Review: Daredevil Season Two

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted, internet. I’d apologize, but I’ve been busy! I’ve taken on a lot of recurring work over the past year, and it’s edged out most of my available free and/or work time. The good news is that I’m able to financially support myself again; the bad news is that it doesn’t leave me with an awful lot of time to write. That said, I’m doing what I can, and over the next couple of months, I fully intend to sink into a comfortable rhythm from which I can start producing some decent fiction.

Until then, I want to talk about Daredevil Season Two.

I’ve told pretty much everyone who will listen what an amazing time it is to be a nerd. For decades, nerd culture was shunted to the side, scoffed at, or was otherwise ignored and labelled “kid stuff.” The Spider-Man trilogy started to change that, but even their box office returns weren’t quite enough to begin calling that kind of thing mainstream. Batman Begins helped a lot, but even that felt more like a niche audience; the Dark Knight trilogy didn’t really catch on until… well, The Dark Knight, and that was entirely based on the performance of Heath Ledger as Joker.

No, the rise of nerd culture in the mainstream is, in my opinion, pretty much the result of Robert Downey Jr.’s insanely charming performance of Tony Stark and Jon Favreau’s guiding ideology for Iron Man. Eight years ago (yes, Iron Man came out in 2008), Hollywood proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that comic book movies could be made for adults, that they could be accessible by kids, that they could be financially successful, and that they could be done right.

You know the rest; Marvel began churning out new IPs until they couldn’t find any more; we’re getting Doctor Strange later this year, along with Black Panther (which sounds way more racist than it actually is) in 2018. I fully expect them to continue scraping the bottom of the barrel until they start using Namor, the Marvel ripoff of Aquaman, but I’m going to go ahead and see every single thing they put out, because I’m a slave to this kind of stuff. They also kind of have the highest batting average of any studio I’ve ever even heard of; they haven’t made a bad movie since the Hulk franchise was killed.

Anyway, Marvel proved that they could do camp and brightly energetic stuff early on, but there were a few people who liked the darker style that the Dark Knight trilogy is known for— the realism, the washed-out lighting, the brooding, and the edginess that makes you feel like every scene could play out at your local Hot Topic. Because their cinematic universe was built around colorful and exciting movies, they couldn’t exactly execute a tonal shift well enough to produce a hardcore series of films that fits the mood of Daredevil and still have it feel like a Marvel movie.

So instead they went to Netflix, where they were given thirteen hours to tell something dark, edgy, and interesting, without the insanely high stakes that the Avengers franchise needs in order to function as a vehicle.

Season One was pants-crappingly awesome. I loved every second of it, despite its flaws— and there were some. The narrative did drag in the middle of the season, they tried really, really hard to find something for Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Paige to do that was also plot relevant, and…

That costume. Oh, that terrible costume.

But I was able to overlook what was wrong with Season One mainly because of Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Wilson Fisk. Every scene that guy was in was my favorite scene of the episode; he really was that good.

I was ecstatic to hear that it was cleared for a second season (pretty much moments after it aired), but I was left with a nagging doubt: could the series continue to be as good without the Kingpin to caulk up the cracks in the narrative?

The answer is…

Yeah. Kind of. Let me explain.

Season Two is an excellent example of good production value and outstanding writing and cinematography. The good parts completely outweigh the bad, but the problem is that there wasn’t a monolithic performance to conceal the bad parts this time, and the cracks in the narrative are apparent.

If you continue, be warned: Here There Be Spoilers.

 

 

The narrative of Season Two works really well on paper. A year or so after last season’s finale, Matt Murdoch is still doing his Daredevil thing, beating up thugs and helping the police whenever possible. He’s getting some positive press, too; he’s got public opinion on his side, and at least one cop (Brett Mahoney, their kind of friend from Season One) who hooks him up with leads and covers for him. By the way, that one cop is also apparently the only cop in the city, because he is literally at every single crime scene that’s on the show, but whatever; it’s not like Nick and Hank are the only two homicide detectives on Grimm, and they’re still somehow on every murder scene.

