Review and Comments: Daredevil Season 2 (Netflix, 2016)
Good, but not as great as the first season. It has more fights, explosions, and killing than Season One. It has gone more to the supernatural side of Daredevil stories and lessened the realism significantly. Still does some very clever things with theme and character, but has a more complicated narrative structure that occasionally wobbles and feels a little overfull.
I loved Season One of Daredevil. I thought it was a gritty, ‘realistic’, down-to-earth superhero show that made the incredible seem plausible, did interesting things with character, and focused on telling a good story. It was thematically consistent, and, in terms of genre, kept its sights firmly on the street crime elements that gave it an authenticity and credibility. Season Two didn’t quite hit the same notes for me. Don’t get me wrong, it is still better than the vast majority of other superhero shows, but the first season was so good that this time around my expectations were perhaps a little too high. Of course you can’t really hold the show responsible for not meeting every viewer’s expectations, but when the first season creates them, you really hope that the follow up at least meets them. But there are some aspects that just didn’t work as well for me this time.
For a start there are real issues with threat escalation and leaving the realistic grounding of the series behind. In the first season we saw Daredevil go up against street toughs and thugs. He fought hard and got injured. There was a believability to the fights, and every battle was a scrap. Daredevil struggled, he took punches, he got tired and had to rest during the fight. In fact, how he timed those brief rest periods in between engaging opponents demonstrated his tactical awareness and his need to eke every advantage out of the situation that he possibly could. It was brilliant watching him strategically fight his way to his objective. This time around he goes up against large groups of thugs with almost no difficulty. He easily defeats multiple opponents, admittedly in a variety of entertaining and fairly well choreographed fights, but there is a distinct lack of threat to the encounters now. Sure, we could see this as Daredevil finally embracing his calling and his skills increasing, plus he has that better armour now, but really, it seems more like adding bodies to try to increase the spectacle without any thought about what made the first season’s fight sequences so engaging.
And then there are the ninjas. Apparently well-armed thugs and street gangs aren’t enough of a challenge, so now we have an army of ninjas trying to take Daredevil down. Not only that, but they are running through the city of New York completely unobserved and unopposed… well they are ninjas so we expect them to be sneaky. Plus it is New York, and I am fairly convinced that the majority of its residents wouldn’t even take a second look at a bunch of men who are running down the street in pyjamas bristling with cos-play weapons. But it does strain the credibility of the situation even further. Also, you might remember that last season one or two ninjas were amazingly tough opponents. Well now there is a curious contradiction. This season Daredevil has improved so much he can now go through them like a hot knife through partially melted butter. Seriously, five, ten, thirty ninjas… numbers don’t seem to mean much anymore. But the major issue comes from the fact that although he can easily dispose of them now indicating that they aren’t that dangerous, they all somehow have the ability to hold their breath, mask the sound of their heart, and be impossible for him to ‘hear’. Seriously? He can hear their weapons moving through the air but not their clothing rustling as they move? They can hold their breath and mask their heart beats (and still continue to fight and exert themselves) so that he can’t hear them, but he can sense immobile objects in a room? He can smell the difference between military grade weapons and ordinary weapons but can’t smell anything from a room full of ninjas? He can hear someone whisper in a room half a building away, but not the guy standing two feet behind him? The show seems to want to have it both ways. The Hand ninjas are meant to be really tough opponents, but Daredevil has to be able to beat lots of them in a giant fight. So we are left with ridiculous skills being piled on top of fairly easily dispatched nameless minions.
