The Devil in the Details

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Daredevil, Season Two.

You have been warned.

The long-awaited second series of Daredevil packs a lot in. The Punisher. Elektra. Stick. The Kingpin. The Hand. It’s a season of emotional highs and lows, chock full of action, mystery and vigilantes doing what vigilantes do best. Unfortunately, it also suffers from a handful of recurrent issues that prevent it from achieving greatness.

First up, let me put my cards on the table. Daredevil was the first semi-popular hero I really connected with. But don’t worry, this isn’t one of those reviews that niggles about comparisons to the comics. All I’ll say is that a love of the Frank Miller era Daredevil shines through almost every episode of the Netflix series. By and large, it’s a great fit. Frank Miller’s take on Daredevil defined the character for decades to come, blending noir elements with superhero action and (would you believe?) a playful sense of humour. That’s right. Frank Miller, author of Holy Terror and All Star Batman and Robin, used to write comics containing genuinely funny jokes. Those jokes are almost entirely absent in the Netflix show, but that’s unsurprising given how desperately Daredevil wants to be Batman Begins. It’s a shame, but forgivable.

Nelson & Murdock

Daredevil’s primary cast is, almost without exception, excellent. Elden Henson is fantastic as Foggy Nelson, eclipsed only by Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page. These characters, who could so easily stumble in the wrong hands, are entertaining – but, more important, they’re believable. Well, apart from those moments where they catch the idiot ball. All through the series, we’re shown that Karen is a no-nonsense sleuth with an eye for detail, and yet she still doesn’t realise Matt Murdock is the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Yes, a certain amount of suspended disbelief is necessary when you’re watching a show about an all-seeing blind man, but at every turn this felt more like a means of brewing conflict between the main characters than genuine behaviour.

It’s sad to say that Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock is the weakest link. Nothing to do with the actor – when he’s given strong material (facing down Wilson Fisk in one of the later episodes, for example) he shines. The problem lies in the fact that his material is seldom strong. Too often, Matt Murdock is left looking selfish and pouty. As the audience, we’re supposed to side with him, identify with his struggles, but time after time I found myself wanting someone to slap sense into him. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not entirely about how Daredevil is written. Perhaps, in a different show, he’d have been fine. Problem is, this is a show about conflicted characters, and this season has better to offer.

Welcome Back, Frank

Case in point, Jon Bernthal’s Punisher is fantastic. He’s around pretty much all season, acting out his origin story. Now, I’m sick to death of origin stories – especially for characters as straightforward as the Punisher – but Bernthal’s performance had me hooked from beginning to end. After a bit of a misstep right at the start (would the Punisher really risk shooting innocent bystanders to kill his target?) the script really doubles down on developing the character. Bernthal steals every scene he’s in, and you can’t help but sympathise with his pain. I’m not ready to sign off on the idea that we need a Punisher series – the character invariably works better as a foil to more traditional heroes – but I can’t wait to see Bernthal pop up in another Marvel Netflix production.

Elektra Boogaloo

What about Elektra? There’s an argument to be made for Elektra being the godmother of modern pop culture’s glut of female ninjas. Sadly, she’s not a character that’s been treated well (or consistently) over the years. Believe it or not, Jennifer Garner’s the least of the nonsense – you name a toxic stereotype, and Elektra’s suffered from it, at one time or another. Her endurance as one of Marvel’s ‘core’ marketable characters should tell you more about just how few female heroes the House of Ideas really has to offer.

Thankfully, Elodie Yung’s Elektra is a blast. Arrogant, but tormented, her path between darkness and light overshadows Daredevil’s every step of the way – not least, because we’re never really sure which way she’ll jump. Yung bounces effortlessly between charming and chilling, angry and vulnerable. Like the Punisher, Elektra’s supposed to show what could happen to Daredevil if he steps off the righteous path, even for a moment. Maybe he should, because both cautionary avatars are far more interesting and nuanced…

A Dark Path

So, what about the plot? Daredevil Season Two merges two stories – the Punisher’s and Elektra’s. For the most part, it carries it off. While Foggy and Karen are entangled in the life and times of Frank Castle, Matt’s out and about, digging into the mysteries of the Hand with Elektra. Matt? Well, he doesn’t really get a story. He just bounces between the two. I’m honestly not sure he learns or changes in the whole thirteen episode run. But who cares? Punisher and Elektra are ace.

Of the two, the former gets better treatment. Partly, it’s a matter of pacing – the Punisher’s tale has a couple more episodes in which to unfold, and gets a lot more screen time. However, Elektra’s story often gets short-changed by what a generous soul would call sequel-baiting, and a weary one might label as sloppy writing. The ‘Black Sky’ first referenced in Season One makes a return, and remains almost as mystifying in nature and potential as before. Elektra and Daredevil discover the Hand are digging a forty storey pit beneath Hell’s Kitchen – a development that gets immediately forgotten, with no attempt to find answers. Likewise, the five ‘blood donors’ who voluntarily open their veins for… what? We don’t know. There’s no payoff. I don’t know, maybe it’s not sequel-baiting, or poor writing. Maybe there was an editorial shuffle at a late stage, leaving some scenes with nothing to connect to.

These threads, and others like them, left me feeling that Daredevil is either a ten episode series padded to thirteen, or a fifteen episode series shrunk down. (And that’s before we get into the baffling day/night cycle in Hell’s Kitchen. If you want to play a drinking game while watching, take a shot every time it’s inexplicably night or daytime in the next scene.) This might be a Netflix thing – both House of Cards and Jessica Jones have faltered in pace this past year. Maybe thirteen episodes is just the wrong number to work with?

Despite my quibbling, however, writing in this series is generally tighter than that which came before. There are no awkward exposition dumps. The first series developed Fisk’s compatriots at the expense of the series leads, but this one places the spotlight on the main cast (the issues with Murdock notwithstanding). While I was left the first series feeling there were whole episodes of filler, each instalment in the second has a purpose, even if the execution is sometimes flawed.

Fighting for Justice

As to the fight scenes? Well, they’re even more beautifully choreographed and performed than in the first series. The show’s definitely upped its game in terms of visual flair, with more variety and more combatants to most of the battles. There’s still some way to go, however. Pretty as they are to watch, Daredevil’s battles lack emotional pull, because there’s no storytelling to them. You rarely have a clear idea as to which side has the advantage in a fight. Sometimes Daredevil wades through three ninjas without a scratch. At others, he gets beaten. You can argue that this is more realistic but, for a battle to be dramatic, you have to give a sense of whether or not it’s a challenge for our hero.

Again, this is much better handled on the Punisher’s end of things. Frank’s fights are not only more visceral, but they have better visual storytelling. You always have a good idea of the stakes, and the challenges he faces. On the one hand, it’s frustrating to the see half of the show get it right, and the other half – the half with the titular hero – miss the mark.

Summing Up, Your Honour

This all likely reads like I hated Daredevil’s second series. I didn’t. I enjoyed the vast majority of it, and it definitely justifies a month’s Netflix subscription.  If you enjoyed last year’s Daredevil, you’ll love this one. If you didn’t, give this series a try – it’s a clear improvement over what came before, with cleaner writing, snappier action and, most importantly, a grander sense of scale. Season Two isn’t perfect, but it’s a big step in the right direction. Just like the Marvel movies, you can see these Netflix shows learning from their predecessors: Jessica Jones is better than Daredevil’s first season, and Daredevil’s second is better than Jessica Jones. Daredevil’s season three should be something pretty special.

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