There are spoilers for the second season of Daredevil in this review.
"You'd rather see me die than outgrow you."
Elektra Natchios, the elegant assassin in Daredevil's life, throws out this barb in the second half of Daredevil's second season. Like a lot of dialogue in season two, it's brimming with bubbling cheesiness — more apt for a low-budget fu flick than a prestige drama. But in the capable hands of actress Elodie Yung and her feathery hiss, the line lands with a bracing blow.
It's a statement, in more ways than one, that reflects the sophomore season of Marvel's acclaimed Netflix hit.
Elektra believes that Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil (Charlie Cox), in addition to their shared mentor, Stick, is preventing her from fulfilling her true destiny as a killing machine. And she's not the only one feeling cuffed by the man in the red suit. Almost every Daredevil character who's not named Murdock has become a human time bomb, with Murdock agitating each one to the brink. He's unavailable to his close friends, too righteous to others — a detriment to the people in his life.
That feeling will apply to some of Daredevil's viewers as well. Early in season two, I began to relate to Elektra — but I wasn't just annoyed with Murdock, I was annoyed with Daredevil in general. I started to feel like maybe we've come to expect too much from this show that was so entertaining in season one, because it wasn't evolving at all in season two.
That isn't to say that staying the same is a bad thing. Daredevil's fight scenes are still stunning, rattling clinics in choreography and camera work. New additions Elektra and the Punisher, like season one villain Wilson Fisk before them, are intriguing characters who could carry their own shows. The cinematography, even with some personnel changes behind the scenes, remains stellar.
New showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, who took over for Steven DeKnight, leaned heavily on the show's previously established strengths in season two's 13 episodes, each one a reminder of how good Daredevil can be. But with each fight scene and each dazzling shot, Daredevil ultimately begins to feel a bit tired — like the same lick of ice cream again and again.
Once the show's best assets start to feel repetitive, its less successful elements draw more attention. Its reliance on clichés grates in your ears. The crags in its handling of major thematic points reveal themselves in undercooked scenes.
Ultimately, Petrie and Ramirez created a season that fully understands Daredevil's strengths and plays to them accordingly. But this second installment is underwritten, and has failed to build on the show's fine first season.
Daredevil's fight scenes are still the best in the business
There isn't a show or current superhero movie with better fight scenes than Daredevil. Stunt coordinator Philip J. Silvera is back again for season two with a bevy of stunning scenes. But the standout is the stairwell fight in episode three:
In season one, Silvera proved he has a knack for choreography and clever camerawork. In this stairwell scene, he adds the element of gravity to mess with our perception and the momentum of the fight. The result is absolutely spellbinding.
What he also does well in season two is differentiate each character through the way he or she fights. There's a difference between the way Punisher fights versus how Wilson Fisk fights versus how Elektra fights versus how Daredevil fights. And I don't just mean whether they kill. All the characters are defined by how they hold themselves in battle. How they deal with exhaustion. How they protect themselves.
Silvera and his team tell a story in the pockets of action they're creating. Their work truly makes Daredevil a show worth watching.
Season two is tragically underwritten
With the introduction of Jon Bernthal's gruff Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, the first act of season two is laser-focused on the concept of justice. Hell's Kitchen has become such a violent world that the Punisher, who kills known criminals and members of the city's biggest crime factions, is seen as an avenging angel by some and an out-of-control madman by others. His kills are, of course, a contrast to Daredevil's bruise-'em-up-good strategy.
People's conflicting responses to the Punisher raise the question of whether the violence in Hell's Kitchen has tilted the world so much that people are willing to forget the right to due process and put their trust in him to fix things. And further: If he does fix things, even by killing, is Punisher then a hero?
But the show's lackluster writing does a disservice to this complex idea in both substance and dialogue.
We're first treated to a rooftop talk-off between Punisher and Daredevil in episode three. The conversation feels more like campy grandstanding for the audience than it does a chat between two men.
