Between you and me, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I didn’t think the second season of Daredevil was going to work. I know, I know – naïve. The show’s first baker’s dozen episodes were greeted by many – myself included, really – as some kind of revelatory viewing experience. And while no fandom grades on a more generous curve than Marvel’s, it’s tough to argue that despite its flaws, Daredevil represented a new high-water mark for the company’s TV division. Why the scepticism, then? Part of it was certainly that we weren’t expecting another helping of Matt Murdock quite so soon. It wasn’t the original plan, which was to introduce him, and then subsequently Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist – the remaining members of the Defenders. But thanks to slower-than-anticipated development on those series’ (Iron Fist, particularly), we not only got Daredevil and Jessica Jones but then Daredevil again, perhaps as an attempt to capitalise on the first season’s success, or to plug a hole in the scheduling, or both. I wasn’t crazy about any of those options. None felt right for the story, which had already left a lot of lingering questions, presumably to be answered elsewhere, and it occurred to me that the last thing a show like Daredevil needed was 13 episodes of meandering. So, there was that.
There was also a sense that something about the character would feel used up after a second go-around. It isn’t that there’s a shortage of source material, and the best of it has the advantage of only being tangentially connected to the surrounding universe. The basic, underlying premise (a blind guy defending the indigent in courtrooms by day, and battering organised crime by night) could conceivably go on forever. Nobody would want it to, though, because that gets away from something fundamentally appealing about superhero stories: the pleasure isn’t just derived from experiencing each individually, but in large part from experiencing them all together. On the big screen, Marvel has mastered this bizarre form of interconnected storytelling, but on the small one there’s still work to be done. And revisiting Hell’s Kitchen prematurely felt like it could situate Daredevil too far away from the rest of his cohorts; like it would dampen some of the satisfaction in watching each individual cog turn in unison. Nobody would have cared about Dr. Frankenstein if his monster never got up and walked on its own.
I shouldn’t have worried. At this point, Marvel hitting the bull’s-eye on every target it aims for is no longer remotely surprising. Even projects that seem destined for failure end up better than most of the catalogue. So, yeah: Daredevil’s second season is an improvement in almost every way, and wherever it isn’t better it’s still just as good. Not that it’s perfect, obviously, but neither was season one, and the show still has a knack for papering over areas that don’t work by having everything else work really, really well. If you were concerned, don’t be. They pulled it off. And I wanted that to be clear before I get into the spoiler-y stuff, because Netflix’s direct-to-binge distribution model makes discussing these shows one episode at a time pretty much worthless. So, if you haven’t watched season two and feel you’d like to, go and do that now before I spoil it all.
Anyway. It’s been a year. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) has supplanted his tasteful Under Armour and do-rag combo with a dorky-looking horned suit. He’s fallen into a comfortable routine of daytime lawyering and night-time pugilism. Nelson & Murdock, the law firm he operates with his best friend, Foggy (Eldon Henson), and their secretary, Karen (Deborah Ann Woll), is still riding the wave of Wilson Fisk’s apprehension, but not, it seems, taking on any clients that will pay them actual money. They’re still broke and the office is still full of cobbler. But Matt has finally started to reciprocate Karen’s lustful staring, Foggy has accepted he’ll always be the beta male in the love triangle, and all is generally well in Hell’s Kitchen. Except, of course, for the various gangs and syndicates that have swept in to take advantage of the power vacuum left by Kingpin’s removal, and the new vigilante who’s determined to gun them all down as they fight over the scraps.
Daredevil isn’t having any of this, obviously, partly because the town’s only big enough for one costumed crimefighter at a time, but also because his stringent Catholicism means that he can’t tolerate murder on his watch even if it inadvertently makes his job (both of them!) much easier. Like last season, the show really leans into this idea of Matt Murdock as a beacon of Irish-Catholic masochistic martyrdom, to the extent that his arc this time around is essentially the exact same guilt-grappling vigilantism-as-self-penance routine, except that now on top of getting beaten almost to death in every fight regardless of the number or training of his opposition, Elektra (Elodie Yung) is here to lure him away from responsibility and emotionally-healthy relationships.
Ah, Elektra, the leggy avatar of the most embarrassing corners of Frank Miller’s imagination. She’s terrible in this. It cannot be overstated. And what’s more is she shows up just as Murdock is starting to defend Frank Castle, aka The Punisher (Jon Bernthal), in court; easily the most interesting narrative development in the show until that point, and one of the main ways in which the second season surpasses the first – by weaving the previously boring and pointless legal subplots into the central narrative. But Elektra’s involvement here threatens to undermine all that by constantly dragging Murdock – and, by extension, the audience – away from the meaty, interesting drama and forcing them back into the leftover magic ninja stuff from season one.
To be clear, this isn’t the fault of Elodie Yung, who’s good-looking and charismatic enough to pull off a role that is built entirely on attractiveness and charisma, but her character and the dopey mystery that involves her are so catastrophically underwritten that it hardly matters. By the end of the previous season The Hand and “Black Sky” were compelling mysteries to be solved in the future; by the end of this one they’re rote and unimaginative “This is your destiny!” horseshit.
What’s worse is that The Punisher’s story is at its most interesting when it’s running parallel to this, and everything involving him is so much better than the stuff involving Elektra that it’s difficult not to develop some real resentment towards everything on her side of the plot, which includes Scott Glenn’s Stick and a lot of the larger world-building shenanigans one assumes will become much more important for the rest of Netflix’s Marvel pipeline. If there’s a single all-important take-away from season two of Daredevil it’s Jon Bernthal’s extraordinary version of Frank Castle, and the fact we’ve been blessed with a spin-off miniseries following him feels like a welcome reward for having put up with Elektra here.
Let me be clear, though: Elektra doesn’t ruin everything, and really, aside from comparatively minor issues like the costuming and abundance of underlit hallways, she’s more or less the only thing legitimately wrong with the season. Sure, they still haven’t fixed the fact that Charlie Cox doesn’t have much range, or chemistry with the rest of the cast (except, weirdly, Bernthal), and the Murdock/Foggy/Karen triumvirate still has that rather annoying habit of laughing together even though nobody is saying anything funny. But that all seems forgivable when so much effort has been put into fixing what didn’t work the first time around, especially in regards to Karen and Foggy, who were previously underwritten B-plot conveyer belts and are now fully fleshed-out supporting characters. Karen, in particular, has been treated surprisingly fairly, given that at various points throughout the Daredevil comics she has been tricked into believing she was HIV-positive and traded sexual favours for smack.
What’s left, as usual, is the violence, which in the first season was the best thing about Daredevil being a Netflix show rather than a broadcast series or a movie, and in season two is still exactly that. As before it’s the humanity that matters, and because most superheroes transcend physical limitations you rarely get that from action in the comic-book genre. Fisticuffs in Marvel’s movies can still be fun and exciting (in Captain America: Civil War fisticuffs are more fun and exciting than they’ve ever been) but when hunks of CGI collide with glimmering metal-men you hardly feel as though it hurts. Daredevil, on the other hand, will make you wince. It’ll snap a bone or lop off a head or shoot and stab and stomp its bloody way through fight sequences that still feel somehow balletic and graceful, which is a delicate balancing act to pull off. What’s more, it’ll lay up the hero for an episode and a half while his love interest asks important audience-surrogate questions. It’ll smile through bloody teeth before flip-kicking a ninja. Daredevil, more than anything, brings bodily consequence to the forefront of superhero stories, and it does it in a ballsy tonal jamboree that works better than it has any right to.
After two seasons Daredevil still feels like the lurid black sheep of Marvel’s extended family, and it’s still one of the most compelling pieces of work the company has produced thus far because of it. It’s eminently watchable, consistently well-made and occasionally provides genuine greatness: Wilson Fisk in the first season; The Punisher in this one. At this point, whether or not we strictly needed a second season seems irrelevant. Not seems – is irrelevant. It’s not inconceivable that you’d be completely burnt out on superheroes at this point, but so what. As long as their stories are this good, Marvel can destroy and rebuild New York City forever.
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