Novelty can go a long way. When Daredevil hit last year, it was definitely novel. While it wasn’t the first comic book show, it was the first to hit Netflix, and it brought a new level of writing and production value to superhero television. While the movies had achieved a sort of visual parity with comics with movies like Iron Man and Batman Begins, comic TV didn’t really feel like it’d reached the same parity with regard to the sort of episodic storytelling we expect from comics.
There’s no doubt that the first season of Daredevil was solid. Going back and reading my review, I still agree with pretty much everything in there, having just finished rewatching the first season right before the second came out. But that novelty is gone. We’ve watched and re-watched the second season, Jessica Jones has come and gone, and even shows like The Flash and Supergirl have stepped up their game with better special effects and writing.
So where does Daredevil season 2 stand in all that? Without the novelty, where does this new season of the show stand?
We’re trying to keep this one as spoiler-free as possible, but keep an eye out for light spoilers within.
Whereas Daredevil season 1 felt compact and self-contained, season 2 feels transitional. It couldn’t exist without season one before it, and it would feel a bit hollow if we weren’t pretty sure season 3 was going to come along next spring. With that in mind, it does lack something the first season had, but that doesn’t keep it from standing well on its own.
Despite how many integral cast members died last season, the cast of Daredevil has grown, and while not every character gets to interact with every other character, each gets a chance to bounce off one or two others to great effect.
The first season was, in part, about the origin of Daredevil. Not how he got his powers, though that certainly was part of it, but in his growth from a masked vigilante to a superhero.
Season two continues to grow both Matt Murdock and his alternate identity of Daredevil. It opens with him comfortably tackling the daily monsters of Hell’s Kitchen; your usual, run-of-the-mill thugs and robbers. Events that follow yank him right out of that, though, and he’s forced to look hard at his two lives, how they interact with each other, and what he really wants.
One thing that sets Matt Murdock apart from other hero and vigilante characters is that his day and night jobs are both important to him and to who he is. And yet in neither is he allowed to be entirely free. During the day, the blind Murdock has to act less able than he actually is. At night, his commitment to his day job and his Catholic faith both keep him from being as brutal as he might want to be at times and also cause him to wonder whether he’s doing the right thing, and whether he’s doing more good than harm. The two big characters introduced in season two help highlight that – The Punisher and Elektra.
The Punisher is, without a doubt, the most violent character in Marvel’s roster. You could argue other characters kill more, or are more evil, and you’d be right, but the consistent level of personal, bloody brutality on display is never equalled anywhere else. That’s brought into Daredevil in full force.
The Punisher was Marvel’s first big turn toward darker, more violent storytelling. That’s given him more screentime than almost any other character in the company’s roster – there were three Punisher movies before Marvel’s cinematic universe even got off the ground. He’s had more chances to get off the ground, though, than just about anyone else without ever quite succeeding. Thomas Jane’s 2004 turn as the character was solid and enjoyable even if the movie around him wasn’t, as proven by the short film that hit YouTube a few years back.
I was nervous going into this season, then, to see someone else play the character. I was quite attached to Jane’s portrayal. Jon Bernthal, best known as The Walking Dead‘s Shane, though, has a very different take on the character that feels more appropriate to the world Daredevil started building with season 1. Where Jane’s Punisher was a quiet revenge machine, Bernthal’s Punisher is more righteous and angry. He wears the Punisher name proudly and the way he picks the name up feels organic and appropriate.
The Punisher and Daredevil meet when the latter foils one of the former’s assassination attempts, and the philosophical difference between the two is immediately apparent and fuels their interactions for the rest of the season. They don’t see each other as enemies, or even inherently wrong in their paths, they just appear to each other as misguided, doing the right thing in the wrong way.
Matt’s conflict is contrasted against the Punisher’s focused fury over and over. Old enemies crop up while others flood out like water from a cracked dam, forcing Matt to question the effectiveness of his methods compared to those of the Punisher.
Elektra, on the other hand, forces Matt to question his dual identities as Daredevil and Matt Murdock, Attorney at Law. One is not simply a mask for the other like with Batman, and neither is a full-time job like with Captain America who gets to superhero all day without worrying about holding down a secret identity.
With Elektra, though, comes news of a greater threat facing New York, creeping in through the shadows. The nature of the threat makes it immediately dire and impossible to ignore.
When Matt was fighting thugs, the split between his day and night lives was pretty easy to maintain, as he wildly outclassed his opponents and it took a whole murder of gang members to leave any lasting damage.
When Elektra shows up, it’s because Nobu’s buddies – the ninja from season 1 – are in town. The danger they present and the goals they have both present a more immediate danger to the city and its inhabitants, and Matt has to make tough decisions about his priorities.
By the end of the season, we can see the change in Daredevil, in how he moves and acts, reflecting the impressions both of those characters, as well as his friends, have left on him.
We also see how his actions reflect on his old friends. The conflict between Matt Murdock and Daredevil often hurts those around him, as it should.
