Film and TV

Marvel's Daredevil Returns to Netflix for a Punishing (in a Good Way!) Second Season

When the news broke about Netflix's plans to air an original series based on Daredevil, Marvel Comics' "Man Without Fear," there was some skepticism. The streaming provider's brief history of original programming was spotty, with some bona fide hits (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black) and some not so much (Hemlock Grove, Marco Polo). Going with a comic book property, especially considering they'd never tackled one before, was seen as a risky move.

There was also that movie you might (but hopefully don't) remember.

And compared to his big-budget movie brethren like Thor and the X-Men, Daredevil has never been a flashy superhero. For those who didn't spend summer months reading funny books with the shades drawn, Matt Murdock was blinded as a child by a radioactive element that also — conveniently — heightened his other senses, allowing him to hear, feel, and smell to a superhuman degree. By day he's a nondescript attorney, but at night he violates just about every rule of professorial conduct and battles criminals in the streets. 

So imagine our mild surprise when the series turned out to be a smashing success. Much of the credit goes to creator Drew Goddard and show runners Steven S. DeKnight (Season 1), Doug Petrie, and Marco Ramirez (Season 2) for setting the tone and taking the time to present a proper origin story. An obvious benefit to a 13-episode run is in the time allowed to set the table and introduce your characters. In the first season, we meet Murdock (Charlie Cox), his partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), legal assistant Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), and Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) the season's primary antagonist. The setup — Murdock's nocturnal activities leading to a showdown with the "Kingpin of Crime" — are allowed to progress realistically.

Or as realistically as you'd expect for a show about a blind guy who battles his own Catholicism at least as much as he does bad guys and who looks like the Dread Pirate Roberts for almost the entire season (he doesn't get his trademark red costume until episode 13).

Season 2 debuted last Friday (03/18) and — having successfully ignored my children for an entire weekend to binge watch it — I can say it's just as engrossing as Season 1. With Fisk in prison, Hell's Kitchen is seemingly up for grabs among the city's various criminal elements. However, as we learn right off the bat, the "Devil of Hell's Kitchen" isn't the only player interested in taking them out. Only this new guy really "takes them out."

The introduction of Frank Castle, AKA "The Punisher" (Jon Bernthal) was another risky move that nonetheless pays off in immensely satisfying fashion. The Punisher is one of those characters that's almost impossible to get right (sort of like Superman, but more on that tomorrow), but for the first time in three attempts (Dolph Lundgren's 1989 straight-to-VHS effort counts) there's contemplation behind the carnage. "Penny and Dime," the 4th episode of the season, has Castle speaking about the murder of his family and how it affected him. Bernthal is fantastic, and it was instantly one of the best entries of the whole series.

Improbably, they also manage to introduce a second compelling character, Matt's old flame Elektra Natchios (Élodie Yung). Her purpose in New York City is unclear at first, and in the interest of avoiding spoilers I won't go into detail, but where Elektra could have been little more than an exotic third side to a love triangle with Matt and Karen, she eventually proves to be the only character capable of bringing out Matt's true self, the one that hides how much he enjoys the violence he metes out from his daytime friends.

Also: ninjas.

The pacing's improved as well. The middle of season one dragged somewhat, but by crossing over the Punisher and Elektra storylines (and keeping Castle involved even after his main arc) things move right along. Foggy really comes into his own during the courtroom scenes, and even Karen is given more to do. I still disagree with the killing off of Ben Urich, though.

But like a NASCAR fan, you're probably here for the violence. And brother, Season 2 does not disappoint. Did you like last season's groundbreaking Hallway Fight Scene? Say hello to Stairway Fight Scene (S02E03). Matt mixes it up alongside Elektra, fighting scores of ninjas at a time, and Castle gets to showcase his talents as well. This season also ups the gore quotient, which is more or less inevitable when the Punisher is in the mix.

More to the point, we really get a feel this season about how much Matt *needs* Daredevil; how his nightly forays and desire to crack some deserving skulls, while at odds with his day job, provide a catharsis from something darker within. It's why the Punisher and Elektra are such great foils, both on the page and on screen: the former demonstrating the risks of taking that approach too far (Castle refers to Daredevil as "a half measure"); the latter providing the temptation to fully embrace it. Cox also probably doesn't get enough credit for bringing this forward, but he absolutely should.

Not everything works, of course. The Elektra end game is a little ridiculous, and the revelation of the mysterious "Blacksmith" is both abrupt and obvious. And for all the praise given Bernthal, I'm still not convinced his character works outside of a supporting role. Even with the quality of performance, Frank Castle doesn't exactly contain multitudes. Better to have him drop in and give moments of grief to "Red," Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage than murder-mope his way through 13 episodes.

Karen Page is also difficult to get a handle on. Taken one way, it's nice to see her getting more to do, and her scenes with Castle are deeply moving. Taken another, "Karen Page: Girl Reporter" doesn't ring true, and does little besides putting her in rescue situations (for both Matt and Frank).

I'll allow all of it, however, if it means we get "Born Again" in Season 3 or 4. 

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar