Daredevil: Season 2 Review (Part 1)
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Warning: This review contains detailed spoilers for episodes 1-7 of Daredevil season two (“Bang” through to “Semper Fidelis”), but contains no plot spoilers for subsequent episodes.
With its first two ventures on Netflix last year, Marvel blew just about everyone away with a gritty, adult take on superheroes that prized character over spectacle. While Jessica Jones was an impressively sophisticated piece of drama that mixed cutting social commentary with sardonic humour, Daredevil was perhaps the most surprising of the two – a superhero tale with an intimate focus and street-level scale, combining compelling crime drama with consistently excellent action. Both season one and Jessica Jones left an almost impossibly high bar to clear, so did the first half of Daredevil’s second season clear that bar or fall short?
Perhaps the most notable thing about season two is how different it is. It’s still recognisably the same show, but there’s a real sense from these first seven episodes that the writers are not only telling a very different story to the first season; they’re also telling it in a very different way. Season one was, more or less, a singular thirteen-hour movie in which Matt Murdock fought one villain’s crime organisation from start to finish, with only a brief sojourn mid-series to set up some more mystical elements. By contrast, season two is a lot more chopped up, for better or for worse. It’s still heavily serialised, but the approach taken here seems to be skewed much more towards mini-arcs of about four episodes centring around a particular character. This newer, more episodic structure is clear to see in the first half of season two – the Punisher is the singular villain for the first four episodes, before he drops back to a supporting role while Elektra takes centre stage. It’s an approach that has tangible benefits – there’s very little filler, with no need to prolong one story to fit all thirteen episodes, so these first seven episodes feel a tad more purposeful and direct than season one ever did, leading to a pleasingly fast pace with exciting reveals and new twists occurring just about every episode. The fast, exciting pace comes at a cost, though – season two is a lot less focused than its predecessor, with the multiple plotlines often resulting in episodes that can be rather scattered and occasionally uneven as incongruous storylines are forced to share space. It’s, overall, a different beast to its predecessor thus far – better at some things, worse at others, and ultimately harder to compare than many would suggest. While it wouldn’t be true to say that season two surpasses its predecessor, it’s certainly a worthy successor, in part due to the two dynamic new arrivals in Hell’s Kitchen.
First, the Punisher. The decision to make the first four episodes into a relatively close-ended Daredevil vs. Punisher story was a very smart one indeed, because it means that these four hours function as a pretty terrific, non-stop standalone movie. Punisher’s introduction is excellently paced – first painting him as an invisible, effortlessly powerful angel of death by showcasing one of his massacres from the point of view of his terrified, confused enemies, then slowly teasing him out into the light as more and more is revealed, building up until the seminal confrontation in episode three. The Punisher/Daredevil confrontation in episode three has been criticised by some websites for spelling out the vigilantes’ moral debate in clunky expository dialogue, and the confrontation does suffer a little bit from this heavy-handed scripting which relies on telling over showing a great deal of the time. Nonetheless, this confrontation lays out some really intriguing moral issues, allowing both the Punisher and Daredevil to make legitimate, pertinent points in order to paint them as equal opponents who simply have drastically different worldviews as opposed to a simplistic fight between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. These fascinating ideas and balanced, thought-provoking debate are made compelling primarily by the terrific inter-play between Charlie Cox and Jon Bernthal, who palpably spark off each other with grippingly intense and impassioned performances, imbuing both vigilantes with a sense of slightly over-inflated moral superiority and a stubborn refusal to even consider the legitimacy of the other’s worldview.
