A Powerful, If Uneven, Return to Hell’s Kitchen
After a premiere season that tracked the evolution of its titular hero, Marvel’s Daredevil returns to Netflix with its second season, a gripping journey into the dark heart of Hell’s Kitchen in New York. But with a bigger cast of characters than ever and towering expectations to live up to, Daredevil finds both new strengths and weaknesses in its second season.
After the events of its first season, blind but superpowered lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) prowls the streets of Hell’s Kitchen as Daredevil by night while fighting in the courtroom by day. But new threats arise in his neighborhood, including the lethal vigilante known as The Punisher (Jon Bernthal), his former girlfriend Elektra (Élodie Yung), and a mysterious organization looking to seize control of New York from the shadows. Facing greater dangers than ever, Matt must reevaluate his entire life while trying to protect the people he loves.
In its first season, Daredevil showed that there was a place for grim and mature content within the generally brighter Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to its complex themes, bursts of shocking violence, and somber tone. That precedent continues into its second season, even when the superheroics and costumes have become brighter and less grounded.
As Daredevil, Cox once again gives the series a tortured yet relatable hero, giving a wonderful performance despite inhibitors like playing blind, wearing eye-obscuring glasses, and often being wrapped in a full body costume. That costume, by the way,
is a major improvement from the one seen at the end of the first season and its improvement comes via a believable plot development. Cox manages to be both charming and morose as Murdock and there’s thankfully just enough fun to be had here to not make his hero into a pitiful sad sack. It’s great to watch him win with both his fists and his brain, even when the challenges are piling up on all sides. Marvel Studios continues to be faithful to the character, as Daredevil’s Catholic guilt and penchant for self-punishment inform many of his choices both in an out of costume. We’re also giving a more powerful and effective hero here, one that doesn’t get the snot beaten out of him in every single episode like the first season, but instead has his greatest challenges come in the form of philosophical and ethical dilemmas.
Also returning are supporting players Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson and Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Matt’s law firm partners and friends who are massively impacted by his war on crime. Thankfully, both are given meaty character arcs that allow them to be defined by more than just their relationship to the hero. Karen is drawn into investigating The Punisher and his mysterious history, providing a solo story that shows her to be a more than capable protagonist on her own, even if her sudden and strange hiring into the local newspaper is so illogical that it becomes silly. It’s clear that the death of Ben Urich is Season 1 left a hole in the show, which the showrunners are attempting to fill with Karen. As Foggy, Henson provides some levity and reason as the ever-suffering friend of Matt Murdock, but it feels earned and real here, rather than just needed as some form of levity for the show. Also making a brief return to the series is Rosario Dawson as Nurse Claire Temple, who provides a needed outside voice of reason, levity, and humanity, which has been proved to be a breath of fresh air in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
But the true runaway star of Daredevil is Bernthal’s Punisher, who enters the season as a mysterious, deadly force and quickly becomes its most interesting and dynamic member. True to the comics, Frank Castle is a man who has lost everything and has embarked on a psychotic quest to wipe out every criminal he can in New York. Bernthal makes Castle into a fierce and wildly dangerous man, one who seems to be constantly on the verge of violence, no matter where he is. Yet he also injects him with a heartbreaking humanity that gives that violence even greater potency. Castle partakes in the show’s most shocking violence and its most emotional moments, with his graveyard speech at the end of episode four being a massive highlight for both the character and the show as a whole. Not only does Bernthal steal the show whenever he’s on screen, he elevates everyone else in his scenes. His ideological conflict with Matt, his surprising partnership with Karen, and an episode-long conflict with a surprise character work so well that they make the other storylines feel weaker in comparison. If there’s a downside to his involvement here, it’s that his screentime is seriously scaled back in the final few episodes, which feels strange after being given so much focus for the first 10 and almost seems like a disservice to The Punisher.
