When Daredevil hit Netflix this time last year, it was a revelation. The streaming site gave Marvel a venue to explode with a previously unseen maturity on par with anything on cable. With season two upon us (and Jessica Jones months prior), it’s clear the collaboration wasn’t a fluke. Daredevil’s sophomore outing more than holds up to its premiere season, even surpasses it in some ways.
Obviously, that’s my cue to talk about it! Here’s what I loved and what didn’t float my boat, in a handy list format. (Spoilers abound for everything.)
Good: The definitive version of the Punisher
Frank Castle is tricky to get right (several movies prove that, except Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone, which I adore). A veteran war hero, a loving father, a ruthless mass murderer, and by nature the perfect antagonist foil to Daredevil. Castle is the most extreme extension of the vigilante, motives personal rather than selfless, and he relishes dispensing his own form of slaughterhouse justice in stark contrast to Matt’s steadfast refusal to kill. He first appears in a hail of machine gun-fire and mutilated bodies, as terrified whispers in the darkest corners of Hell’s Kitchen. The back of his head, booted feet, a swinging gun barrel. A wave of violence in a hospital. Rumors spread of an army, because no man could be so unstoppable. He’s raw and unchecked, an open wound of fury — the nightmare Matt Murdock never dreamed his noble intentions could create. Daredevil’s never shied away from violence (remember that car door decapitation, anyone?), but Castle’s carnage is a new kind of visceral; the camera sweeps along the shredded insides of a man’s brain, and guts spill from drug dealers suspended on meathooks. Yet his brutality isn’t glorified for the sake of violence, or presented as something badass to admire or emulate. It’s sickening.
Brilliantly, you witness Castle’s rage long before you meet the man underneath: a broken-hearted, tragic figure, who’s thoroughly sane. Jon Bernthal’s monologue in episode four is his best work to date and as Emmy-worthy a performance as I’ve seen in years. You’re horrified by Frank Castle’s capacity for violence, and then you weep for him. The deaths of his wife and children are 100% a trope used to motivate his actions, but I’ve never seen the plot more effective. Honestly, I’ve rarely been able to stomach the concept until now, let alone be moved by it to the point of tears. We may never see Castle’s family, but we witness the full extent of their loss. His loved ones are hollow memories; many can relate to that, or the fear of it happening.
Frank Castle’s character shatters our hero’s beliefs to breaking, tests the themes of morality and questions whether the most extreme vengeance can somehow be justified. There are no clear-cut lines of villainy like there were with Fisk, whose methods were reprehensible regardless of how fond we became of him. Castle kills without hesitation or mercy, but loves Earth Wind and Fire. He guns down men by the dozens but bonds with Karen in a diner over love. It’s a breathtaking tour-de-force of story and acting.
Bad: Who’s the Blacksmith?
For most of the season, the Punisher’s plot was perfect. The loss of his family, his revenge, his trial. The government cover-up promised an interesting development. Then it fell apart with the reveal of the Blacksmith. Colonel Schoonover was only seen once before, so there was no development or narrative signal to his character pulling a gun on Karen besides shock value. Likewise, it wasn’t explained why he planned the massacre of Frank’s family or why he became a drug trafficker, because Frank puts a bullet in his head soon after. The resolution to the Punisher’s origin is over in a short scene, and after a season’s worth of buildup, it fails to satisfy.
Good: Elektra gets her due. ‘Nuff said.
Elektra Natchios is also a difficult character to do justice. Her creator, Frank Miller, set her up as a formidable opponent/soulmate for Matt Murdock but did what Miller usually does to women: reduced her to a murdered victim to further Matt’s manpain. (At least she wasn’t raped as a cheap plot device. Oh, wait, he kinda did that too.) Thankfully, the series incorporated the best parts of her comics history and jettisoned the worst, and the result is perhaps the perennial version of the Greek anti-heroine. Miller can whine all he wants, but this Elektra is a figure as tragic as Frank Castle and as fully-fleshed as her male counterparts.
