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Netflix and Marvel’s Daredevil – Season 2 (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

The second season of Daredevil is a dysfunctional mess.

Unfortunately, it is not a particularly interesting mess.

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What is remarkable about the second season of Daredevil is the care and attention that has been put into crafting a structuring the show. The first season of Daredevil had a surprising strong sense of structure, particularly when compared to the disjointed plotting of Jessica Jones. Whereas Jessica Jones tended to stumble and repeat itself in an attempt to stretch eight (or ten) episodes’ worth of story into a thirteen episode season order, Daredevil always had a strong idea of what it needed to do and when it needed to do it.

(In fact, the biggest issue with the first season finalé was not understanding what the show needed to accomplish, it was figuring out how to accomplish that in a rather believable manner. Daredevil tore down Wilson Fisk, handed Matt Murdock his victory, allowed the two characters to face off against one another, and earned Matt the costume (and name) befitting the protagonist of a show called Daredevil. The show just struggled with satisfying this laundry-list of plotting and thematic requirements in the space of a single episode.)

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The second season retains this sense of structure. In fact, the show strengthens its structuring. The second season of Daredevil can be neatly divided into a clear three-act structure. The first act pits Matt against the Punisher, running from Bang through to Penny and Dime. The second act introduces Elecktra and runs roughly parallel to Frank Castle’s trip through the United States justice system, from Kinbaku through to the end of Seven Minutes in Heaven. The final stretch of the season brings the various character arcs to a close.

More than that, great care is taken to ensure that each episode can stand (mostly) alone. When it comes to streaming television series, there is a tendency to ignore the importance of the episode as a stand-alone unit of story. The Netflix model has made it possible to “binge” entire seasons at a time, putting the next piece of story only a mouse click away. Given all that, it make sense to think of episodes more as “installments” than as self-contained units of story. In contrast with many of its sibling shows on Netflix, Daredevil carefully crafts its individual episodes.

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This was quite apparent in the first season, with self-contained episodes like Stick and Shadows in the Glass serving their own purpose as much as the purpose of the larger arc. In the second season, there is similar care taken to ensure that the episodes are reasonably distinct from one another and that they do not effortlessly blend together into some indistinct red devil-themed blur. Each episode can be unpacked and explored on its own terms, similar to each of the three acts that form the larger season.

The second season of Daredevil never quite falls victim to the same repetition and disjointedness that caused problems with Jessica Jones. No story thread runs to a dead-end as frustrating as Jessica’s plot to get ahold of an anesthetic in AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey. The Punisher is not introduced twice, like Kilgrave in AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey. Elektra does not keep getting captured only to escape, like Kilgrave in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts.

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There is a great deal of care and craft that has gone into putting the second season of Daredevil together. The cast is great. Charlie Cox remains one of the triumphs of Marvel’s casting division, even if Matt Murdock’s emotional arc is not as effective this time around. Jon Bernathal has the sort of gravitas and grit that would make a perfect Punisher. Elodie Yung is great as Elektra Nachious. It is always good to have more Scott Glenn, particularly playing a cynical wise-ass like Stick. Vincent D’Onofrio is still a joy as Wilson Fisk.

The production is impressive. The show looks great, saturated in yellows and reds and greens that make it look like a grindhouse period-piece. Even more than the first season, the second season of Daredevil embraces its pulpier elements. There are honest-to-goodness zombie ninjas, impressive fight sequences, resurrections and prophecies. The second season of Daredevil is completely unashamed of its comic book roots, which is charming for a show that occasionally runs the risk of taking everything far too seriously.

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On paper, the second season of Daredevil is an effective piece of television. However, all of this effort and energy is invested in something that is plagued by deep-set structural and plotting issues. It feels like the second season of Daredevil has been meticulously and carefully assembled by a production team who know a lot about storytelling, but have no idea about what this story is supposed to be. It seems like the writing team were handed a bunch of classic Daredevil and Punisher comics, and told that this is what the season is supposed to look like.

The first season of Daredevil had a somewhat troubled production. Joss Whedon and JJ Abrams protegé Drew Goddard had been tapped to develop the show. He oversaw production of the first two episodes before he was poached to work on the planned (and subsequently scrapped) “Spider-Man shared universe” at Sony. There was no shortage of frustration at his departure from the show, and some minor chaos as the reins were handed over to veteran Spartacus producer Steven DeKnight to run the rest of the year. He did good work, made the show his own.

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Between the first and second seasons, DeKnight was poached to work on the shared Transformers universe for Paramount. As a result, the second season was handed over to Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez. Both writers had worked on the first season. Doug Petrie was a Whedon veteran, having scripted for both Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel. Marco Ramirez was somewhat less experienced, accruing credits on shows like Sons of Anarchy and Fear the Walking Dead. The duo is markedly less experienced than Goddard or DeKnight.

