DAREDEVIL Season 2 Review: An Improvement In Every Way

But still: my kingdom for cool radar sense.

This review contains full spoilers for Daredevil season 2.

The first season of Daredevil was a mess. Dismally structured and poorly paced, the show nailed Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk but found itself floundering with the remaining supporting characters. The story felt stretched across 13 bingeing episodes, and the show was so darkly lit it sometimes felt like a radio play. But even with all of the problems, Daredevil season one basically worked - the world and the main characters were established well, it ended with Daredevil in a (not great) version of his traditional uniform and it gave the Marvel Cinematic Universe one of its premiere bad guys with The Kingpin. It wasn’t great, but it sufficed.

With all of the fumbling amid the foundation out of the way (and with showrunner Steven DeKnight replaced by Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez), Daredevil season two is able to actually bring the goods, and the second run of 13 episodes improves on the initial run by just about every conceivable metric. Season two is, overall, a winner.

So many things are improved this go-round that I could just structure this review as a list of them. One of the biggest changes in season two is that the law firm of Murdock and Nelson actually does some lawyering, and it’s actually integral to the story. What’s more, season one’s dud duo Foggy Nelson and Karen Page don’t act as lead weights dragging the whole show down this year. In the first season they spent every episode investigating a mystery both the audience and Daredevil had long since solved - who is Wilson Fisk? In season two there’s some minor duplication of effort (Karen is learning about Frank Castle’s family right before we get a whole long monologue from Frank Castle about them) but in general Foggy and Karen have their own thing going on - as Daredevil teams up with Elektra to investigate The Hand, they’re knee-deep defending The Punisher at trial. It’s smart, and it means flashing to Karen and Foggy no longer stops the show dead in its tracks.

Structurally, the second season wisely has two A plots, and the smartest thing the writers did was to make them not connect. They definitely overlap right at the end (sort of nonsensically), but this isn’t a Kiss Kiss Bang Bang situation where two seemingly divergent cases are actually deeply connected. With that dual A plot structure the show is free to spin mini-arcs that divide the season up into three chunks, which gives the entire season a better sense of ebb and flow, spreading climaxes to stories throughout. In other words it’s structured like a regular TV show, where you’re meant to watch episodically, as opposed to the binge-method where fuck-all happens for the first three hours.

Each A plot guest stars a different Marvel Comics character. In the first The Punisher rolls into town, wreaking havoc on local gangs in retaliation for the murder of his wife and children during a shoot-out. Jon Bernthal, who was the only reason to ever watch The Walking Dead, is simply extraordinary as The Punisher. Physically he’s perfect, with his broken nose and hard eyes, but more than that he is able to find a humanity inside of Frank Castle that makes his murderous ways all the more terrifying. When he’s first introduced The Punisher is basically Jason Voorhees or The Terminator, especially in a sequence where he strolls through a hospital blasting things with a combat shotgun. But as the show goes on, and as Castle goes on trial and ends up in prison, Bernthal brings shades to this guy. The show makes a choice I didn’t love - it gives Castle brain damage to explain why he’s so damn violent - but otherwise this feels like the best iteration of The Punisher yet. The character has a rich depth that puts him ideally between the Looney Tunes version in Punisher: War Zone and the emo version in The Punisher (2004). He’s brutal enough to murder a whole wing worth of maximum security prisoners in a fight but also human enough to offer Karen Page some love advice - and Bernthal sells both without ever contradicting the character.

The Punisher’s story is laid low by a lame finale - his combat officer who also served as his character witness at his trial ends up being the new heroin player in New York City who was behind the botched drug deal that killed the Castle family - but if you can forgive that (and since literally every person involved in it winds up dead by the end we can all just move past it), Daredevil season two leaves the character in a perfect place to pick up his own spin-off. Yes, it takes until the last minutes of the last episode for The Punisher to get his iconic skull logo, but at this point I’ve accepted that Daredevil moves at this pace. At least he kills plenty of dudes along the way.

What makes The Punisher A plot so successful is the way the writers use it to test Matt Murdock’s no-killing policy. The show allows the characters to have actual, lengthy debates about morality, and they’re especially welcome coming from Bernthal’s mouth. He has a couple of monologues - his Punisher speaks more than most of the previous screen iterations - and they’re all great. The show dramatizes the relationship between Daredevil and The Punisher well, and it especially does a nice job of showing the temptation Murdock faces as Castle hits him with a hard truth - his non-lethal measures are only a stopgap. As the two characters trade not only blows but also deep thoughts about their philosophies, Daredevil season two elevates itself intellectually from season one, which mostly had Matt moping about wanting to murder. Giving Daredevil an antagonist against whom he can define himself is smart writing.

