We never would’ve guessed Green Arrow would become the central character of a group of live-action super shows And likewise, we never would’ve guessed that Daredevil would become the center of Marvel’s first steps into premium TV.
And what a first outing it was. A great hero and an even better villain, great fights, interesting stories – all this left us drooling with excitement for what the Marvel Netflix Universe could possibly have in store. Three and a half years later, we’re coming around full circle as Daredevil faces off against his arch-enemy, Wilson Fisk, with both their reputations and lives at stake. After a bumpy second season and a lot of really bumpy Marvel Netflix shows since, it’s time to find out if Daredevil can bring home the gold and show us what we’ve been hoping for.
Part of what made Daredevil work so well is that it had consistent themes underpinning everything that happened. How we cope with guilt, what it means to be good, and the idea of identity were major parts of the show that helped tie the different characters and storylines together. While Matt questioned the idea of stepping into the darkness to be good, Foggy acted as a symbol of belief in the law and the legal system. Karen appeared to be a symbol of innocence, but was the only one of the primary protagonists who ended up picking up a gun to save herself. Wilson Fisk was deep enough in the shadows that people knew well enough not to say his name, but genuinely believed that he was improving his city by taming the various crime families and bending them to his will.
These ideas once again surround Daredevil in this third season, without feeling like a rehash.
We pick up where The Defenders left off: Matt Murdock was buried in the collapse of the building the vigilante team had taken down, only for us to see Matt lying in bed attended to by nuns in the show’s very last moments. As we rejoin him in season 3, Matt is bloody, beaten, and immobile.
Wilson Fisk, meanwhile, seems to be living a quiet life of solitude in prison, with the FBI stopping in regularly to try to squeeze information out of Fisk. After Fisk finally offers up something the feds can chew on, things go sideways, and soon Fisk is moved to a “secure” penthouse suite atop a massive hotel, much to the chagrin of most of the city. Matt knows he needs to get Fisk back into prison, and Fisk knows he needs to deal with the vigilante called Daredevil before he can safely step back out into the light (even as he keeps his hands in the shadows).
That all sets up one of the best and most beloved Daredevil stories from the comic, “Born Again,” in which Wilson Fisk learns of Daredevil’s true identity and uses it to crush both Matt Murdock and Daredevil by dismantling both sides of his life. Even if you know that story by heart, though, the showrunners and writers have done a great job of elegantly remixing and rewiring the story to work within the bounds of the show and keep things fresh and interesting. The more dated and sexist elements of the original story are gone, the more “comic-book-y” elements have been streamlined, but the story arc’s core essence remains, and most every character has been fleshed out to a greater degree.
Two Villains for the Price of One
While not every Marvel story needs a good villain to thrive, the best ones have great villain that bring their stories to another level. In the case of Daredevil‘s third season, we get not one villain but two to watch at work.
Netflix has been teasing the return of Wilson Fisk for months. For good reason: he’s very much at the core of this story, getting what feels like as much screen time as Matt does. Vincent D’Onofrio doesn’t have to carry this show with his performance, but he could. He gives Fisk this quiet desperation that turns the character into a burdened man.
The Spider-Man video game that hit PS4 last month began with a battle with Fisk, and the two portrayals couldn’t be more different. There, Fisk was The Kingpin, a clear criminal who was more interested in excelling as a criminal than anything else. There was no “flesh” to him. Here, his criminality is but one facet of a complicated personality.
This version of Fisk feels weighed down by his life. He’s super strong, but any time he speaks, it sounds as if he thinks he’s Atlas himself, holding the entire world up as Hell’s Kitchen rests on his back. His desires are simple: he wants to run his business and live a good life with the woman he loves, Vanessa. He’s beleaguered by constant interruptions from Daredevil, from the impulsive and unclean criminal elements of the city as they work without his guidance, and of course from the intrusive FBI.
But he embraces his criminal side more easily this time around. His time in prison between season 1 and 3 did indeed change him, even if it’s not in the ways he wished everyone would believe. His manipulation and puppeteering are as subtle as ever, but he’s not deluding himself about what he’s doing anymore.
This is where the other great villain enters in. These stories always have main villains and side villains, but often the side villain suffers in the shadow of the main villain. Here, the other guy – Bullseye – gets enough time to develop that we can feel for him, too.
Like Fisk, Bullseye isn’t called by his villain name at all during the show. Instead, he’s FBI Special Agent Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter, a man obsessed with ritual and gifted with almost superhuman accuracy when it comes to most any kind of projectile, from baseballs to scissors to shards of glass.
The show puts Dex and Daredevil up against each other as mirror images. Each are plagued with many of the same difficulties, offered similar solutions, but end up taking very different life routes. It asks questions that apply to both of them about how much of our actions are in our nature and how much of them are conscious decisions we each make. It improves on their comic-book incarnations and each character makes the other more interesting to watch.
They’re also a perfect pair in action sequences, but more on that later.
It’s not just Fisk and Bullseye that come off well, though. Matt Murdock’s frustration and anger feels earned instead of petty, as such things often feel in dramatic shows. He’s been served up a pretty terrible life even when you account for his super powers, and he responds as you’d expect. But he’s still Matt “the Martyr” Murdock, and he feels responsible for everything going on, even if his actual responsibility is pretty tough to defend. And that personal guilt drives him over and over to make bad decisions and pull weight onto himself that should be shared by those who care for him.
