It’s a review! There are spoilers below, so I’ve put an edited, minimal-spoiler version here.
You join me as I ponder the recently released Daredevil Season 2, the series that piqued my interest in superhero fiction after a decade of tired, overblown films about cgi dudes punching other cgi dudes in stupid outfits. But it’s not good news. This second season, while not disastrous, is an often clumsy, inconsistent, and at times painfully cringeworthy offering, which revels in grotesque and unnecessary close ups of torture and death, including multiple slashed throats and the jolly sight of a man taking a shotgun blast to the face.
I’d argue it away as a deliberate meta-commentary on the Punisher’s brutality and the gruesome reality of vigilantism, but it’s not confined to his arc, and the series’ dalliance with exploring the conflict of idealism and utilitarianism posed by his clashes with the title character begins and ends with Karen’s relatably uncomfortable stance. It comes to no conclusions and even its characters mostly pay the dilemma lip service – Daredevil makes a big song and dance about arresting Punisher for murder, and as Matt pretty much cuts off all ties with Karen for daring to say that her feelings about vigilantism are complicated, but he’s later seen throwing a man off a building, and merrily cavorts with Elektra as she kills his enemies. Maybe Asian victims don’t count?
We open unconvincingly, with a sudden massacre of some daft Oirish gangsters, an act awkwardly explained as part of a series of events that have already happened, none of which we see because that budget was spent on swords. Where the first season gradually revealed even minor players in the ultimate plot, Season 2 introduces and quickly drops multiple characters and groups who were apparently important earlier, before the audience showed up, and just assumes this is enough to make us care. It’s really quite dissatisfying, and undermines the outstanding early action sequences, which maintain the unrivalled standard of choreography, editing and camera work established by the first season, but with none of its narrative hook. Daredevil’s spectacular (and unlike 95% of modern action scenes, visually comprehensible) fight against an entire gang, though technically equal to the famous Oldboy-inspired corridor fight in Season 1, generates little excitement because its setup is artificial and the stakes are meaningless.
It’s only when the Punisher is apprehended and brought to trial that we start to see any reason to care about what’s going on, as the characters begin to show real introspection and tentatively discuss the underlying themes of the series. Karen and Foggy in particular step up here, and if there’s anything to be salvaged from this embarassing stumble of a season, it’s that both those characters defy their ‘sidekick’ fate and come into their own, with sympathetic writing and complex, heartfelt performances, and do more to explore the central questions than any of the costumed nightprancers.
Daredevil’s costume has been toned down from its slightly silly appearance late in season 1, and the Punisher and Elektra look their part. But there’s no getting away from the sheer idiocy of the villains, both in their behaviour and in their costumes. When dropping Matt’s trusty old bandana, the series also jettisoned the grounded, relatable tone that made it interesting to begin with. In its place is a promising story about an emotionally scarred murderer that dips its toe in compelling thematic and psychological waters, but then dashes off to play with a farcical army of magical ninjas in black pyjamas, whose hobbies include failure, embarassing everyone, and using katanas to cut plot holes they can drive their bus through. No, really, they have a bus. Somehow we’ve gone from the captivating, emotionally charged Fisk and his duplicitous machinations to, and I quote, “The Hand ninjas can disguise their heartbeats”. I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if the final boss had escaped on the Technodrome.
The great war alluded to in the first season has arrived, and after a few episodes of ominous rumbling turns out to be a few dozen idiots dressed as stage hands, whose leader has already lost a fight to Daredevil, and loses no fewer than three more this season. They’re also armed with swords and bows and – for fuck’s sake – throwing stars, and have the power to resurrect the dead, which they used to do… absolutely nothing of note. Oh, and they’re fronted by the Yakuza, of course. They’re sadly not shown scoffing sushi or playing Pokémon, but we can safely assume. Their final plan, a devious scheme to occupy an abandoned tenement and use hostages to lure Daredevil, is severely threatened when someone calls the police, and ruined when the guy they were luring… shows up. He’s not armed, and has no plan. He hasn’t even slept, but still all he has to do is walk up and hit them. Hans Gruber these guys are not.