Once The Punisher is in custody Elektra enters the picture. Relative newcomer Elodie Yung is incredible in the role, bringing a mischievous sexuality, white hot fight ability and steamy chemistry with lead Charlie Cox. You believe these two have a past, and once Daredevil is done bouncing off The Punisher he finds himself teamed up with his old flame who is also happy to kill.

The middle section of the season, which sees Daredevil and Elektra investigating yakuza goings on in Hell's Kitchen and realizing it’s all a dastardly plan by The Hand, is some of the best and most super-heroic stuff we’ve seen from the Marvel Netflix shows. Daredevil and Elektra have fun teaming up against goons, and Yung and Cox are fun to watch together, being playful and having a good time. In many ways Daredevil season one presented Matt Murdock’s alter identity as a burden, a mantle he was compelled to take up to absolve himself of guilt. Season two moves Daredevil to a place I much prefer: Matt Murdock fucking loves being Daredevil, he loves hitting dudes and running across rooftops and having adventures and getting into trouble. Before Frank Miller Batman-ized DD, this is who he was - an adventurer, a guy having fun out there. I’m far more interested in a Matt Murdock who is addicted to the action, who lets it get in the way of his daily responsibilities, than I am in a Matt Murdock who broods his way through the night. Brooding is boring. A guy being reckless and using the righteous excuse of crime fighting to facilitate his love of action? That’s cool.

Elektra brings that out of Daredevil. Watching the two of them infiltrate fancy parties and use Matt’s senses to pull off heists is a blast, and it allows another tone into the series, a welcome brightness. It also allows the show an opportunity to split Matt between two lives, and two women… but this is one of the places where the show drops the ball.

On the one hand there’s Elektra, a woman whose effect on Matt is electric. Their relationship is deeply sexual, even when they’re not having sex (and in classic comic book fashion, they sublimate their sex into action scenes. Superhero stories are like musicals - when the emotions run high the characters break out not into song but into fisticuffs), and she tempts Matt into irresponsibility. On the other hand there’s Karen Page, and Matt’s relationship with her is more sensitive and emotional. Karen only knows Matt and Elektra only loves Daredevil, and that could be incredible drama. The problem? The show makes both Karen and Elektra morally grey.

Elektra, as an assassin, is happy to kill. She’s been raised to kill. She breaks all the rules all the time, a figure of intense privilege who sails through life on a mixture of money and ability. Her opposite figure should be all about the rules, all about following the law, but Karen isn’t that. Karen is sort of Elektra-lite when it comes to morality; she doesn’t have the patience for the byzantine strictures of the legal system and she finds herself drawn to, and sympathetic for, serial killer Frank Castle. She even tells Matt that maybe Castle’s methods make sense. Thematically and structurally it would have been much more exciting to see Matt torn between the women who represent his day and his night, but instead they both kind of represent the dusk. Any jealousy aside I think Karen would kind of like where Elektra is coming from, even as Elektra's actions ruin the Castle defense.

That Karen doesn’t fulfill a strong thematic role in the season sucks, but what’s great is that Karen herself doesn’t suck. In season one Karen and Foggy were the doom that came to Daredevil, their storylines sucking the vitality from a pulpy crime narrative. Here I actually liked Karen, and I kind of loved her weird relationship with The Punisher (even though, again, it hurts her place in the larger thematics of the show). It was interesting seeing her realize that her drive to uncover the truth didn’t make her right for the law but rather for the press (although holy shit, has anyone ever had a bigger jump from nobody to a corner office than Karen Page this season?). That narrative may have been driven by the poor decision in season one to kill off Ben Urich, but it gave Karen herself an arc that felt complete.

Foggy also had an arc, a big change from last season where his very presence made me want to drive my head through my television. This season was all about Foggy finding himself, about him understanding that he didn’t need to stand in the shadow of his handsome, well-spoken and blind best friend. That arc grew organically out of Matt’s, because as Murdock ignored the practice more to go adventuring Foggy was forced to stand up on his own. By the end of the season I even LIKED Foggy a little bit, if only because he had quit being a pathetic puppy about Karen and because he had finally recognized his own value. And it seems like the show recognized his place in the series, and the value in having him bounce off Matt in meaningful ways. Foggy’s story of self-actualization is well executed.

