There was a time, not too long ago, when Daredevil was little more than a new kid on the TV block, carrying the weight of a failed movie franchise on its shoulders. Of course, it made light work of that, shrugging off the burdens of the past, and positioning itself as an excellent drama show in its own right. So, as season 2 rolls in, the weight of expectation is far different – this time expectancy. Could it really match up to its own previous excellence?
Perhaps the best place to start is with the “hallway fight” which, in the wake of season 1, quickly became the stuff of online legend: a superb one-shot, no holds barred smackdown. This time around, it’s a biker gang, and a brawl which seems to draw as much inspiration from the infamous battle in Oldboy as it does from its own previous. And it doesn’t disappoint, extending along a dimly lit passageway and down a stairwell, opening up glorious new opportunities for painful thug bashing. In segments like this, you’re once again left hoping the stuntmen are well paid, given how they appear to take more punishment than even Jackie Chan’s trusted crew. It’s a great scene and a logical progression of its forbearer.
The same can be said for much of this second season. To the credit of the creators, they haven’t been content to simply rest on their laurels, instead constantly challenging themselves to up the ante. Nowhere more so than in the brutal fights. If you’re squeamish, you may want to look away, because there’s no pulling of punches. Wince-worthy violence abounds: blood-letting from a variety of wounds, gunshots to the face, a drill to the foot, torture, smashed cheekbones … you get the idea. Some of it does come across as gratuitous, but mostly it feels strangely necessary, particularly with the introduction of Frank Castle. He is relentless, and merciless, in his mission to exact vengeance on those who propelled him down the road to Hell. Plainly, he is a killing machine, so to flinch away from the extreme justice he inflicts on his victims would seem a cop out, and possibly a glorification of that violence. Sure, his cause may be understandable, but there is no getting around how deplorable his methods are. This rings true, and adds weight to the clashes, both physically and ideologically, between him and Daredevil. This dynamic is the driving force at the heart of the first third of this season.
So what of Jon Bernthal’s Punisher/Frank Castle? Quite simply, he is great – menacing, slightly unhinged in his fits of rage, yet with subtle touches of humanity underpinning his performance. This is as much The Punisher season 1 as it is Daredevil, take 2; and it’s all the better for it.
Elodie Yung’s Elektra, too, is a welcome addition: a blend of sex appeal and lithe, athletic fighting skills. She entices, teases and challenges Daredevil to come to terms with his true nature. As he increasingly tries, and fails, to balance his ordinary man/super-human crime fighter dual personalities, she is the catalyst for facing up to what matters most to him in the grand scheme.
As for the returning, regular cast members, Charlie Cox remains solid as Matt Murdoch/Daredevil, even if he is guilty of over-egging it at times with his facial expressions. Deborah Ann Woll commands attention as the resourceful Karen Page, while even the slightly annoying Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Elden Henson) gets better served here, stepping up to the plate in several key scenes as Matt struggles to maintain his day job duties. There are plenty of other returning side characters, including a few who won’t be mentioned here, in the interests of avoiding spoilers.
There is an added element in amongst it all, with the burgeoning relationship between Karen Page and Matt Murdoch. This isn’t exactly a comfortable fit, and seems a little forced. Thankfully, this isn’t an oversight, and is addressed quite directly, particularly in one exchange between the two that begins as polite conversation but quickly morphs into a heated debate about the merits of The Punisher’s methods. Woll is no shrinking violet in this regard, and she benefitted from a couple of the first season’s most shocking, and powerful, dramatic scenes. She is an engaging presence and here reveals more hidden, startling layers beneath her girl-next-door exterior. Indeed, her interactions with The Punisher and an Irish gangster who the law firm of Murdoch and Nelson agree to represent early on, suggest that she is both attracted to, and repulsed by those capable of inflicting violence. It’s a nuance that adds to her being a vital member of the central cast.
This is just one example of the complexity and depth that help the show be more than just the sum of its parts. While the fight choreography is rightly lauded, great credit goes again to the writers, who continue to weave excellent dialogue throughout the show. In fact, as much as the stakes have been upped in the action, so too has it been with the moral dilemmas facing Matt Murdoch, as he finds himself in conflict with just about everyone around him, friend and foe alike. Frank Castle’s Punisher shows himself to be savage and morally reprehensible in his methods, and yet far more honest and self-aware than Daredevil. So too Elektra, despite her plotting and manipulations.
In its best moments, Daredevil comes close to perfection, up there with the very finest dramas to have graced the small screen. What makes it fall just short of the pinnacle is several small, but crucial, lapses in the latter episodes. This is where the ship starts to creak a little beneath the sheer weight of its many plot lines. It manifests most jarringly in key scenes which end up a little rushed, and at times, clunky, with (thankfully sparse) lapses in the quality of dialogue.
There are also too many times where it’s blatantly obvious that the principal players in a fight are stunt doubles in bad wigs – I mean, really bad. That may seem petty, but in the midst of otherwise brilliantly choreographed and thrilling sequences, it’s an unnecessary distraction.
But these are rare missteps, because Daredevil season two delivers in spades. And really, to rip into it too much would be amiss. Central to this particular story is a musing on how imperfect humans, even the mighty ones, really are. At times, they are wholly negligible, their self-proclaimed acts of righteous justice often causing disastrous knock-on effects. In its unflinching, brutal mix, and many flawed, conflicted central players, Daredevil acts and feels like a spiritual successor to Alan Moore’s masterful Watchmen, concerned as much with questions of morality and lopsided ideals as with entertainment.
In short, it is essential, in a way that the greatest graphic novels are. Sure, there are individual frames where the quality dips ever so slightly, or a clunky piece of exposition slips in. When all is said and done though, it’s not about those lapses; it’s the rhythm and poetry of the piece in its entirety. In this, Daredevil is a rare beast: savage, flawed and wholly engrossing.