"You killed everyone else; why am I still alive?" Daredevil asks, implicitly reminding viewers that Punisher killed a bunch of people in the previous episode. "You don't strike me as someone who just lets that happen."
"I'll do what's required," Punisher scowls after hearing enough of what Daredevil has to say.
The rest of the exchange is both overwrought and bare, as the two men repeat the same idea — Punisher kills people, Daredevil doesn't — in a multitude of different ways, none of them poignant enough to leave a mark.
Daredevil takes another big cut at this during Frank Castle's (he's called his civilian name in court) trial for his murders. The scene is better crafted, as Foggy Nelson's (Elden Henson) opening statement in defense of Castle is written well. But the trial is tossed off too quickly, it as if the show seems afraid to further examine Castle's philosophy.
I wonder if it's because Daredevil is only telling half a story.
In order to make an argument about the inescapable violence in Hell's Kitchen and the vigilantes trying to control it, the series has to show us how the violence is affecting regular people. In the first season we saw the impact it had on Karen, and seeing the fissures in her psyche made us realize the human toll of living in the city. But in season two, the show doesn't convey any feeling of what living in Hell's Kitchen is like. And it lacks the tension that would drive us to care or convince us to invest in questioning the Punisher's violence.
The dialogue doesn't help; the entire season is riddled with terrible one-liners and tiresome filler.
"I’m the kingpin of this bitch," someone says to the actual Kingpin, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio), on his first day in jail.
It's not self-aware enough to be funny, nor is it delivered with enough menace to be threatening. And each character has at least a few cringeworthy lines. Kingpin's prison yard meetup with the Punisher could easily stray into comedy. Foggy's legal speak is often Legally Blonde lite. Even Stick (Scott Glenn) isn't immune, as he's tasked with telling a slapdash story about an ancient evil and playing foster dad to Elektra.
"Tame that fire or they’ll tame it for you," he says, scolding a tweenage Elektra.
Perhaps the writing was like this in season one, too, but the newness and surprise of Daredevil smoothed over any gaps. Now that the newness is gone, the flaws in the season two's writing are more flagrant and less forgivable.
It's a shame, because there are some great actors saying dodgy things to one another. And it's not like they aren't capable; just look at how Stick calls Daredevil and Elektra "Matty" and "Ellie," and how much emotion all three of them can pack into a few syllables. But the material just isn't there to let them do so.
Does Daredevil have a woman problem?
The comic book source material that Daredevil is based on is the work of Frank Miller. Miller is extremely talented, and has given us iconic stories like The Dark Knight Returns — a comic book tome, along with his run on Daredevil, that will go down in history as some of the best neo-noir superhero stories ever created.
But the dilemma with Miller's work is that his female characters — Elektra and Karen in Daredevil; Catwoman in The Dark Knight Returns — are often reduced to victims who suffer violent crimes, brutal injuries, and even death, all to further the plot of his male protagonists. In the comic books, Elektra is introduced, is badass, and dies in Daredevil's arms in the span of just one volume of the comic, and Karen turns to a life of drug abuse and trading sexual favors for heroin.
So I go into each new episode of Daredevil interested and perhaps a bit worried that some of those gory fossils of Miller's work will show up.
Karen seems safe from her comic book life of heroin and porn — for now. But over the course of Daredevil's two seasons, Karen has become the Forrest Gump of murders. If she's acting dopey and snooping around, there's probably a murder not far behind.
But season two makes Karen part of an interesting discussion about the gender dynamics of Hell's Kitchen. In episode 10, she makes a comment to editor Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor) about the patriarchy.
"You’d never pull this patriarchal shit with Ben," she tells him, after he assigns her police protection as she continues her investigation at her apartment.
"You're right. And I'll never make that mistake again. Not about someone I care about," he replies.
"Okay," she says, backing down quickly.
It's a clunky exchange. But it gets at one of Daredevil's worldviews: that the violence in this world makes oppressive patriarchy seem safe. That Karen can trust patriarchy because it outweighs the Hell's Kitchen villains she can't. It's a riveting idea to kick around — if only because superhero stories allow us to explore or excuse ideas like authoritarianism and vigilantism in a way that's difficult to justify in real life.