Less well executed is the back third of the season. There are exceptional highlights - The Punisher in prison, meeting and being crossed by The Kingpin, is one of the best parts of both seasons so far - but the main storyline falters in the home stretch. The Hand, simply put, suck. It’s a problem that’s been present in the comics as well, but it becomes clearer in live action. The Hand is made up of super ninjas who travel in big packs and get offed like the cheapest cannon fodder. At one point Claire Temple kills one by hitting him with a chair while he’s trying to climb in the window.

The show tries to up The Hand’s menace by giving them the ability to quiet their own heartbeats, but that wouldn’t foil Matt’s radar sense in general. It’s frustrating how the show uses his enhanced senses - two seasons in and we still don’t have a good radar sense visualization. At least this season he uses the sense - he can ‘see’ inside closed drawers and train cars, and he can detect things many floors below where he’s standing. He even uses it in combat in exciting ways, deflecting or knocking out a guy coming at him from behind without even looking. But why wouldn’t his radar sense give him an outline of ninjas, even if their heartbeat wasn’t audible? By not showing the TV audience his radar sense the show gets to cheat that.

The Hand is led by Nobu, the ninja who burned to death in season one (and I guess opened a fancy sushi chain). It’s a seemingly good idea, but the reality is that Nobu is nobody - he’s without personality or identity, and so The Hand become reduced to a faceless, pointless group of ninja. Their goals are confused - they want to awaken the Black Sky, which we discover is Elektra, but they’re also digging this deep pit for “The Rising,” which never becomes particularly immanentized. Without a charismatic lead villain and without a coherent endgame plan (what will even happen if the Black Sky is awakened? Super unclear) the final episodes get soggy and pointless. Add to that Stick’s sudden about-face on Elektra (he goes from saving her life to trying to have her killed like 12 hours later) and you end up with a show that can’t quite stick the landing.

The show makes one major deviation from canon at the end of the season that left me baffled. In the comics Elektra is killed by Bullseye, a moment that elevates the hitman to one of Daredevil’s most iconic villains. In the show she’s killed by Nobu, who ends up getting his head chopped off two minutes later anyway. What’s the point of this? Why rob Bullseye of his moment? It’s kind of the only thing the character had going for him, and he’s kind of one of the few iconic Daredevil villains remaining (sadly I imagine we’re never gonna see Stilt-Man). It’s such a weird moment, and having it come at the hands of a nobody character truly drains it of impact. Conceptually I like how it happens - Elektra sacrifices her life to not only save Matt but also thwart herself becoming the Black Sky (whatever that is) - but it simply doesn’t play as well as it would if the killer was a real character.

But even with the whiffed finale, Daredevil season two works more than it doesn’t. It’s almost an inverse of the first season, which was maybe a third really good amid two-thirds lame to boring. There’s a lack of fat in the narrative this season that is in stark contrast to the plodding pace of the first year, and season two only feels one episode too long rather than three (all the Marvel Netflix shows have been too long, by the way. Disengage from this 13 episode structure! Do your own thing! Tell your story at the length it needs!). What’s more, the action is way better than season one, where I thought the hallway fight was crazily overhyped. There’s a hallway and staircase fight this season that is incredible and blows that first season fight out of the water. None of the action is close to the level that you’ll see from Indonesian martial arts films or anything, but there’s a marked improvement. The number of characters involved in the action also allows for a feeling of varied fighting styles - each character’s style speaks to who they are, and as such the fights are as much acts of argumentation as the conversations are.

And all of this - the characters, the action, the romance - is in the service of a larger series of philosophical questions about not only how vigilantes operate but how we, as people, navigate the world. The entire season is a lively debate about whether or not the ends justify the means, and the show wisely never answers that question. It allows the question to resonate in our heads. In a superhero movie landscape where one of the biggest icons of heroism doesn’t even grapple with that question before committing murder it’s refreshing that Daredevil season two spends thirteen hours dwelling on it.

After season one I was not particularly interested in the live action Daredevil anymore, but season two has rescued the character for me. The vibrancy, sense of fun and excitement and the excellent character work (supported by yet more home run casting from Marvel) rejuvenated  a hero who seemed to be lost in the mire of grim and grit. I actually cheered when Daredevil finally got his classic retractable billy club and swung into action, something that wouldn’t have been tonally possible in the first season (and yes, it comes right at the goddamned end again, I don’t know why they’re afraid to give these characters their proper outfits and accessories). It took a little waiting, but now we have the true Daredevil on TV.

Now fix his costume in The Defenders, please.

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