G.D. Kennedy knows his way around Hell’s Kitchen.
OK, I’m doing something I never do — and that’s post something without reading it first. See, our Daredevil maven G.D. Kennedy has watched the complete second season on Netflix. I’m still in the middle of it, so I’m not reading his review. But if you’ve watched it through (or don’t mind SPOILERS) then check out what he has to say. And G.D.’s not just a reviewer or writer. He’s a Daredevil fanatic of the first order. — Dan
By G.D. KENNEDY
Frank Miller’s first run on Daredevil began in 1979 and lasted roughly four years. It was on all counts a revolutionary turn not only in Daredevil’s history, but in superhero storytelling more broadly, as it drifted away from super-powered villains to focus on street-level organized crime, the “real-life” drama that would define so much of Miller’s work in the following years. Miller gave us Daredevil’s rivalry with Wilson Fisk, New York’s Kingpin of organized crime, as well as the Hand, an ancient order of ninjas, tied to Daredevils (retconned) past. In addition, Miller introduced the iconic Elektra and brought us the simmering feud between frenemies Daredevil and the Punisher, the fascist mirror to Daredevil’s unyielding faith in the criminal justice system.
But Miller’s run was also deeply flawed, a fact that becomes increasingly obvious as time passes. There is a persistent naiveté throughout, an oversimplification of the true-crime and law-and-order themes that Miller relied upon so heavily. And, in the light of Miller’s now-extensive body of work, the run exudes a juvenile feel, hinting at the more negative aspects of Miller’s political leanings while relying on racial and social stereotypes and blasé depictions of the socioeconomic blights that Miller tries to bring to the forefront. The result is a compelling arc which lays the foundation for the character’s future, but also one with overt problems ranging from cringe-worthy to the kitschy to those which are difficult to overlook (and magnified through the lens of history).
Netflix’s second season of Daredevil, released earlier this month, leans heavily on Miller’s original Daredevil run, and like its source material, is critically effective and, at its peaks, impeccable, but also is deeply flawed. Much like the series’ first season, the show’s tenor remains gritty and dark, a character-driven drama playing on the narcissism and insecurities of its protagonist, all punctuated with harsh action scenes that are fluid and violent technical masterpieces. But as with Miller’s first run – and unlike the show’s first season – Season 2 suffers from a number of glaring and easily avoidable flaws, which are, at a minimum, distracting and somewhat befuddling. Of course, any criticism must be put into context – the first season was a surprising and unequivocal success, exceeding expectations and representing an entirely new phase in Marvel’s cinematic world, venturing into the superhero genre’s most morally ambiguous realms and paving the way for Kristen Ritter’s Jessica Jones – which may have surpassed Daredevil as the most effective Marvel product to date – and the rest of Netflix’s forthcoming series. The end result is a season that is enjoyable and engaging, if unnecessarily imperfect.
The first season of Daredevil focused on his antagonistic relationship with Vincent D’Onofrio’s Fisk, who played the moral foil to Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock; both characters sought similar ends – a revitalized, safer New York – and employed extra-legal means to achieve this aim, and the season thus explored the moral ambiguity between the two who stood, intermittently, as stark contrasts and also as mirror reflections. The story revolved around Fisk’s attempts to solidify power over New York’s organized crime syndicates, while Murdock pursued him through both legal process and vigilante justice, slowly establishing himself as the protector of Hell’s Kitchen. The season moved effortlessly, buoyed by Cox’s brooding Murdock evolving into a hero, and D’Onofrio’s terrifying take of Fisk.
Season 2 opens shortly after the Kingpin’s fall, with Daredevil entrenched as the “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen,” chasing bank robbers and street-level criminals, attempting to maintain stability in the power vacuum created in the Kingpin’s absence. Murdock and plutonic life- and law-partner Foggy Nelson’s burgeoning law firm is bustling if financial unsuccessful, taking on cases that don’t pay the bills, but leave the firm flush in pies, bananas and the moral high ground. One is left to wonder how they pay rent, how Matt affords his massive midtown loft, or how they pay secretary/love interest Karen Page.