Perhaps this explains some of the more conservative narrative choices. There is a feeling that the second season of Daredevil is beholden to what came before, to the point that some of the season’s structure even mirrors the first year. Dogs to a Gunfight, the second episode of the second season, puts Matt out of commission for a significant stretch of the episode to make room for character development; it serves the same purpose as Cut Man did during the show’s first year. Seven Minutes in Heaven provides flashbacks for Fisk, as Shadows in Glass did.

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Virtually every major player from the first season reappears, even when there is little reason beyond continuity fetishism. Madame Gao was a fascinatingly mysterious character when she appeared across the first season. In fact, Daredevil suggested that Gao was going to mysteriously disappear from New York. In contrast, .380 brings Gao back so she can provide exposition about another mysterious crime kingpin. This is to say nothing of the awkwardness of New York’s Finest trying to upstage the impressive one-cut fight scene from Cut Man. Bigger is not always better.

There is a sense throughout the season that Petrie and Ramirez are good writers, but terrible showrunners. They are very careful at structuring the dramatic beats of the season, but have little sense of what their season is actually meant to be about. They understand the nuts and bolts of structuring a character arc, but generate consistently terrible taste in picking which character arcs to run across the season as a whole. The second season of Daredevil is so well structured that its notable absences and terrible choices are all the more noteworthy.

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To be fair, Petrie and Ramirez got a bum deal. The second season of Daredevil is largely built around two characters who are new to the show: Elektra and the Punisher. Those are both relatively big names in the context of comic book characters, certain to generate buzz and excitement among fandom. However, they are also notoriously difficult characters to write. It should be noted that Marvel has tried on three separate occasions to bring the Punisher into live action cinema, with the most generous assessment conceding they have yet to have an unqualified success.

(It should be noted that the long history of making terrible choices involving the Punisher is not exclusive to live action. After all, this is a comic book character who has infamously been turned black and transformed into a literal angel of vengeance. It seems fair to say that most writers do not have a strong grasp on the character. The same is true of Elektra, who has struggled at the House of Ideas once separated from Frank Miller. Indeed, the two are so easy to write terribly that Daniel Way infamously paired them off during his Thunderbolts run. It did not last.)

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On paper, the idea of pairing up the Punisher with Daredevil makes sense. After all, Daredevil is a gritty street hero and the Punisher is an even grittier street antihero. Daredevil is a character torn by questions around Catholic guilt, while the Punisher offers moral absolutism distilled to its purest form. It helps that Daredevil guru Frank Miller incorporated the character into Daredevil’s supporting cast, with later writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker building on that. New York’s Finest even riffs on Garth Ennis’ take on the pair’s dynamic.

However, while the basic premise of seeding the Punisher within a season of Daredevil makes a certain amount of sense, the Punisher plot thread running through the second season of Daredevil is a catalogue of bad ideas. On a very fundamental level, the driving story idea of “let’s do a thirteen-episode superhero origin story of Frank Castle” is ill-suited to the tone and aesthetic of the show around him. However, the second season is so deeply enamoured with the “extended origin story” template of the first season that it commits to this terrible idea.

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The first act of the show is not terrible. Frank Castle is introduced killing criminals, which is what the Punisher does. He gets to have a big moral debate with Daredevil about what he does in New York’s Finest, which might stand as the character’s strongest moment in the entire thirteen-episode run. However, the show then tries to draw Frank Castle’s trauma out across the rest of the season. It sticks to the familiar formula. Most obviously, Elektra and Punisher only get their iconic costumes in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, mirroring Matt’s arc in the first year.

The problem comes in trying to stretch Frank’s arc beyond the murders of the Cartel, the Kitchen Irish and the Dogs of Anarchy. After all, the standard origin of Frank Castle is not particularly complicated. Frank’s family were murdered by criminals, so he decided to wage a one-man war on crime. There is a lot of nuance to be added to that, as Garth Ennis did in Tygers or Born or as Jason Aaron did in Punisher MAX. However, these details are largely internal to Frank Castle and do not serve the sort of world-building that Marvel likes in its live action properties.

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So, Daredevil begins to craft a mythology around Frank in order to extend “Frank’s family were murdered by criminals” into a storytelling engine that can sustain an entire season. The result is a shoot-out in Central Park that seems as conspiratorial and shadowy as any plotting on The X-Files. The Man in the Box reveals that the District Attorney is implicated in the horror of what happened. The Dark at the End of the Tunnel provides a pseudo-Kingpin figure to take the blame. The result is to stretch a simple origin story to breaking point.

