson’s Claire, who has little screen time but still brings a much-needed sense of warmth and humanity to a show about relentless crime and perpetually-bruised men. There’s a stretch of episodes in the middle of the series that are an almost perfect adaptation of the comic book. Each character has their own perspective and motivations, and it’s from this that the themes and plot emerge. The first season struggled with making Karen and Foggy’s investigations feel like anything but a waste of time – they were either completely irrelevant or playing catch-up to something the audience discovered hours before. Fortunately they both have personal struggles and directly affect the plot rather than being merely a bystander. I can’t say I like Foggy particularly, and Karen’s mix of earned cynicism with absurd skill and an incongruous naiveté is perplexing, but I am invested.
Without Fear: The accuracy of the season to its comic book source material is mostly in line with the direction Marvel Studios has taken with these adaptations – they keep the important elements but often re-assemble them to be more streamlined and palatable to audiences. There are several scenes in this show that I recognised from Frank Miller’s seminal run on Daredevil in the ’80s, but they were never shoe-horned in. The most exciting parts of the season for me were those that were confident in the source material, giving us the cool surface elements alongside the character quirks that made it worth adapting in the first place. Having Matt be late for an important court session because he was out the night before fighting alongside Elektra? Spot-on. The dour tone of season one is alleviated by moments of humour and straight-up fun. We know by now that Charlie Cox can handle the Catholic guilt and burden of responsibility material, but has more time to revel in the thrill of the chase. He loves being Daredevil, and it is reflected in his willingness to chase adventure rather than stabilise his civilian life, and in the smile he gives the enemy before they brutalise each other. It’s at these moments that it truly succeeds, where it enjoys itself without undoing the tension or moral complexity.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t any problems. My feelings towards the season were mixed at best after I finished the final episode, and it took me writing and thinking about it to put in perspective how much it got right. It seems like Daredevil just can’t stick the landing. All of the Marvel Netflix shows are at least two episodes too long (even the as-of-yet-unsurpassed Jessica Jones) and so last-minute dilemmas and gotcha-twists are sprinkled over re-treads of scenes done far better previously. This severely affects the final two or three hours of the show, and they are lined-up with some other unfortunate developments. For those wanting a comics-accurate version of Elektra Natchios, beyond the Sai and the name, you won’t find her here. Even setting aside what I personally wanted from her, here she is a character defined by the plot and by other characters, and Elodie Yung’s natural charisma doesn’t redeem a waste of a great opportunity. This all comes to a head in a finale that has no regard for its internal logic and chooses to waste its time on repetitive set-pieces rather than provide a satisfying conclusion for its many loose ends. The Punisher has an incredible journey throughout all 13 episodes that is somehow fumbled right at the end, while The Hand reveal themselves to be quite boring once they have a few hours of the show to themselves. The set-up is all there, but we never really get to the fireworks factory. It’s disappointing but forgivable due to the astounding highs of the earlier episodes. It isn’t perfect, but we finally have the real Daredevil on screen.
Overall: Aside from the sudden and drastic dip in quality at its end, Daredevil season 2 is a vast improvement on the last. It is still too long to keep its energy high throughout, but provides a fascinating and exciting look into the darker side of the MCU, with the writing and performances to back it up.
Featured Image: Netflix