Initially presented as the stereotypical spoiled rich girl, bored with her life and electrified by the only one who can understand her mindset, each episode peels away the layers she’s so meticulously and purposefully erected to reveal a woman torn between identities. An assassin and a hero, a killer and a lover; someone who thrills off slitting a boy’s throat but longs to love and be loved. She’s trained her whole life to kill the very thing she discovers she is, a weapon meant to end the world. She tip-toes all these contradictory lines, never fully committing to any or even understanding herself enough to know which to pursue. She’s never weak, but neither is she indestructible. Her origins may veer sharply from the comics, but this new interpretation doesn’t shortchange Elektra’s gray areas or her hard-won development.
There are a lot of gross themes that could’ve emerged from the decision to make Elektra the season’s thematic weapon, and how much of her personality was informed by that. Frankly, I’m still mulling over them; I see both sides. But even though her death was as much of a lazy, fridged woman cliche as you can get (seriously, why do she and Gwen Stacy always have to die?), it remained her choice. Yes, Matt mourns her death with appropriate amounts of brooding, but she decided to sacrifice herself for the greater good. She defied the men controlling her (Stick), objectifying her (the Hand), denying her (Matt), and chose her own path toward heroism. No one would dictate her role or who she was. And if that last shot is any indication, she won’t be dead for long.
Bad: The Black Sky
Black Sky. It’s bad. Super bad. Whatever the hell it is and whatever it does. So the reveal of Elektra as the vessel of said ominous evil should have wielded more weight. For something with such impact on the narrative the writers should have telegraphed it smoother, and farther in advance. Stick says how dangerous the Black Sky is and Elektra warns of an oncoming war with the Hand, but that’s all we get for foreshadowing. Elektra struggles with a desire to kill, but why can’t that be a component of her personality instead of a result of her apparent possession by a malevolent force? The revelation arrives suddenly and Elektra’s moral conflict whether to join the Hand or fight against them resolves just as suddenly. There were lasting ramifications, but like the Punisher’s conclusion the moment and its immediate fallout struck a rushed, muddled tone.
Good: Karen’s hero arc
Karen spent the majority of season one investigating the source of her attempted murder, and as spectacular as it was watching her grow from victim into independent agent, her fight to expose Union Allied became more about taking down Fisk than her experiences. This time her tireless search for the truth about Frank Castle’s family propels her down a path entirely her own. She’s no longer reacting to something that happened to her, and there’s no obligation for her to investigate Castle besides the one to her own unwavering moral center. Working with Ben Urich wasn’t a one-off but a component of who she is: someone who seeks justice in her own way and won’t rest until the victims are recompensed. And she’s not a stereotype while doing so: deeply compassionate but not a hapless ingenue, kind to a fault but thrilled by danger. God bless Foggy for suggesting her name join Nelson and Murdock on the door, but assuming Ben’s open chair at the Bulletin is her calling.
Bad: Love is in the air
There’s something called romantic chemistry. Matt Murdock and Karen Page have none. It’s no fault of the actors, who deliver everything with impressive conviction; their initial scenes are executed with remarkable tenderness, a burst of refreshing light among the show’s dourness. But pair Matt with Elektra or Claire and he sparkles. Something elemental emerges that’s lacking in his hollow exchanges with Karen. Despite Matt and Elektra’s adversarial beginnings and pain-tinted past, they develop into a pair who bring out the best in each other. There’s compassion, mutual acceptance, a zest for life. The same goes for Karen and Foggy, who match so well it’s criminal the show felt compelled to stick with canon.
Hell, with my eyes squinted I could buy Karen and Frank Castle in some far-off future because their connection unfolds profoundly. She draws forth such staggering color and complexity to this gruff, broken killer — his long-forgotten humanity and the deep tenderness of a family man.
It’s especially frustrating that Karen flourishes in her individual arc, but once the focus shifts into the obligatory love story, everything goes flat. I believe in Matt and Karen’s friendship and even Karen’s crush, but not in a solid romance. And then that burgeoning romance falls apart thanks to Matt’s lies, and Karen only serves as a parallel to Elektra in a needless love triangle. Ugh.
By the way — to hell with “protecting” her, Matt should have told her his identity as Daredevil way sooner than the last two minutes. Better yet, Karen could’ve come to the conclusion herself. It’s not that hard.
Good: The rise of the Kingpin
Miraculously, Marvel managed to keep Fisk’s cameo a secret. And it was so freaking awesome I screamed. The Wilson Fisk we meet in prison isn’t the Wilson Fisk we remember as an awkward romantic with a penchant for car door decapitation — he’s fully embraced the ill intent. Yeah, it’s a bit too on the nose for the prison gang leader to declare “there’s only one Kingpin” (gee, I wonder what will happen to him by the end of the episode?), but the way Fisk machinates his way back into a position of power is terrifyingly hypnotic. His literal beatdown of Matt left me hardly breathing and so tense I had to pause the episode. In so many ways, Vincent D’onofrio makes this show.
Bad: The lack of supporting women
Look, I get why Vanessa and Madame Gao are off in respective hiding, but despite its representation missteps season one boasted a rich cast of diverse women. I wouldn’t trade Elektra for anything, but I feel their loss. Maybe that’s the point — in some way or another, every woman from lead to cameo is suppressed by the masculine superiority on display. Having said that, the show benefits implicitly from their presence.
Good: Claire’s too good for this shit
There’s always too little Claire Temple for my tastes, but what we got of her was glorious. Always wearied, never tolerating anyone’s bull, bonding with Foggy over their mutual friend’s antics, supporting Matt’s intentions but eviscerating his methods; longing for a better world, working endless shifts to care for the wounded whether they’re innocents or drug dealers. She’s the heart and soul of New York, the human embodiment of why Matt continues to pull his bruised body up and don the mask every day. I cheered when she quit the hospital and can’t wait to see where the Luke Cage series takes her. Maybe to a spinoff? COME ON MARVEL, INDULGE MY PIPE DREAM.
Good: Foggy’s also too good for this shit
God, Foggy. In a series about confused identities, Foggy’s the only one who knows who he is to the core: an unshakably good man. He’s not the strongest or the bravest or the best fighter, and he knows it, but he’s the kindest. His head is clear and his heart open, and he’s unashamed of how easily that heart bruises. He accepts homemade pie as payment for helping those in need instead of the money he needs to pay bills. His competence carries the entire Castle trial, a seemingly hopeless case. He follows the law with steadfast conviction when others waver or abuse. He fixes an elderly client’s wall despite not knowing jack about construction. He respects Karen’s love for Matt enough to step aside without a word. He stays by Matt’s side even when it exhausts him, but when his belief in his best friend’s innate goodness is tested, his loyalty isn’t to his own detriment. He knows when to step away. He realizes his own talents, his own limits, and makes the healthy choice.
Above all, Foggy risks his livelihood again and again for what’s right; for the overlooked and oppressed who can’t defend themselves. The man’s the true hero of Hell’s Kitchen because of his love, his tenderness, and his courage. Has a superhero’s moral compass ever been so heartfelt?
Bad: The dissolution of Nelson and Murdock
I understand why Matt unintentionally drove his best anchors away, and it was a logical extension of the previously established conflict. I especially don’t blame Foggy for reaching his breaking point after Matt boinked up the Castle verdict (overall Matt’s devout Catholicism veers too close into him becoming a judgmental asshole for my tastes, but I’ll withold judgment until we see whether that’s a factor of his arc). And yet, it feels wrong to face a likely season three and still have no lasting, defined Nelson and Murdock law team. I doubt they’ll forever remain estranged, and of course the relationship can’t be a static entity, but how often do we need to see the two fight, then make up, then fight, then separate again? I’m puzzled. And heartbroken. Did I mention MY TEARS.
Good: Cinematography and fight choreography
What do I even need to say? The creative maturity is just as exemplary as the level season one set. And hey, the lighting people remembered that daylight exists! There’s even a heatwave!
And finally: Charlie Cox
Some actors become syonymous with their superhero alter egos. Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Christopher Reeve. Cox has reached those same heights, and he carries Murdock through all of his sides — the guilt tied up into his devout faith, his failure to maintain relationships, his martyrdom complex, the bruised body and mentality that drags back up each day no matter the agony. Flaws are highlighted this year more than heroism, but that makes him all the more human. He can’t balance his dual identities. He doesn’t have enough money. He sweats, and bleeds, and cries. He’s tired. Are his efforts even worth it? Perhaps, but oh the cost they come at.