The show doesn’t seem concerned with the question so many superhero stories like to ask lately – are superheroes actually useful – and more concerned with questions about how we respond to our environment, our upbringing, and the challenges we’re faced with. Because these questions are more general, it’s easier for us non-supers to relate to them. Daredevil dishes Matt a crappy life, but it doesn’t let him off the hook when it comes to dealing with it.
For all three of these characters, the show employs flashbacks, but they’re not like the traditional flashbacks we see where it cuts away to a different place and time. The show goes for something more theatrical, with a minimal backdrop and the character experiencing the flashback in-frame. Sometimes it’s Matt experiencing his own memory, but it’s also often Fisk or Murdock experiencing one of Dex’s memories as they delve into his past as a disturbed young man.
They stand out visually, and enhance the feeling of getting into that character’s head, but specifically from the other character’s point of view. It’s not “here’s what happened to Dex,” but rather “here’s what Fisk can use against Dex.”
While Fisk, Bullseye, and Daredevil are at the center of the show, though, secondary characters do a great job of holding it up. One that sticks out in particular is Agent Nadeem, a character who feels like an unnecessary addition but in the end pays off tremendously.. Nadeem is a good man who tries to do the right thing, but finds himself unwittingly at Fisk’s beck and call. The show spends a lot of time on him, perhaps because he’s kind of an amalgamation for all the outside forces (FBI, Police, etc.) that Fisk uses against Matt in the original story. While many of the corrupt people in these stories have waded into the mud on purpose, Agent Nadeem is someone who was doing his best to stay clean.
Foggy and Karen, meanwhile, are as strong as ever, acting as moral compasses for Matt despite their own complications. One of the more problematic elements in the original “Born Again” tale was how it handled Karen. Instead of going off to be a journalist, she went off to become an actress. She ended up failing, falling into heroin, and eventually becoming a pornographic actress who gave up Matt’s identity for another hit of the drug. Nothing about the Daredevil show is set up for that, and in retrospect, it seems like yet another instance of Frank Miller’s tendency to turn all his female characters into sex workers or murder victims for cheap drama.
The show nods towards all this, but no more than that, by way of an extended flashback to Karen’s earlier life. Instead of her having made mistakes that required her to compromise her body, she’s a kid in a small town who does drugs for the same reasons so many small-town kids do: boredom and antsy-ness with small-town life. The show doesn’t judge her or make her into a victim for this behavior. She does feel guilt over what happens, and still deals with it, but it’s not used as a plot point to further Matt’s story.
Most crucially, it’s not framed as a negative aspect of her – it’s just a bad choice in the same way that so many young adults make bad choices that haunt them later in life. And, finally, it’s her own story, not Matt’s, so it isn’t used against her in anything like the way the comics did. Karen has been one of the consistent bright spots of the Marvel Netflix shows, and I was a little concerned about how this aspect of her would be handled.
Fist, Meet Face
The first Daredevil season set an action standard the rest of the Marvel Netflix Universe struggled to live up to. The second season of Daredevil, and bits and pieces of The Defenders and The Punisher offered up encouraging answers, but nothing has really felt like it hits the same heights – until now.
A lot of credit for that goes to Bullseye, who acts as a perfect pairing to Daredevil in this season. Daredevil is a slugger, a close-range kickboxer, while Bullseye is all about long range lethality. His ability to hit anything at any (reasonable) range is a nightmare scenario for Matt, since this plays perfectly to his weaknesses. The pair has a few different encounters, some where Matt gets beaten up as only he can be, and others where he’s forced to change up his fighting style to match. A particularly brutal fight in the middle of the series has Matt on the run as Bullseye ricochets anything he can get his hands on with laser precision. This could have played like slapstick comedy, but the show keeps a straight face and makes it feel like a fight for survival.
And then there’s the prison riot. This whole sequence lasts something like 10 minutes, and if there are multiple takes, they’re disguised expertly, and what you end up with is an extended fight that might not be as iconic as the hallway fight from the first season but one that puts it to shame in the technical department. It’s a centerpiece for the whole show – a moment that has Matt exposed in a way he’s never been before and trapped in the most dangerous possible place.
Not a Puzzle Box
And that’s the same moment something else becomes clear: there’s a mystery in Daredevil, but the show handles it really well. These days, too many shows like to hop on the puzzlebox train that shows like Lost and Westworld have popularized. They start from the premise of having a mystery, but the whole show builds up to an answer that can never be as good as as the hours and hours of investment have promised.
Daredevil does have a mystery going on — What is Wilson Fisk Up To? — but it’s not the center of the story, just a way to let the characters be their interesting selves. The puzzle, which we’re given plenty of clues for, is there for the characters, not vice versa. This is something that I think those shows would do well to observe. When you care about the characters enough, that takes weight off the puzzle itself to be satisfying, and these puzzles can never be satisfying.
Daredevil season 3 does nearly everything right. Things that feel like typical Marvel Netflix bloat early on pay off in satisfying ways. Action and story are built into each other in ways that both excite us in the moment and tell us something about the characters. The characters themselves are given tons of stuff to do and feel and it makes it easy to sympathize with them. If we never get another season of the show, at least they went out near the top of their game.