This new “normal” is short-lived; before Daredevil can pummel the new criminal lords into submission, someone begins to kill them en masse and with a deliberate cruelty – the remnants of one gang is found dangling from meat hooks in a freezer, apparently while still alive, while another is massacred with tactical precision, i.e., the firing hundreds of rounds into the gang’s crowded headquarters. The culprit turns out to be Frank Castle, dubbed the Punisher by the press, who is played by John Bernthal of Walking Dead fame. The Punisher takes on Fisk’s prior role as Daredevil’s moral quandary, leading the season into the debate over whether ends justify the means, the finality of punishment and whether the risk of recidivism outweighs the potential for rehabilitation.
The season’s first act turns on Daredevil’s pursuit and ultimate apprehension of the Punisher; the second and third acts, however, diverge wildly, introducing Elektra, Murdock’s jet-setting college girlfriend who also happens to be highly trained assassin. Elektra has returned to New York for reasons which are not made immediately clear, but generally involve poking at the hornet’s nest that is the Yakuza in an effort to shake out their relationship with the Hand, the ninja clan, who is bent on obtaining an ill-described weapon known as the Black Sky. Murdock becomes obsessed with Elektra’s return, failing to appear for critical court appearances and blowing off dates with Karen Page. At the same time, the Punisher is put on trial, convicted, and sent to prison, only to escape after one day (following his vicious killing of roughly a dozen inmates), although his presence from that point is relegated to subplots and acting as as a plot device to further Foggy and Karen’s stories.
Daredevil as a comic has been its best when focused on the character himself, and the Netflix series is no different. Matt Murdock, of course, is the centerpiece, and Cox does a wonderful job of capturing his guarded complexity and egotism: Murdock is consistently aloof, persistently struggling with his own moral convictions, his training as a lawyer and his faith in organized establishments (the law and the church), and his own personal martyr complex. He is deeply narcissistic, but at the same time, this appears to a shield for insecurity; he is persistently loyal to his friends and his city, but remains emotionally detached from then. Ultimately, as a character, Murdock is almost best defined by the persons whom he associates with – Foggy, Karen, Fisk and the Punisher each draw out different elements of Murdock which are otherwise buried beneath his protective shell.
All of which makes the introduction of Elektra and her relationship with Murdock the most fascinating element of Season 2. Elektra, played by Elodie Young, is the rare character for whom Murdock drops all guards, for whom he disposes of the pretense and in whose presence he can recognize his own imperfections. Young’s rendition of Elektra is pitch-perfect, as she oozes a mix of self-assured confidence, the airs of the high-bred ambassador’s daughter, and a dangerous, vicious and self-destructive streak, all of which are critical elements to the character. Her introduction at the end of the fourth episode elevates the season substantially; while Bernthal nails the Punisher – he embodies the character and his soliloquy at the end of episode 4 is arguably the highlight of the season – his interactions with Daredevil are not new concepts, primarily furthering ruminations on themes we’ve seen before. With Elektra’s introduction, however, we see Murdock challenged on a very personal and intimate level; his few moments with her are the only times that his guard is let down in its entirety, and the honesty is a rare window into the character himself. The only other character to have challenged Murdock in this way is Fisk, who makes a brief appearance in the season, stealing each scene that he is in; simply put, D’Onofrio’s reprise of Fisk is terrifying.
And as with the first season, the action sequences are spectacular, immaculately choreographed works that are often as telling about the characters as any dialogue. Daredevil’s stairwell fight scene at the end of episode three, in which he descends a flight of stairs, battling a dozen or so bikers, is largely a single long-shot, swirling down a broad staircase, highly reminiscent of the hallway fight scene from season 1. This, of course, is hardly the only noteworthy action sequence: Bernthal’s prison fight scene, in which he is pinned in a hallway with eight inmates, is incredibly intense, and Cox and Young have a number of extended action sequences battling both the Hand and the Yakuza.