The second season of Daredevil really seems to misjudge Frank Castle, treating him as a character who is pretty much the same as Matt except for the fact that he will take the life of a criminal. In order to give Karen something to do, she is shunted into Frank’s subplot. He even offers romantic advice in .380. The season seems to suggest that the Punisher and Daredevil might even be friends. His arrival at the climax of A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen is treated as “big damn heroes” moment, with a smile shared between two of the most depressed characters in comic books.

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The result is a portrayal that feels very much at odds with the character’s best portrayals in comic books, but one that seems ill-judged even outside of the context of those other stories. The second season does not portray Frank as particularly problematic; he is typically seen as level-headed and well-intention. He cracks jokes and assigns affectionate nicknames. He kills very bad men. However, there is something very disconcerting about running a mass-murdering gun enthusiast through a tried-and-tested superhero origin in the style of Batman or Spider-Man.

It does not help matters that this portrayal of Frank Castle feels compromised by his existence within a larger shared universe. In Seven Minutes in Heaven, for example, Frank Castle cuts a deal with Wilson Fisk. Frank Castle is the Punisher, the most morally absolute of comic book characters. Only one character should walk away from a meeting between Wilson Fisk and Frank Castle, but the larger shared universe demands that both characters survive. The Punisher warns Fisk that they will be enemies the next time they meet, but it feels contrived and hollow.

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(Indeed, a lot of the season’s plot points feel contrived and hollow. Wilson Fisk has the connections to get Frank Castle literally let out of the back door of a high-security prison. Ignoring the logistical issues with such a casual jailbreak, the plot point feels contrived. In .380, Matt argues that New York is in Wilson Fisk’s DNA and that he could never leave the city; at the same time, it seems strange that Fisk would not use his power to walk out that back door to be with his wife and deal with all the fallout from the safety of a non-extradition country.)

If Frank Castle’s plot demonstrates the mistakes that the production team made in mapping out the story that they wanted to tell, then Elektra Natchios’ plot demonstrates the obvious voids in the plotting of the season. In many respects, the second season of Daredevil feels like a structure erected around an absent centre. The three-act structure is in place, and there are character arcs that progress across the season, but there is no real meat to the story as a whole.

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The first season of Daredevil very clearly juxtaposed Matt Murdock’s superhero origin with the rise of Wilson Fisk. Both characters were compared and contrasted as the show set them on a collision course. As a result, there was always something pushing the story forward. Daredevil could not wrap up its first season without throwing Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk into combat with one another. It was a very conventional story, but one elevated by two fantastic performances and some wonderful characterisation.

The second season of Daredevil lacks this driving force. Elektra and the Punisher are big characters who have a considerable impact on the plotting of the season, but they are not set up as oppositional forces. The big fight at the end of the season finds all three lead characters teaming up to fight a horde of (mostly) anonymous ninjas. There is no sense of inevitable conflict, no mounting tension, no feeling of impending tragedy. The second season of Daredevil feels like a bunch of stuff that unfolds in a familiar pattern, but with no real excitement driving it.

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In fact, it is worth noting the extended time-scale of the season as a whole. While binge-watching means that Daredevil is likely to be consumed over a few days or a weekend, the season unfolds over at least half of a calendar year. The second season runs from the height of summer in Bang to the snows of winter in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. This reinforces the sense that the show’s plotting is very traditional and old-fashioned, harking back to television scheduling. However, it also suggests a lack of momentum.

For all that the second season of Daredevil is meticulously built around a familiar superhero storytelling formula, it is missing a vital part of that formula. There is no bad guy. In some respects, this absence evokes the plotting problems with The Wolverine, another finely-structured sophomoric effort that suffered from the lack of a single clear antagonist in its second act. There is a large Wilson-Fisk-shaped hole at the centre of the season. Although it is great to see Fisk again at the end of Guilty as Sin, it is too late for him to fill it.

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When Nobu is revealed as the leader of the hand at the end of Seven Minutes in Heaven, it feels like an anticlimax. Nobu was effectively a mid-tier boss when he appeared in season one. He cause Daredevil a lot of pain in Speak of the Devil, but the character was consistently portrayed as an over-eager hot-head who was beaten by Matt Murdock and outwitted by Wilson Fisk. It is possible to elevate a supporting player across seasons, but Nobu simply in not in that league. Nobu is not an interesting enough character to play the role of “big bad.”

