In an increasingly saturated market, Daredevil‘s first season set itself apart from a slew of superhero TV shows by giving us a dark and gritty prestige crime drama set within Marvel Studio’s grand interconnected universe. It was a dream come true for fans; intelligent writing, fascinating characters, and some of the best action to ever grace the small screen. If you were worried it was a fluke, don’t be. Daredevil‘s second season improves on the first in almost every way, giving us a tenser and more chaotic story in Marvel’s increasingly dark and violent underworld.
There’s a lot going on in Daredevil‘s sophomore season. Aside from inching closer and closer toward The Defenders, season two is essentially the origin story for two more comic book legends. Both The Punisher and Elektra make their MCU debut here, each bringing plenty of baggage and dropping it violently onto Matt Murdock’s already fragile world. As has been the case for Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage before them, the show smartly introduces these new faces having already begun their journey. They are immediately big enough players to throw the show’s status quo totally out of whack, but we are still able to witness the pivotal point of no return as they transform from lost killers into the iconic anti-heroes we know and love.
Undoubtedly, it’s Jon Bernthal who steals the show this time round as Frank Castle aka The Punisher. Finally doing live-screen justice to a comic favorite who has previously been reduced to b-grade schlock, Bernthal maintains The Punisher’s exaggerated, hyper-violent aspects and rounds them out with a more complex nihilism and just the right amount of genuine humanity. While Vincent D’Onofrio deservedly garnered the most attention last season, there was a little too much of the wrong kind of comic-booky for me, which is not at all the case with Castle. Despite his very archetypal motivation, Bernthal’s Punisher is utterly captivating, to the point that whenever he is off-screen the show feels like it has a hole to fill. Aside from just being totally badass, he forms the heart of the season, giving us our best look yet on this world’s effects on the innocent, articulated beautifully by Bernthal’s wonderful “Penny and Dime” monologue. The one misstep with the character is in the writers focusing too much on the mystery surrounding his origin, and overlooking what is really important about it in service to a slightly undercooked conspiracy plot.
The Punisher also paves the way for a much different flavor of action to Daredevil’s super-heroics. He tip-toes between anti-hero and villain, brutally and lethally laying waste to his opponents and pushing Marvel’s Netflix series even further into an adult-only viewership. This places him in an antagonistic role to the moralistic Daredevil, giving the pair a great dynamic on-screen. Both have undeniable admiration for the other, but their incompatible philosophies ensure they are never really on the same side and makes for some of the most interesting and passionate content of the show.
The show doubles down on these themes with Elodie Yung’s Elektra, a lethal assassin and Matt Murdoch’s former love interest. With The Punisher proving absolute in his convictions, Elektra becomes the sub-textual battleground for the show with Matt urging her toward a more righteous path and Scott Glenn’s Stick (the pair’s former mentor) trying to keep her a soulless killer in his war against The Hand (more on them in a moment). Yung proves another strong casting choice for Marvel, balancing the darker elements of the character with some much appreciated enthusiasm for her adventures with Daredevil. It’s refreshing seeing one of the Netflix heroes having fun in this very depressing world, and even more so when it starts to rub off on Matt after some soul-destroying interactions with The Punisher. Sadly, the Punisher material doesn’t quite frame Elektra’s arc so much as overshadow it. For my money she’s a fine addition to the MCU and I look forward to seeing what they do with her long-term, but in the context of this season her half of the story, while entertaining, can feel like it’s pulling you away from the initially superior Punisher plotline.
The other big new element introduced here is The Hand, an ancient ninja legion fighting a secret war to use Hell’s Kitchen as ground zero for a dark and mysterious rite. It’s here the show dangers toward getting a bit too ambitious. Clearly this is a big push by Marvel into a much more supernatural landscape. It all fits the mystic/martial arts vibe of the show and the first season laid enough groundwork that it’s not too much of a stretch. The problem is the show never quite treats The Hand material with the same care and maturity as all it’s other elements. There are some really creepy moments and entertaining sequences (The Hand’s foot soldiers and daredevil working out each other’s weaknesses and how to overcome them was an inspired plot point) with The Hand, but they just don’t push Daredevil or the story as much as the other smaller threats of the show. There’s a key scene just before the big climax where wave after wave of ninja descend on Daredevil and Elektra’s location, leaving you to really feel like these might be their last few seconds together. It’s an incredible moment and hugely rewarding for fans like me, but when they go outside to face their enemy there’s suddenly only a dozen or so baddies who all stand back to take turns to throw punches.
Admittedly, these sequences wouldn’t feel so cheap were it not for how amazing the action can get in this show. New showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez set out to top the first season’s now infamous hallway fight, and while they may not have quite captured the creativity and brilliant choreography of that set-piece, Daredevil more than secures its title as the current king of TV action. The big standout is the incredible faux-one-take sequence where Daredevil has to battle his way down an old apartment building as a gang of pissed off bikers (also a fun connection to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for those who catch it) all try to avenge their fallen vehicles. Also worth special mention is a rescue where Daredevil simultaneously takes down foes while stopping The Punisher from killing them, and Punisher’s bloodthirsty “seven minutes of heaven.” So. Damn. Awesome
Now the question is, with all this going on, does Charlie Cox’s titular hero get pushed to the wayside? Well, kind of–but it does make sense with his arc this season. Matt starts this season on a high, he’s taken down Fisk, his law-firm is filled with clients, and he’s got a brooding romance with Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page (who is absolutely wonderful and deserves far more attention than I have time for in this review), but by the show’s end it’s all falling apart, and worse, he’s begun to abandon the principles that have always defined him. Daredevil vs Fisk was the name of the game last time round, and while there is no foe anywhere near that imposing, it’s death by a thousand cuts as Matt gets pulled in all different directions and fails, miserably, to keep his life together. The writers perhaps could have driven his transformation home a little more, but Cox’s performance is so wonderfully nuanced the show gets a pass on being a bit subtler with their lead than everything around him.
So yes, these thirteen episodes are a little preoccupied with setting the groundwork for future story, but goddamn if it isn’t a blast to watch. I can see some people getting frustrated that the separate storylines don’t really come together cohesively, but it’s important to remember this is a TV show and not a thirteen-hour movie. Daredevil‘s second season delivers big on suspense and action, introduces a ton of new elements to the Marvel/Netflix world, and starts its hero on the dark path fans have been waiting to see. Season three just became my most anticipated show on Netflix. Sorry House of Cards.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10