These sequences are brutal; they do not shy away from the visceral trauma of violence, or placate with soft comic book platitudes. Instead, characters are bloodied, become exhausted, fall down and struggle to keep going. But they are also used as windows to the combatants – each has a distinct style that offers a window into the character: Murdock’s fighting meshes his father’s boxing with his own martial arts training, the Punisher fights like a soldier, while Elektra’s style is highly refined Capoeira. This elevates each fight scene into something more than just combat; they become an extended narrative as to the character’s identity and gives the action a sense of purpose and direction.
But much like Miller’s first Daredevil run, for all of its good, Season 2 has some serious flaws that, while not overwhelming the season as a whole, are noticeable. It stumbles out of the gate, wandering through the first act without much sense of purpose, and many of the scenes feel disjointed or canned, more apropos for a prime time crime drama than a detail-oriented Netflix series. For instance, District Attorney Samantha Reyes (first seen in Jessica Jones) takes on a substantial role, but her character is nothing more than a tired trope: the politically ambitious district attorney who will stop at nothing – including sanctioning state-sponsored murder – to further hew own career, seeking to use the Punisher as political capital. This culminates at the end of episode 2 with her orchestrating a massive ambush of the Punisher, callously using an informant as bait, while she calls the shots over a SWAT team who simply accedes to this plainly illegitimate plan. The scene is emblematic of Reyes’s roles in the series as a whole: it is, at best, contrived, which is surprising for a series that, to this point, had worked so hard to maintain a sense of authenticity.
Beyond this, although the series’ core characters are well-drawn, the ancillary characters struggle through lazy plot lines and poor writing. The government has covered up the facts of the Punisher’s family’s death; his C.O. from Iraq has turned criminal; Reyes’s unmitigated ambition; etc. There is not the slightest hint at something new with these plot lines, and, while this can often be saved through canny writing, the side characters populating these stories are flat – Brett Mahoney, Daredevil’s contact in the NYPD, has regressed from the first season to being nothing more than a font of canned police offer jargon (and also is strikingly blasé in providing information about crime to anyone who asks), a pawn broker goes from suspicion of Frank Castle to selling him stolen police scanners and offering him unsolicited child pornography in the span of minutes, and two gang members spout a mix of corny threats and pick-ups lines at Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple while she’s treating them for injuries. This list goes on.
And then there is the Punisher’s trial. For a series that revels in the grimy details, the courtroom scenes are superficial and devoid of any pretense that this is, in fact, an actual trial. Murdock “examines” the Punisher when he is on the stand, but this consists of nothing more than a single question and then Murdock giving a speech, which isn’t how a courtroom examination works. And when one of witness blurts out that he was subjected to witness intimidation by Elektra, purportedly at the behest of Nelson and Murdock, the judge simply accepts this, precludes his testimony and moves on; there is not even the slightest inquiry into whether Nelson & Murdock LLP orchestrated criminal witness-tampering. And, of course, even though they lose the trial in disastrous fashion, Foggy – a junior attorney with a book of business consisting of a few bunches of banana and a pie – is offered a partner position with a prestigious law firm based on his two-minute opening statement at the trial. Basically, it feels like rather than give due consideration to the technical niceties of legal proceedings – which has long been such a critical aspect of Daredevil’s story and character – the writers watched a handful of pulp movies involving courtroom scenes and said, “This is how you law.”
As a whole, Daredevil’s second season is a success and clearly looks towards s third season, as few issues are resolved by the final episode; if anything, more questions are raised and doors are opened. The imperfections from the season are all easily correctible through a strong focus on writing, which is a good thing — none of the core characters themselves are the problems and, if fact, the second season gave the series a larger central cast to draw from as the series progresses.