The other crucial addition to the series is Yung’s Elektra, an assassin that Matt loved years ago and who has ties to the central conflict of the season. Much like the comic book storyline that introduced her decades ago, Elektra pops back into Daredevil’s life after years of being gone, only to wreak havoc and turn everything upside down. Yung gives makes Elektra a psychotic tinge but she also feels incredibly annoying within her first several appearances, coming off as little more than a privileged and petulant child with a propensity for killing. Thankfully, her continued appearances throughout the how add more layers until she’s actually quite intriguing. Her ties to the season’s generally weak villain notwithstanding, Elektra is a necessary and positive impact on the show who helps make Matt into a more complex character.
Also returning to Daredevil are masterful fight scenes that are better than any other superhero show and even quite a few comic book films. Once again, Daredevil features a massive single shot action sequence this season, this time having Daredevil fight an entire biker gang through a stairwell. Other action highlights include every time Daredevil and Punisher do battle with one another and a later fight that sees The Punisher dispatch a dozen men in the bloodiest and most gruesomely violent scene Marvel has ever filmed. However, many of the season’s second half’s fight sequences are relatively common and even bland in comparison. Lacking the visual panache of the standout fights that are mostly within the first few episodes, the majority of the battles involving ninjas are well done yet somewhat repetitive. That includes the climactic battle of the season’s final episode. While it may have large narrative and emotional stakes, it’s just another ninja fight like the dozen that came before. It also doesn’t help that so many of these battles are bathed in an inky darkness that makes it nearly impossible to clearly see what is actually happening. Darkness is certainly a visual theme for this series, but it’s used so obsessively within most of its fights that it is almost impossible to be excited about the action choreography that is being displayed or, more often than not, hidden from view.
Where Daredevil Season 2 ultimately stumbles is in both its focus and its choice of antagonist. Unlike Season 1, this season of Daredevil branches away from a strict single narrative for all 13 episodes. Instead, Season 2 is split up into an approximately three-act structure, with the first four episodes dealing with Daredevil’s battle against The Punisher, the next four focusing on how the hero is affected by the return of Elektra, and the final five primarily concerning the battle against The Hand, the group that seeks to destroy the heroes and take over New York. While that gives both The Punisher and Elektra the screentime and thoughtful storytelling that they deserve, it also leads to several disconnected plots running alongside one another simultaneously. One of season 2’s themes is Matt’s life coming apart from the vast responsibilities he has shouldered, but it’s also too much for the show at times. Those expecting these various narrative threads to dovetail by the finale will be disappointed, as it seems the showrunners could not find a way to have them coalesce into a satisfying end. As such, the back half of season 2 is constantly trying to keep too many plates spinning so that each character can be given an arc that doesn’t end until the season does.
The other weakness is that villainous organization at the center of the season, known as The Hand, is simply uninteresting as a villain. It isn’t until the season’s halfway point that they are given anything more than the briefest hints of existing within the narrative and it is even later when they are finally established as the big bad here. Unidentifiable ninjas may make for fun combatants, but they are not fully formed antagonists in the slightest here. Even worse, their endgame is the epitome of a meaningless MacGuffin. Episode after episode, we are told that The Hand is after something known as Black Sky, the living weapon that will give them ultimate power. But what does that mean exactly? And how will that happen? When Black Sky is given some form of identity, it’s even more confusing and emptier than ever. Compared to Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin from Season 1, The Hand are a massive disappointment when it comes to a season-long villain, having neither the exposure nor the characterization to be anything beyond a villainous force to create struggles for the heroes.
But shortcomings aside, Daredevil accomplishes nearly every it sets out to do in its sophomore season. Not only does it make the world of Matt Murdock more complex, it creates new and compelling characters that stand alongside its many well-established ones. Season 2 also sets up numerous threads for future installments, although many of those dangling threads are either frustratingly unfinished or more interesting than this season’s storyline. But fans of the first season, the Netflix Marvel world in general, and the character of Daredevil will have plenty to rejoice here. Daredevil is back and the world of comic book adaptations is better for it.