The show’s returning characters, too, continue to grow and evolve. Foggy Nelson, Murdock’s long-time best friend, was deeply wounded by the revelation that his friend is a masked vigilante. While he’s accepted that it’s happening as the second season begins, it remains a source of conflict that steers not only their friendship, but how Foggy looks at himself when Matt’s priorities shift. As Foggy is repeatedly hurt and left hanging by his friend, he looks inward and sees that he’s not dependent on his friend.
Karen Page, the team’s first client and later their office assistant, spent the first season recovering from extraordinary trauma and preparing to find her own strength. With the first season as a launching pad, that’s exactly what she does throughout season two. In scene after scene, she makes moves with her own motives and reasons, and we get to watch her begin to grow into a more three-dimensional character.
Stick returns and gets a chance to be much more interesting. With his two students, Daredevil and Elektra, by his side, we get a better picture of who he is, and he even gets to be vulnerable. His father-son relationship with Daredevil/Matt Murdock grows as he begins to see that the boy he left behind is a grown man.
Frenetic, Kinetic, Acrobatic
One place where Daredevil wipes the floor with all its competition is anytime there’s action on screen. That was the case with the first season and might be even more so with season two.
With three proficient fighters instead of two, a lot more time is spent on highly choreographed fights. The show manages not to waste these.
Each of the three fighters – Daredevil, Elektra, and the Punisher – has their own fighting style. Over and over again, the way they fight tells you about their philosophy, their state of mind, and their physical condition.
Elektra takes more hits than I would’ve expected, but when she’s fighting she moves like a razor sharp ribbon, fluid and elegant. At the other end, the Punisher fights with brutal efficiency. Each punch thrown and round fired are intended to end the fight as quickly and with as much finality as possible – perfect for an anger-fueled Special Forces soldier.
Daredevil himself is somewhere in the middle. He displays the same acrobatics as Elektra, but his hits feel more like that of a boxer, calling back to his father’s occupation. At the same time, he’s the only one of the three whose moves are at all fantastical, with his sticks bouncing off heads and walls in ways that would be unbelievable for any other character. On top of all this, though, he feels like a more experienced fighter compared to the first season. The cuts and bruises come just as fast, but only because his enemies are that much stronger.
One fight scene, in episode three, is particularly impressive. Instead of a one-cut brawl, we’re treated to a much more cinematic sequence that goes down a stairwell and gives Daredevil lots of verticality to play around with. If the first season’s big showpiece reminded me of Oldboy, this one feels like it was inspired by martial arts films like The Raid and Ong-Bak.
The show isn’t perfect, though.
The second season feels, in a word, transitional. It couldn’t exist without the first season, and the way it ends makes it feel incomplete without the third season.
The plot threads that fuel the last third of the show aren’t given room to expand and aren’t ever really explained. They’re just Evil Things that the Evil Guys are doing because they’re Evil. There’s a big hole. It’s super important, apparently. I’m pretty sure we don’t ever find out why. The Black Sky plotline continues from the first season, and once again we know it’s going to be super bad if Black Sky is ever activated, but we don’t know why it would be super bad. Imagine if Ghostbusters had ended when Gozer told the characters to decide the form of the Traveller.
It all feels like stuff we’re going to find out about later, but not in the fun cliffhanger sense. It just feels unfinished, with threads dangling.
Elektra, despite being one of the best parts of the season, feels underused. At times, she feels like she’s just meant to be a love interest for Daredevil – a Catwoman to his Batman. Which is not surprising, considering how Frank Miller’s runs with Batman and Daredevil alike continues to influence them and the way they’re portrayed in recent live-action adaptations.
It also feels like a transition between worlds. The first season of Daredevil repeatedly grounded the show. Violence was close, personal, and painful. Consequences of it were clear and harsh. Daredevil himself was an oddity, despite references to the alien attack from the first Avengers film. With Daredevil’s costume evolving, Punisher dropping bodies by the dozens, fight scenes involving greater numbers of enemies, the comic bookness of Daredevil is starting to creep in.
That’s not a bad thing. CW’s take on The Flash went “full comic book” almost immediately to great effect, and I think it’s going to help Daredevil as well, but the transition isn’t smooth at every turn as the show tries to reconcile the two worlds.
Overall, though, this is the right direction for the show.
Everyone that spends significant time on screen is doing or saying something interesting. The fights, in both choreography and camera work, are better than ever. The show is starting to pull in more and more of the character’s long history. We have a great Punisher in Jon Bernthal, one that could, if Marvel wants him to, hold up his own Netflix show.
Daredevil himself has progressed from a vigilante clad in tights he bought online, fueled by guilt, to a costumed superhero that loves who he is.
We get to spend time questioning whether our protagonist is doing the right thing and reacting alongside those close to him.
Even with the hanging plot threads, this is another great season of Daredevil, and it has me looking forward to more Daredevil, but to the upcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fist series’ as well, and hoping for a stand-alone Punisher series.