Note: This is a spoiler-free review that will have a zero-tolerance policy on spoilers, hints, and smug “just wait and see” references in the comments. First one gets deleted, second gets you banned. We’ll have a more spoilerrific post later in the week. -TK
There’s a moment in Season Two of Netflix’s Daredevil where our titular hero (Charlie Cox) is face to face with the vengeful killing machine dubbed The Punisher, aka Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal). It’s a tense, complex scene, taking place on a darkened Hell’s Kitchen rooftop, between two radically different idealogues. And it has two lines that perfectly sum up not just Matt Murdock/Daredevil, but the overall theme of the entire season. In the first instance, Murdock says to Castle, “Something tells me you don’t take breaks. You know, no one else has to die. You can stop now… walk away.” To which Castle somewhere between irate and confused, “Walk away? Could you do that? Could you walk away?”
That’s Daredevil, encapsulated — a hero who is unable to walk away, unable to quit on his crusade to save his tiny little corner of the world from the darkness that pervades and invades it. Season Two of Daredevil is another solid showing from Netflix and Marvel Studios, taking all of the things that made the first season great — stellar, hyper-realistic fight scenes, dark and gorgeous urban cinematography, and a powerful emphasis on the human element in both his heroics and his relationships — and ratcheting them up. As such, the tension is increased, the stakes are higher, the enemies fiercer, and the stories more complex.
It works most of the time, particularly at the beginning of the season, with the introduction of Castle, a one-man army who sees himself as a lethal and permanent solution to Hell’s Kitchen’s problems, and the new femme fatale, Elektra Natchios, a deadly woman from Murdock’s past, whose agenda becomes murkier with each episode. Their stories are woven into a dense plotline involving city politics, the efforts of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) to maintain his power while behind bars, and the oncoming menace of a mysterious army of ninjas known only as The Hand.
It’s a hell of a mix, and it’s a tribute to the show’s writers and directors that you’re able to follow along these complicated and multifaceted stories without missing a beat. Throughout it all, we’re still dealing with the human, non-hero side of things, represented by Murdock’s increasingly tempestuous relationships with his law partner and friend Foggy Nelson (Eldon Henson) and the developing romance with Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). That human element is, unfortunately, what drags the series down the most. Henson gets the lion’s share of the shit work when it comes to being Murdock’s moral compass, taking what was a jovial-but-concerned character in the first season and developing into a borderline hysterical mess in the second. It gets to the point where it starts to feel like this:
Murdock: Foggy, I didn’t tell you but my ninja assassin girlfriend is here and there are terrifying bad guys killing people and I’m freaking out and I need to help and…
Foggy: I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU LIED TO ME AGAIN
I mean, come on. Using a friend to develop conflict and complexity is worthwhile, but the writing around Nelson stumbles terribly. Similarly, Karen Page serves a similar purpose as the moral foil for Frank Castle. Page, fortunately, is redeemed in the back third of the season, where she finally has a chance to develop into a character with her own voice and agency, a development I was happy to witness. As for Murdock himself? Cox continues to do an excellent job with his portrayal, even if oftentimes his inner turmoils feel like more of the same, like the arguments he has with Nelson and Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple are the same tapes being replayed.
But the season’s strongest points are undoubtedly Bernthal’s intense, gripping portrayal of Frank Castle and a phenomenal performance by Elodie Yung as Elektra. Bernthal is everything Punisher fans have been waiting for — fierce and single-minded, deliberate and unflinching, a man with nothing left in his life but vengeance. He’s a force of nature, a killer with a clear-cut sense of right and wrong in his mind, the only thing that tempers the burning hornet’s nest of fury in his heart. Bernthal handles the character beautifully, and he’s the second-best thing to happen to the series. But the best is unquestionably Yung as Elektra, a character who could easily have been played off as a deadly sexpot. And while she is unquestionably both deadly and sexy, Yung’s portrayal is more than that, a confident, sardonic, self-possessed woman who lets little stand in her way. Her scenes with Cox are the highlights of the show, and every time they’re apart from each other you find yourself feeling wistful for their reunion. Their chemistry is heady as hell, whether they’re flirting or fighting, and I never grew tired of it.
The show wouldn’t be what it is without its stellar action choreography, and that’s maintained here. The fight scenes are brutal and harsh and realistic, even if the gore is perhaps a smidge too much at some moments. But there’s always this element of exhaustion to them that makes them feel not just more real, but more human. Gone is the invincible stamina and quickness of The Avengers — instead, Daredevil always feels like he’s on the verge of collapse, a man who drives himself far beyond his limits in his quest for what’s right. He fights until he literally cannot fight anymore, and then he eventually patches himself up, dusts himself off and achingly heads back out there, because if not him, who? It makes for fights with a much higher sense of stakes, a much grittier, gutsier form of violence that’s less stylized than we’re perhaps accustomed to — in the best possible way.
I said there were two lines in that soon-to-be iconic confrontation between Daredevil and the Punisher that perfectly represent this season’s arc. That second one is pure Castle, bitterly criticizing Daredevil:
“You know what I think of you, hero? I think you’re a half measure. I think you’re a man who can’t finish the job.”
That’s a surprisingly telling and apt criticism, though not in the way he means it. What makes the character great, and by extension the show itself, is that it’s so good at showing that the fight is never done. And Daredevil, by desperately clinging to that one unbreakable rule — thou shalt not kill — will always have challenges ahead of him. Some of them new, some of them old. The cycle seems eternal, because he’s a man who will fight and bleed and suffer, with only his faith in that rule and his faith in the system, to guide him — faith that he knows may well be misguided. But it doesn’t matter. Rules can’t be broken and faith must be followed, and it’s that ethos that makes the character so compelling, and it’s the way it’s conveyed — through writing and incredibly strong characters — that makes the show, even in its darkest moments, so enjoyable.