Anyway, they make a big deal out of changing Daredevil’s mask within the first episode or two, so they also listened a bit to viewers who said “This outfit looks stupid, and you are stupid for thinking otherwise, Hollywood.” So at least that problem is partially solved (except they kind of can’t design a full costume that doesn’t look ridiculous in live-action and is also faithful to the design in the comics, so don’t get too excited).

Foggy, now that he knows that Matt is Daredevil, still lectures him frequently, despite knowing that Matt can take care of himself, which is tiresome. Seriously; every time Matt leaves to do Daredevil stuff, we’re treated to a lecture on why Matt should stop. It’s annoying, but whatever; the guy is concerned about his friend.

Their law firm isn’t doing too well, either; in true economically-dubious fashion, Nelson and Murdoch tend to take on clients who pay them in bananas and pies, and no I’m not kidding. But again, whatever; they’re supposed to be the white knights of the story, so it works, despite the fact that they should no longer be in business. (Pro Tip: when you start a business of your own, the barter system is not the best way to make sure you can pay yourself a salary and, you know, survive).

Despite this, Matt and Foggy do the legal stuff during the day, and at night, Matt puts on a mask and beats up bad guys. And the setup works, just as it did last season. This time around, there is much, much less emphasis on the legal work, and far more attention is paid to the physical confrontations that Matt gets into during the course of the season.

The real consequence of Daredevil’s performance last season is that apparently a bunch of vigilantes have popped up since he put Fisk away. Inspired by his performance, presumably much like those in The Dark Knight, a bunch of well-meaning but terribly inefficient do-gooders have tried to make a difference. We don’t get to see any of these guys, and they’re only mentioned in passing.

But one guy does have an impact, and he’s pretty much carving a bloody swathe through the criminal underworld in Hell’s Kitchen: the Punisher.

Jon Bernthal’s portrayal of Frank Castle (and he is Frank Castle rather than Punisher, and I’ll get to that in a minute) is outstanding. When he was first announced, he promised fans of the character that he would get it right and that he would take it seriously, and he freakin’ delivered. He provided a complex, three-dimensional view of Frank Castle that has never been done before in live action.

The previous incarnations all had a ton of problems with them, but they all boiled down to one real issue: they all felt like straight up action movies. They felt like I was watching literally any Jason Statham movie rather than a story about the Punisher. Daredevil took the actual character of Frank Castle, and Jon Bernthal gave him life and a freaking soul. Rather than an unstoppable killing machine who’s just out for blood, we’re given a competent (yet not outrageously talented) soldier who is fighting a new kind of war because he can’t not. He has goals, he has needs, and he has emotions.

At one point, he delivers what is probably the best monologue I have ever heard outside of Shakespeare. I’m not kidding. If you have kids, keep a box of tissues nearby, because there is literally no way anyone with a soul (and kids) can be unmoved by his uninterrupted four minute speech. It was short, poignant, and so full of the innocent details that anyone with a family (and those without) can identify with.

That’s really the point at which pretty much all of the viewers start thinking “Geez, maybe Punisher’s right,” if they weren’t thinking it before. Karen’s understanding and sympathy for Castle is understandable from that point on, and it feels natural rather than forced for the sake of drama.

Anyway, the Punisher shows up, and he starts killing criminals in huge numbers, which runs counter to Daredevil’s moral code, and the two end up at odds over it. Daredevil wants Punisher locked up, and Punisher just wants Daredevil to leave him alone and let him continue his work.

This is an outstanding setup for a seasonal arc, and it’s the meat and potatoes of the first several episodes before the first real narrative complication shows up: Elektra.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Jennifer Garner’s horrendous portrayal of Elektra was so hideously and hilariously poor that the character was basically nixed for years afterward. But she’s part of the Daredevil universe, so they kind of can’t get away without including her for too long (but apparently they don’t need Bullseye, who is just as important as Kingpin in Daredevil’s rogues gallery, so whatever).

