(SPOILER ALERT: Watch all of Daredevil before reading any of this.)
Daredevil season one was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it had great action, a great lead in Charlie Cox as blind lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock/Daredevil, a great villain in Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin, some strong supporting characters (most especially Rosario Dawson as a nurse that helped Matt out post ninja-stabbings [which were plentiful]), and an earthbound sensibility that exposed new facets of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that can’t get fleshed out in two hour movies that need to be at least somewhat family friendly (after all, it’s not like you could have a superhero movie where the heroes, I don’t know, horrifically sear the flesh of their victims with brands, right? Right?).
But Daredevil season one also suffered from horrific pacing, a wheel-spinning approach to plot, and a tone so fixated on a po-faced fascination with grime and gore that it often seemed on the precipice of becoming a self-parody, and in some cases it leapt right over that edge.
Also the costume was stupid.
The mixed bag got even, um, mixier when Jessica Jones dropped in November. A superior show in absolutely every single way, Jones married its superheroic world with the tenants of noir fiction and used both genres as a means to comment on a culture of rape, victimization, and the different methods of coping with and overcoming abuse. Jessica Jones wasn’t just a good show, it was a high water mark for the MCU and it made Daredevil’s preoccupation with mutilation and misery seem all the more like the scrawlings of a thirteen year old boy with black fingernails, bangs over his eyes, and a Cure t-shirt, also known as “Frank Miller’s shit.”
Daredevil season 2 is better in virtually every conceivable way. The action is twice as confident, the episodic structure actually flows (individual episodes actually have plots and arcs now, instead of the season just being a 13-hour long movie, with all the dead-air that that implies), Cox has found his groove in playing the twin halves of Matt Murdock’s identity, and the supporting cast is much better utilized.
Added to that, this season introduced us to Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle aka The Punisher and Elodie Yung as Elektra aka Elektra. Both are fantastic characters inhabited by exceptional actors, and the division of the season into two main plotlines driven by these new characters allows Daredevil to have a pace and a pulse throughout the full season (as opposed to last season where D’Onofrio’s Fisk functioned like a fucking Poochie or something).
Bernthal in particular is absolutely mesmerizing as Frank Castle en route to a punisher-dom. This version of The Punisher (he’s already had three [failed] feature films. The Thomas Jane one is a very solid revenge thriller [especially the director’s cut] give or take some stupid shit, and the Ray Stevenson one is a delightfully batshit masterpiece) has been given brain damage and an elaborate conspiracy surrounding his family’s death. Bernthal’s eyes blaze through the screen, a rage-fueled predator that is always seeking the next move, the next advantage, the next kill. Even when the show brings Castle to place of utter ruination, Bernthal lets you see the intelligence and ferocity that are eternally a second away from being unleashed. And in those times when Castle’s resolve does waver, Bernthal lets you into the heart of this killer without hesitation or apology.
And I’ll say this for the writers and Bernthal: they find the right tone for the guy. The Punisher is a character that really doesn’t work as a heroic figure (see also: three failed attempts to launch a film franchise) and so the makers of Daredevil wisely treat Frank Castle as a villain for large swaths of the season. Even when the plotting swings around to Frank’s side, positing him as a truly wronged victim, Bernthal’s eyes glitter with malevolence and danger, and his reprisals go so beyond the pale that it’s impossible to take his side.
I don’t know Elodie Yung as well as Bernthal, but she’s exceptional throughout as well. Elektra is an enticing figure, seducing both Matt Murdock and the audience into the joys that come with nocturnal living. Daredevil is never more fun, and Daredevil is never having more fun, than when Elektra is goading our leading man into some new swashbuckling bit of action and adventure. The first season leaned really, really hard into the notion of Daredevil being a form of penance, Matt Murdock’s especially ostentatious form of self-flagellation. But Elektra and Matt (and Yung and Cox) together sell the idea that being Daredevil is FUN for Matt, that he needs the rush and the excitement. Yung perfectly embodies that role, but she also finds the damaged, desperate core of Elektra. The season eventually evolves into a war for the soul of Elektra (more on that in a bit) and Yung makes you understand why that soul is worth the war.