The Punisher is a hugely interesting character, and that intrigue is certainly helped by the note-perfect casting of Jon Bernthal. Frank Castle is exactly the type of character that Bernthal excels at playing – and, sure enough, he knocks it out of the park. There’s a raw intensity and rage in Bernthal’s performance that vividly reflects the inability of Frank Castle ever to switch off from his vigilante persona, which makes him a credible and engaging foil to Charlie Cox’s straight-laced, more traditional performance of a man who’s desperate to maintain a healthy, normal life alongside his vigilante escapades. Bernthal’s extremely compelling when he’s in Punisher mode, spitting venom as he describes the ‘scum’ that he kills, but his defining moment in these first seven episodes is actually his quietest and most introspective scene; his monologue to Daredevil about returning home from war. It’s here where Bernthal’s impressive versatility comes to light – instantly, he switches from animalistic, cold-blooded killer to a broken parent who came home from war ready to restart his life, only for it to end just after his return. This underlying vulnerability and brokenness is an essential element of Punisher’s character, and both Bernthal and the writers do an excellent job of portraying the innate tragedy of the character with this layered, absorbing monologue. I’ve thrown a lot of superlatives at the Punisher’s portrayal in the last couple of paragraphs, and that’s because he really is a terrific new addition to the series – the perfect starter villain for a season all about challenging the ideology of its central character. Let’s hope that proposed spin-off gets off the ground after this…
The other major new addition is, of course, Elektra, who enters the fray just after Punisher heads to jail. There’s less to say about Elektra, partially because these first seven episodes conclude with her story very much incomplete – but what we do see in episodes five through seven is very encouraging indeed. Daredevil’s knack for casting has certainly continued with Elodie Yung, who delivers a gleefully sociopathic performance that captures the alluring exoticism of a character who seems slightly detached from the gritty street-level fighting that Matt’s usually involved in. Elektra’s a really engaging rogue element for the season, in that she comes in from afar with a mysterious agenda and immediately starts playing havoc with Matt’s life, which adds an enjoyable sense of unpredictability to these later episodes as seemingly simple and linear plotlines (for instance, the ‘People v Frank Castle’ trial and Matt and Karen’s budding romance) suddenly take unexpected turns for the worse thanks to Elektra’s involvement. Most of all, Elektra works well as another foil to Matt, representing another vigilante figure who challenges his principles in a notably different way to the Punisher – while the Punisher mocks and condemns Matt’s no-kill rule, Elektra works to try and snuff out the goodness in Matt by coaxing out his own primal and violent tendencies. Elektra and the Punisher are fun additions because they’re central members of the Daredevil mythology, but there’s a substantial reason for their presence in that they act as the devils (ahem) on Matt’s shoulder, representing what could become of Matt if he gives up his principles and his double life. As well as being exciting characters to watch, they serve a genuine function in Matt’s character development, proving that their addition isn’t simply a part of a gimmicky move to ‘go bigger’ for a sequel series.
Jessica Jones might have stolen season one’s thunder in terms of storytelling, but it’s hard to argue that the best action of the two Netflix shows was always found in Daredevil. Season one’s action sequences have been quite rightly praised for their gritty realism and visceral violence, and season two effectively builds upon that impressive legacy. The central action scene of the first seven episodes, and the one most people will be talking about, is undoubtedly the stairwell fight, the successor to the famous one-take hallway fight from season one. This season’s one-take scene loses a little bit of what made that hallway fight so special, in that it’s not as focused on Matt as a character and his exhausting struggle to take down even the most basic criminals – it’s much more geared towards the visuals this time, so it’s a bit of a step-down in that regard. But wow, the visuals are quite something – despite that loss of focus on Matt, the stairwell fight is a technical marvel, using the single-take format to deliver a sustained level of intensity that had this reviewer chewing his nails by the time Matt had made his way to the bottom of the stairs. Daredevil continues to deliver some of the most engaging, technically impressive action on television, with this bravura stairwell scene only underlines the fact that the stunts and direction of these action scenes are only improving in technical terms in this second season, even if the focus on character development through action is somewhat lost in the visuals.
Season two’s first half is certainly flawed – some of those flaws are to do with the less cohesive, singular structure mentioned above, but there’s also some plotlines and new characters that fail to really come to much. Nelson and Murdock’s feud with the District Attorney feels like a thinly-veiled, and not particularly exciting excuse, to give Foggy and Karen something to do other than investigating the Punisher, and the mob villains (the Irish and the Yakuza) are mostly just window-dressing, lacking distinctive characters on the level of the Russian brothers and Nobu from last year’s motley collection of mobs. There’s evidently a bit of treading water regarding villains after the Punisher is locked up in jail, partially due to the need for season two to hold back on the true threat until the back half of the season, creating the need for less engaging temporary villains to fill the gap in the interim. With the Hand clearly entering the scene later on, all of these adversaries ultimately feel like stopgaps before the real Big Bad comes along.
Nonetheless, season two really comes shooting out of the blocks with two engaging, dynamic new characters and improved pacing that leads to busier episodes and far less filler material to stretch the story out. It’s a bit disjointed in places and the actual clear-cut villains are pretty bland, but these first seven episodes keep up the momentum from season one, introducing a smorgasbord of ideas and plotlines to continue the intrigue into the second half of the season. A successful beginning, then – and there’s plenty more to look forward to in the second half of the season, with trailers promising the entrance of the villainous organisation known as the Hand and the return of Stick. This means, of course, that it’s time for the ninjas…
Rating for Episodes 1-7: 8.5/10