When she shows up, she coerces Matt into helping her with a bunch of missions with really unclear goals. She’s working to take down the ninja, which you may remember from Season One, who apparently never left Hell’s Kitchen.

While Matt Murdoch deals with this in the evenings, he’s defending Frank Castle in the courtroom. Elektra is a constant distraction for Matt, though, and he keeps screwing up the legal case.

It’s a good setup on paper, but ultimately fails in its execution for a variety of reasons, but they basically boil down to the fact that Elektra is just a terrible character.

She is pretty much the best example of how not to do a female character. She has absolutely no agency of her own. In flashbacks, it’s revealed that she and Matt dated in college (which was hinted at in Season One— remember Foggy and Matt talking about “that Greek girl?” That’s Elektra). But that was put into motion by none other than Stick, Matt’s old mentor, who makes an admirable return in Season Two as well.

Stick turns out to be guiding Elektra through all of these missions during his vaguely defined “war” from Season One. Remember that whole “Black Sky” thing he was talking about that wound up being a kid? Well, that’s pretty loosely explained in this season.

Everything Elektra does is set into motion by the men around her; Stick, who gives her directions, until she goes off the deep end and he tries to have her killed, and then Matt, who gives her directions until she dies. Yes, the season ends with her dead (but probably not for real).

She never once makes a real decision on her own that isn’t immediately slapped down by everyone else around her; she has no real agency. And then she’s stuffed in the fridge so that Matt can feel guilty some more.

I wrote a post a while back about passive and reactive characters, and why they’re an example of bad writing. Basically, it comes down to this; if all a character does is react to events around him or her, that’s a serious problem. Elektra isn’t passive; passive characters have events happen to them, much like Bella in Twilight (it has been 1 0 posts since I’ve bashed Twilight). She is reactive, which is when every decision she makes is a result of someone else’s decisions. Even her rampage to kill Stick is a reaction; Stick tries to have her killed, so she immediately heads to where he is to kill him. Her decision to fight Matt is because someone else told her that it was her destiny.

Elektra’s character is basically a poster child for what happens when you have no idea how to write a character. 

Anyway, Elektra’s arc in Daredevil isn’t just a distraction to Matt in terms of his struggling law firm, it’s a distraction to the narrative that people actually care about: Punisher!

It’s an attempt at some world-building that I’m not sure will pay off in the long run. They’re really trying to set up the Hand as a major existential threat to humanity, presumably so that they can use them in the upcoming Defenders series that will combine Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Daredevil into one eight-part event. But I don’t know if it’s worth it, because it really sacrificed a lot of the narrative strength of this season.

 

The other parts that dragged down the show were the forced drama between Foggy, Matt, and Karen. Matt’s activities at night naturally caused trouble between the three of them, which is realistic. Karen and Matt’s budding romance is handled pretty damn well, but the reasons for its failure are not.

The whole time there are problems between them, I kept thinking “There is literally no problem here. All you have to do is tell her that you’re Daredevil, and the problems will all be explained.”

This is probably the biggest problem with street-level superheroes. They all have a secret identity and wear a mask so that criminals and thugs can’t go after their families, right? Right! That makes sense.

But why do they never tell their spouse who they really are? They always wait until their relationship fails (or almost fails), and they end up finding out by accident.

Seriously, what is the danger to Lois Lane if Clark Kent tells her that he is Superman? How does that put her in danger? Are villains suddenly also going to know that Clark Kent is Superman? How? Is Lois going to tell them? Because if so, maybe you shouldn’t be with her in the first place.

Even if someone does find out that Clark Kent is Superman, what the hell are the villains going to do with that information? Try to shoot him? He’s still bulletproof, dude. He can literally push the earth into the sun if he wants to; go ahead and threaten his family.