Beyond new opportunities for action (and sex), Frank and Elektra served as embodiments of Matt’s own personality. Castle represents Matt the sadomasochist, the man who needs to feel pain (others’ or his own) in order to feel anything, the guy who has forsaken conventional morality and cares only for extracting his pound of flesh. Elektra is the fetishist, the part of Matt that gets off on wearing tight leather outfits and running around rooftops and getting into fights. Bouncing between their stories in the early episodes, both characters came to symbolize the blowback inherent in Matt’s decision to rid Hell’s Kitchen of men like Wilson Fisk; Castle, the man taking vigilantism to its natural endgame and Elektra, turning Matt’s noble quest into blood sport. Both characters posed major, difficult questions for Matt that challenged his very core.
If you’re curious how the show and character would deal with such major, difficult questions, well, so am I and I watched every goddamn episode. The show absolutely shits the bed when it comes to actually paying off its own elements. Somewhere around the midpoint of the season, the interesting thematic ideas get set aside so the show can indulge in ninja fights, mysticism, and Scott Glenn. I like ninjas, I don’t mind mysticism, Scott Glenn scares me, but it’s maddening to watch Daredevil abandon its most intriguing elements to focus on barely defined plot points.
For all the energy devoted to Frank Castle, he ends up completely irrelevant to the overall plot of the season. Daredevil spends hours of the show (and weeks’ worth of show time) obsessing over Castle, only to abruptly stop giving a shit in the final hours of the show because the Elektra side of the show needs to take precedence. The final run of scenes involving Frank Castle may as well have “SEE YOU IN 2017 FOR THE SPINOFF!” in captions at the bottom of the screen.
Will I watch that spinoff? Most assuredly. But I would rather that Daredevil season I am currently watching have figured out a way to make its plot even sort-of add up.
That’s where the Elektra end of the show capsizes as well. The plot dealing with Elektra, Stick (her and Daredevil’s mentor), and The Hand (a ninja cult whose members suck at ninja-ing…and also cult-ing, come to think about it) dominates the final stretch of the show, but all of the emotional resonance comes from characters we barely know referencing relationships we saw off-screen. Scott Glenn’s Stick changes motivation from scene to scene, and it takes all of Yung’s (considerable) charisma to try and pull a coherent character out of the twists and turns that plague Elektra. Instead of plot being revealed through drama and action, Daredevil resorts to characters standing in the middle of the room and reading off giant chunks of mystical explanations that don’t explain shit about shit.
(I watched every episode of both seasons and I still could not explain to you what Black Sky is. I know it’s supposed to be Elektra but what does that mean? Is she magic? Is she going to lead the apocalypse? Is she lady-ninja-Hellboy? I will watch the shit out of ninja-lady-Hellboy but that needs to be clarified beforehand.)
Here’s an easy way to sum it up: the early episodes find Matt engaged in many debates with both Frank and Elektra separately about the sanctity of life. Matt’s stubborn insistence on never taking a life informs every choice he makes, every fight he gets into, every reaction he has to these two killers. By the end of the season, Frank and Elektra are gleefully slaughtering enemies by the dozens and Daredevil doesn’t seem in the least bit bothered.
More than anything, Daredevil still feels unformed. It’s the flagship show of this whole line of Netflix-Marvel stories, and yet it lacks the same certainty of identity that allowed Jessica Jones to arrive fully-formed. I can watch the clips of Luke Cage or scenes from Jones and feel confident that these shows have a sense of purpose underpinning their superheroism, an awareness of the larger world that informs their fantastical events.
After two seasons, I still don’t feel that confident in Daredevil. It still seems to be stuck in that mode of throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. It’s still obsessed with torture and mutilation to a childish degree, and it still has no idea how to wrestle its more ambitious considerations into functional drama.
Will it ever? I don’t know, but after two seasons it is safe to say that I am on board with watching Daredevil try to figure itself out. The good continues to outweigh the bad, and the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen continues swinging for the fences (he’d probably prefer a boxing metaphor but fuck it I’m tired and this has gone on long e-goddamn-nough) and that’s plenty to keep me watching, even if Daredevil does end up being an also-ran to other, richer shows.