I know that there is a willing suspension of disbelief when we watch shows like this, but when the show sets up rules to abilities and then just makes enemies ‘magically’ break these rules, it fractures the reality created and smacks of artifice. Much of the solid reality created in the first season has been jettisoned to build on the more supernatural and magical elements hinted at in the first season, like the strange Black Sky, the Hand order of mystical ninjas, the mysterious shadow war that has been running for centuries, and your typical Orientalised mysticism. The organised crime sensibility from the first season is slowly replaced this season by a mystical prophecy oriented storyline that may disappoint some. Somehow it is easier to accept science fictional elements like advanced technology, mutants, and super-powered aliens, than it is to accept supernatural and magical elements in a show and still regard it as having an element of realism. Certainly it was a sticking point for me. I know that the first season laid out the breadcrumbs for this development and it is a natural progression of the storyline, but still, I couldn’t help but feel the show lost something when it turned to face this supernatural threat rather than focus more on the crime and gang storylines. I was all set for a season dealing with the rise of various gangs and gang warfare as they competed to fill the vacuum left by Fisk’s imprisonment, what I got instead was the first part of a season about that and then a mystical prophecy story. This is particularly galling when you consider how full the storylines for this season are.
In the 13 episodes there are a number of different plot threads that are teased out and explored. We have the slightly saccharine (and dare I say clichéd) romantic subplot between Daredevil and Karen, the professional and platonic relationship between Daredevil and Foggy, the street crime gang war storyline, the introduction of the Punisher and investigation of his background, the narratively contrived introduction of Elektra and her romantic subplot with Daredevil, the return of the Hand and the mystical storyline, the return of Stick, oh and a major court case and legal corruption storyline. To say that this was an ambitious season in terms of the ground Daredevil wanted to cover is a massive understatement. Due to the complexity of interweaving these various storylines, there are moments when aspects feel rushed and hurried, and not given sufficient exploration. Additionally, the timing of the various events within the show began to feel more and more contrived as Daredevil was placed in a continuing series of events that conflicted with one another again and again.
There was more than enough material in just the arrival of the Punisher, the street crime and those related threads to fill the full season, and that would have left room at the end to set up the entrance of Elektra for season 3. But there is no point in wishing for things that didn’t happen, so instead we need to focus on what was there, and there was one last thing that truly chafed, and that was the series of volte-face demonstrated by nearly all the main characters. The second half of the season is slightly marred by the fact that almost every character undergoes a major and fairly sudden reversal of opinion, and often these are triggered by the least convincing of reasons. Now I am fairly certain that a lot of viewers won’t find these as annoying as I did, especially as there are reasons given within the narrative for these shifts in perspective, but in conjunction with the narratively convenient timing of events, the often contrived situations that lead to the confrontations, and the over-used scheduling conflicts, the entire storyline began to feel more and more artificial. So the entire tone of the first season’s gritty, organic, and grounded street-level crime drama, escalated to melodramatic proportions.
But let’s talk about the positives. This season of Daredevil breaks out the big guns, both literally, with the introduction of Frank Castle a.k.a. The Punisher (Jon Bernthal), and canonically, with the introduction of Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), the assassin and long-time love interest of Daredevil. Both Bernthal and Yung are brilliant additions to the cast, and their characters work really well as mirrors of Daredevil himself. It is this thematic and character mirroring aspect that I absolutely loved about Season One and now again in Season Two. To recap, in Season One we had Daredevil held up in comparison and contrast to Wilson Fisk. Both were men acting outside the law to create their version of a better Hell’s Kitchen. They both had their own standards, code, and vision of what Hell’s Kitchen could be and should be. They were both willing to commit acts of violence to achieve this. They both came from humble beginnings to achieve great and/or terrible things, depending on your perspective. But were Fisk used organised crime to pursue his dream of gentrifying the neighbourhood, Daredevil fought crime to reclaim it for the ‘native’ inhabitants. It was fascinating to watch the parallels play out as the two men found themselves as adversaries. The crime boss and the vigilante.
