It’s a review! There are mild spoilers below, but as few as needed to review it well. If you’ve finished the series or don’t care about spoilers, the full version is 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 at all, and the series’ dalliance with exploring the idealism vs utilitarianism argument 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 coldly dismisses Karen for daring to say that her feelings about vigilantism are complicated, but he’s later seen merrily cavorting with Elektra as she kills his enemies. Maybe knives don’t count?
We open unconvincingly, with a particularly violent crime awkwardly explained as part of an ongoing series, none of which we see. 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 confronted and forced to justify his actions 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 manage to look their part too. 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 the Foot clan. 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. They’re armed with swords, bows and – for fuck’s sake – throwing stars. 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 plans are 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, it turns out that there’s nothing stopping anyone from simply shooting them, emphasising the question of why anyone would take an army of ninjas seriously at all in 2016. They appear to be under the illusion that swords and throwing stars are a threat to a police force with access to helicopters and snipers, never mind the superpowered vigilante who’s already defeated their leader and their most powerful enemy in a fistfight.
It’s very much a season split down the middle between the Punisher arc and the Elektra arc. Both start poorly, but 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 but only has two named fighters to show for it, both of whom reject him. The villains’ 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 the fallout from that is resolved too quickly and partly offscreen, with the moral and psychological journey largely falling by the wayside in an underblown conclusion overshadowed by its rival subplot.
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. 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, robotic 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.