Anyway, there is literally no reason that Matt doesn’t tell Karen that he’s Daredevil the moment they start having relationship issues. The only excuse is that it heightens the drama artificially, and I hate that kind of thing. It’s one of the things that The Amazing Spider-Man got right; as soon as they start dating, Peter tells Gwen what he does when he’s not around, and it solved all of their initial problems. Sure, it creates some more, but who cares? That’s doable. At least he doesn’t have to hide it.

Karen also suddenly shows an aptitude for journalism, which I find suspiciously convenient to set her up as a plot vehicle in the future. Yes, she had proven to be an able investigator in season one; she started the whole arc! But investigation is only half of investigative journalism. She still has to write an article at the end of the day, and that’s not an easy thing to do. I’m not saying that writing is a hidden and arcane talent that requires years of study (though I firmly believe that it requires practice), but she has an accounting degree. It was a bit jarring for me; I know that they set it up with her relationship with Ben in Season One, but it’s just one of those things that makes the writer in me cringe.

What shined during this part of things was Geoffrey Cantor’s portrayal of Mitchell Ellison. You may remember him as the obstructionist bureaucratic editor who argued with Ben Urich in pretty much every episode last season. There was even a point at which he was accused of being on Fisk’s payroll!

Well, this season gave him some serious character development, and he wound up being the part of the Daytime Show (when Daredevil or the Punisher is not on screen) that I liked best. He was funny, he was caring, and he was even charming, a serious counterweight to his character last season. It felt like Ben’s death at the end of season one actually changed him, which I thought was an outstanding touch, and it really boosted that part of the narrative.

Foggy at least has real reasons to be pissed at Matt, though his reasoning for dissolving Nelson and Murdoch is pretty shaky. It’s pretty sad to see the law firm go, and I think that it could have served ably as a narrative tool again in future seasons.

What really annoyed me about their relationship arc is that there was no true resolution to it. At the end of the season, Matt and Karen kind of make up, but Matt and Foggy only have a single conversation that boils down to “Yeah, but I’m still pissed, so go away.” It’s just disingenuous; if my best friend found out that I beat the tar out of bad guys, he’d give me a hell of a lot more leeway than Foggy gives Matt. I wanted more resolution there than I got, and I’m not happy about it.

 

But again, that isn’t to say that it’s bad. There are some good parts to the Elektra arc that are interesting (and fun). Some outstanding fight scenes shine there.

But the parts that people remember are not the ones that have anything to do with Elektra, Foggy, or Karen. Wilson Fisk has a guest spot, and Vincent D’Onofrio gives us the same unsettling performance he delivered last time around, and his episode is pretty extraordinarily good. His interaction with Punisher (in prison) is wonderful, and it left me wanting more (which, in my opinion, is the mark of any good story). No, people are going to remember the Punisher instead.

There is one incredible fight scene that stands out, and, just as in last season, it’s another “Oner.” Remember that hallway fight scene? Of course you do. I still think about it when I should be doing other things. They do something similar early on (in episode two or three, I can’t remember which), only this time there’s also a freaking stairwell and Daredevil has a chain duct-taped to one hand. It’s incredible, and damn well worth the price of admission.

But here’s the thing: if you remove Elektra from the narrative completely, but keep Scott Glenn’s Stick as the driving force of that side of things, the whole season gets better. That isn’t the mark of a well-rounded character.

Still, I suppose that they needed to have Elektra present in order to set up some conflict in future entries, because there is some overarching plot stuff that takes place around her that is important. But man do I wish that they had taken the time in the writing to make her something more than a woman who fights things for unclear reasons.

 

Overall, the season was good. I liked some parts of it better than Season One, and some parts of it were worse (and went on too long). The high points pretty much all included the Punisher, and they more than made up for the low points. Don’t take my criticisms too harshly; the season is still entertaining, and the story is still better than anything DC is pushing out.

Definitely give it a watch if you liked Season One even a little. You won’t be disappointed. Its imperfections are definitely not a show-killer.

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