Then again, the absence of a single unifying antagonist is just the most glaring plot issue with the season. Certain character decisions and plot developments seem to occur simply because the structure of the season demands it, rather than for any reason related to internal logic. The Hand work really hard to conceal themselves as the Yakuza, to the point of sending assassins in character to murder Elektra at the end of Kinbaku. However, once they reveal their true nature to a supporting character in Regrets Only, it seems the Hand cast aside any element of subterfuge.

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The actual plot of the second season of Daredevil is a mess. It always moves forward, and occasionally with enough speed to distract from the issue. However, there is a sense that a lot of what unfolds is ultimately misdirection and distraction. There is an emphasis on plot twists and reveals rather than character growth and development. The first season of Daredevil worked so well because it took the time to peel back the layers of Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, diving deeper into their respective psyches. The second season is a lot less interested in that.

The characters of Frank Castle and Elektra Natchios are fascinating. After all, they have latched on to the popular consciousness for decades. There is fertile ground to explore. However, the second season of Daredevil confuses character development with plot twists. Frank Castle is a psychopath, then the victim of a brain injury, then the victim of conspiracy. Elektra Natchios is a reckless wealthy dilettante, then a trained assassin, then a chosen one. It feels like the show would be a lot better if it picked a single aspect of these characters and focused on it.

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As with the first season, Daredevil draws upon a wealth of rich source material. Frank Miller casts a very long shadow over the production, as he does over just about any Daredevil story told over the past thirty-five years. However, while the first season tended to focus on Miller’s development of Wilson Fisk, the second season attempts to build upon Miller’s introduction of Elektra and the Hand. More than that, the season tries to build a story around the basic ingredients of Miller’s Elektra saga while avoiding its most iconic moments.

To be fair, it makes sense for the second season to avoid Bullseye’s brutal murder of Elektra, for a number of complicated reasons. As with a lot of Miller’s writing, there are certain unfortunate undertones to the iconic sequence and the way that it is handled. However, the death of Elektra (and Matt Murdock’s response to it) represents the heart and soul of Miller’s Elektra saga as a whole. Reworking the saga so as to make Elektra’s death less theatrical and central reduces the whole story to a generic tale about ninjas and superheroes.

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This perhaps demonstrates the danger of fetishising Miller. The central appeal of Miller’s use of the Hand during his Daredevil run was the dynamic artwork. Heavily influenced by Will Eisner, Miller had a delightfully kinetic style that lent itself to ninjas and kung-fu. At the time those stories were published, they looked utterly unlike anything else in superhero comics. In the time since, however, that imagery has become part of the language of the genre. Heavily influenced by Miller’s work, The Wolverine already did “ninjas versus heroes.”

There is a lifeless quality to the second season of Daredevil, a sense of formula applied without comprehension.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of Daredevil:

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6 Responses

  1. Nice review, man! Thank you for this brilliant article! 😀 Keep up the good work.

  2. “It should be noted that the long history of making terrible choices involving the Punisher is not exclusive to live action.”

    And therein lies the problem. Comics have a long history and you can find a precedent for nearly anything.

    And if the quality of the piece takes a turn for the weird (or for the worse), well, there’s a precedent for that, too.

    • Yep. I was travelling a bit this week, and so able to read a number of extended runs in single sittings (Miller Batman, Ennis Marvel Knights/MAX Punisher, Rucka Punisher, Aaron Punisher, Brubaker/Lark Daredevil) and it kinda dawned on me that comic book storytelling is really ideally suited to the Netflix storytelling model. I binged the thirteen hours of the second season Daredevil, but I also “binged” runs of about sixty-odd comics, and the experience was surprisingly similar.

  3. Having finally seen it all, I agree that Season 2 is a hot mess, and a big step down from the first one. (Same with Agent Carter, for that matter). And yes, the Punisher is a huge part of it, and IMO the single biggest problem in the series. “Daredevil, Season 2” has no business being “The Punisher, Season 1,” and the Punisher has no business being a good guy anywhere but in his own comic book. He’d have been interesting, and probably could’ve sustained a full season, as a main antagonist who shared Matt’s goals but whose methods were unforgivable. When you make him a good guy (okay, “edgy antihero who kills people,” as if there’s anything edgy or controversial about that anymore when you’re telling a vigilante story forty years after Dirty Harry), AND give him that much screen time, not only are you getting the character wrong, you’re upstaging your own main character.

    • I’d agree with that entirely.

      There’s a point in .380 (I think) where Matt admits Frank is right, and then Frank pushes Matt overboard to spare Matt the moral compromise of killing. It’s a moment that completely undercuts Matt morally and philosophically, while serving to make Frank even more righteous and heroic. Coupled with the earlier “Frank Castle talkin’ about love” sequence, that’s when I completely irreparably checked out from the show’s take on Frank. (Not that I was entirely on board beforehand.)

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