And just to rub it in, the Punisher eventually shows up to shoot a few (although the fight was clearly over already), raising the pertinent questions of why Daredevil didn’t ask the one-man army whose life he saved to help fight the idiot ninjas, and why anyone would take an army of ninjas seriously at all in 2016. Their own idol is fighting against them. Their leader has already been killed by an unarmed man. And they think… what? They think a couple of high-maintenance zombies and some throwing stars are going to do shit against a police force with access to helicopters and snipers, never mind the superpowered vigilante who’s already killed their leader and defeated both their most powerful enemy AND their own “greatest living weapon” in a fistfight?
It’s very much a season split down the middle between the Punisher arc and the Elektra arc. While both start poorly, the former is built on stronger foundations and while not spotless, treads in fewer of the endless turds of idiocy that pile high in the halls of the latter. It’s there that we learn, for example, that Matt’s uncompromising mentor, Stick, somehow devoted his life to building an army to fight the Hand, but only has four fighters to show for it, two of whom want nothing to do with him, and the other two are nameless mooks. The Hand’s favourite weapon is a poison that can be stopped with baking soda, and recovery takes all of one night’s rest. A late twist about the goals of the enemy is clearly intended to shock but in practice completely neutralises the entire plot, or it would if any of the heroes had motivation beyond “get to the next page in the script”.
With nothing to say about the characters but “they’re pretty stupid”, all it serves to do is weaken the narrative of the much better Punisher arc. That story is interesting but ultimately hobbled to make way for Elektra, around whom most of the story’s problems are built. Jon Bernthal’s performance turns what could be a 90s grimdark murder-hero meat slab into a more nuanced, sympathetic role – no small feat considering the horrific violence he carries out on often unsuspecting victims. But we join his rampage practically at its denouement, and his “trial of the century” is resolved in what seems like a couple of days. We don’t even see the verdict. The last we see of it is Matt, as the defending attorney, “question” his witness by posing a long and completely irrelevant speech directly to the jury (quite why the extremely hostile prosecution, played by an underused Michelle Hurd, didn’t object at any point is beyond me), which has so little to do with anything that even the defendant gets visibly sick of it.
The reappearance of Vincent D’Onofrio’s compelling Wilson Fisk is welcome and initially promising, but soon descends into a farce with the same bad habit of establishing a plot point only to immediately tear a massive hole in it in the next scene. How does one man take over a prison when he has no resources, no contacts, and a vigilante lawyer covered in bruises to prove his guilt? Why do the guards go along with this? Why doesn’t Matt, a vigilante and a lawyer, tell somebody about the numerous crimes being committed? Hell, just tell someone that he hit you. You’ll be on the security cameras, your fingerprints will be all over the room, and you have a bloody face. What, you think the legal system would look kindly on a convicted felon beating up a blind man? It feels rushed, a victim of the curious urge superhero adaptations have of cramming in more unnecessary villains, or in this case, heroes.
From her very first scene I was tired of Elektra’s ten-a-penny spoiled schoolgirl attitude. She’s a fundamentally unlikeable character, and worse still, to anyone who’s tangled with a bog standard hot psychopath, she’s shallow, obvious, and boring. Worse again, she’s contrasted with two far better characters and people; I cannot fathom why any human would tolerate Elektra after having met Karen and Claire, the former carrying all the moral burden and the latter achieving more with her handful of scenes than Elektra does in the whole series. Even Reyes has more emotional grounding. The dynamic was set early for me, where a subtle, fantastically convincing sensual moment from Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen is immediately followed by Elektra’s theatrical gasping and the same robotic, performative Sexy Girl Is Being Sexy schtick you’ve seen in fifty soulless relationships. I don’t blame Élodie Yung, who frankly is doing all anyone could with a weak role shackled to a terrible story, but I quickly came to dread the harbinger of plot contrivance that was her voice.
Damningly, her narrative purpose in separating Matt/Daredevil from his friends only reveals how boring he is, and drives them to become the saving grace of the series. I would gladly watch Karen And Foggy Investigate, but Daredevil Season 3? I’ve been punished enough.