In this season we meet Bernthal’s Frank Castle. An ex-military sniper whose family was killed in the crossfire between multiple gangs involved in a drug deal. Once recovered from his injuries he begins a one man crusade to kill the criminals of the city and prevent them from committing further atrocities. About the only thing that separates him from Daredevil is his willingness to kill the criminals, that’s it. And in this day and age, when we are faced with so many awful crimes and hear stories of the guilty going free, there is a dark part of our souls that asks, ‘Why not just kill them?’ When we see the parade of child molesters, rapists, murderers and drug dealers walking free from prison only to commit further crimes, that little voice inside us makes us contemplate the death penalty. It would be easier. It would simpler. No high priced attorney could bring these villains back from the graves they deserve to lie in. And that is the very aspect of our nature that the show confronts and challenges with the character of Frank Castle. He can’t stand what he sees as Daredevil’s weakness in letting the guilty live. Letting them be charged by the police and brought to court, only to be sentenced to insulting short periods of time in prison. The Punisher doesn’t see this as justice. He is the very extension of our wrath and vengeance. He appeals to those dark impulses that want to see bad people punished.
But Daredevil is held up as a contrast to this. His character, while willing to break the law to bring the bad guys in, feels that everyone is capable of redemption. Everyone should pay for their crimes, but they should also be given the chance to repent, to change, and to better themselves. Daredevil is, at heart, a particularly Christian vigilante, and the show has never hidden his Catholicism. But in contrast to Season One when Daredevil questioned his violent means, this time around, Daredevil seems much more willing to beat and break the bad guys. His crises of conscience in this regard seem well settled. This Daredevil is more violent and brutal than last season’s and it seems natural that his major struggle this time around is whether or not to kill his enemies. It is no longer a question of whether or not to commit violence in the name of justice, but rather how much violence is justified. Lest we forget this, one of the images from the opening credits is of the statue of justice. She stands blindfolded, holding forth the scales, but almost forgotten is her other hand that holds the sword. Implicit in the very notion of law, of justice, is violence. The threat of violence and retribution that gives power to the notion of law. This is the symbol that Daredevil is tied to, justice and the law, backed by ready violence. In the case of the Punisher, he too can be seen connected to this, although, in his case, clearly he is judge, jury, and executioner. But if justice and violence are so intimately tied, where do we draw the line? And it is this very question that is at the heart of this season.
Of course, running parallel to this is the storyline with Elektra. Again, a direct comparison is drawn between her and Daredevil. They are both pupils of Stick, trained to fight in his mystical shadow war. They are both skilled martial artists. Due to casting decisions they are obviously both very attractive people. But again, Elektra is a killer and Daredevil is a vigilante. Elektra is a soldier and Daredevil more the police officer. Elektra revels in the kill, Daredevil fears to cross that line. But in this instance there is a distinction between Elektra and the Punisher. The Punisher has declared war on criminals and brought a battlefield mentality to the streets. He doesn’t enjoy killing but feels it is an absolute necessity. Elektra, on the other hand, is a soldier engaged in warfare with other soldiers, and enjoys killing, even when it isn’t strictly necessary. The rules of combat would seemingly apply in the majority of the situations in which Elektra finds herself, but questions still arise about the correct way to deal with enemy combatants. Clearly captured enemy ninja-assassin soldiers can’t be handed in to the police, so what does one do with them? Elektra’s view is of course to kill them. So Daredevil is once again confronted with the question of whether or not to kill, but in a slightly different context. Therefore the question of personal ethics, morality, and the state of one individual’s conscience is placed in direct contrast to the utilitarian needs of the greater good and common-sense pragmatism.
This is the aspect of Daredevil that I truly enjoyed. Every time the show delved into the different motives and rationales of the characters, every time they raised these ethical questions, even the times it was done without subtlety or finesse, I felt more interested and engaged in the story. But that might just be me. For the majority of fans this season will no doubt entertain. There are plenty of fights, loads of action, great characters and lots of different storylines to keep you entertained. You might find the pacing a little uneven at times, particularly as they transition between the various plotlines and sometimes grind to a dead halt to discuss the more ethical and philosophical questions raised, but the story still moves along at a fairly good clip. Personal preferences aside, the majority of the performances are in the range of solid to excellent, and therefore there is a lot to like about this season. So while it may not have hit the highs I wanted for it, I have to admit that it is still pretty damn good television, an still one of the best superhero shows around.