But what does the conversation between Karen and Ellison mean for women who can protect themselves? What does it mean for Elektra, who feels so stifled and strangled by the men in her life?
Elodie Yung's Elektra all but slinks off with the entire second half of Daredevil's second season. She provides a brightness and bite to the show. And that's in spite of playing a character who's jumbled and at times illogical.
Elektra is supposedly a master assassin, one of the best Stick has ever trained and the grand weapon of the Hand, but in her fight scenes she's consistently taking more hits than Daredevil. Part of the reason for that is to show us she can take punches, but I expected her to be more dominant.
And in her death scene, she's getting beat up again.
In the final fight of season two, Elektra and Daredevil are battling the Hand (an ancient evil organization) on a rooftop. She's bested, Daredevil's about to be killed, and Elektra runs in front of a sai (a Japanese dagger baton) meant for him. Elektra sacrifices herself for Daredevil and for the good of the Earth, since it's her destiny to become the Hand's ultimate weapon.
It's not a flagrant "fridging" — the term used to describe a trope in comic books where women are killed or injured or literally stuffed into fridges to further a male character's plot — since Elektra enters the battle knowingly and fights alongside Daredevil as his partner. And her death is in her own hands; it's not a taunt or provocation committed by a villain.
Overall, she fared better on Daredevil the TV show than she did in Miller's run with the character in the comics.
But there's an unshakable feeling that parts of her character are basically plot devices to reconcile Karen and Murdock's shattered relationship. Before the fight that seals Elektra's fate, Murdock tells her he's totally in love with her.
"Wherever you run, I’ll run with you," he says. "There's one thing in this world that makes me feel more alive. That's you."
After Elektra's death, we see everything (including Elektra's funeral) speed toward a scene where Murdock and Karen appear to reconcile and he comes out to her as Daredevil. Perhaps something has been lost in translation from the comics, or maybe Karen and Murdock's relationship will be strictly platonic. But if the showrunners' intent was to really make Elektra seem like a cornerstone in Murdock's life and not just a girl to be replaced by another girl, the writing and editing of the show has failed her.
Daredevil is kind of an asshole, and no one seems willing to challenge him
There are multiple instances in Daredevil season two where the show's characters would've been better off if they didn't listen to Matt Murdock. Elektra wouldn't have taken a poisonous sword to the stomach had he not, in the middle of battle, distracted her; instead of apologizing after the fight, he just lectures her about how killing is bad. Foggy would have done a better job of defending Castle if he hadn't tried to accommodate Murdock. Claire (Rosario Dawson) was put in danger and lost her job because of her friendship with Murdock.
And if a character uses some logic and asks for police protection because it's dangerous to be friends with Murdock, he snipes at them.
"Great — lying to the cops. Smart, Karen," he snarls at her in episode 11. He whines in an earlier episode, "Vengeance is not justice — what [the Punisher] is doing is completely wrong!"
Matt Murdock is a jerk this season.
He's self-centered. He's bratty. He wants people to play by his rules, even if doing so gets them killed. And if Daredevil were even the slightest bit aware that it was fleshing out the idea that you don't have to like a good guy just because he's a good guy, it would feel fresh.
But Murdock doesn't face any resistance; his way is the way. And with the exception of Foggy, all the other characters seem to roll over for him — even if it goes against their best interests.
And that's the biggest flaw of Daredevil's second season: Matt Murdock doesn't have a villain or an adversary to stand up to him. Punisher and Elektra have some dazzling moments, and both actors do what they can with the material they're given — but there just isn't enough for them to do. And it's so excruciatingly clear, when D'Onofrio's Wilson Fisk makes his splash in the belly of this season, that the show misses Fisk dearly.
Essentially, what's bad for Matt Murdock is good for the show. And hopefully, assuming the show gets renewed for a third season, things will get a little worse for him.