Welcome back to a feature I’m doing this summer called “The Road to The Defenders.” The concept is pretty simple. Between now and August I am going to be watching the Netflix MCU shows a second (or third) time through in the build up to the monumental team up hitting Netflix on August 18th. I won’t be reviewing the shows per se, more just reflecting on the way the episodes feel with the full scope of the first two and a half years of the project now in view. In particular, I want to explore what feels different in retrospect from the first viewing. For those who haven’t watched these shows yet, I will give a SPOILER WARNING that I’ll be talking about the shows without concern for revealing anything that happens in the story lines. This week we are looking at Daredevil Season Two. If you would like to catch up, scroll through The Defenders tag on the site.
(This week we are taking a large chunk [Episodes 5-13] largely because we are running out of time. Only about four weeks left until The Defenders releases to Netflix.)
The back half of the second season of Daredevil is a shift from the Punisher as the main plot point to Elektra and the Hand as the main characters. The shift is gradual but noticeable. Given the last portion of this feature talked a lot about Jon Bernthal, this installment will just include a few thoughts on the Punisher part of the series. Perhaps the best part of the show is the stuff where Punisher is in prison, particularly his show down with Kingpin. Those two actors are stars and the energy when they share the screen is electric. Vincent D’Onofrio‘s performance is great because it is different from Season 1. Some fans were concerned that the Kingpin wasn’t evil enough, or too unsure in his origin story. We see the ratcheting up of the pure villainy from D’Onofrio. Fisk is a man who has made his decision, he is the man of “ill intent” and he is going to live up to that identity. While the show is wise to save up Kingpin’s return for another season (leave some of your powder dry), it will be marvelous when he does come back, with both Daredevil and Murdock in his sights.
The tail end of the season sort of whimpers out on the Punisher storyline. His pursuit of the Blacksmith and the major plot twist are fine. They just don’t have as much depth of storytelling as the first half. Character development stalls out a bit as Frank becomes his comic namesake. While he has a great scene or two with Deborah Ann Woll, one can fairly question if that means little in the end. She begs him to be merciful and he kills the Blacksmith anyway. That seems to cement his role in the universe. Gone is the conflicted father and arrived is the merciless killer. Blowing up his home seems to further that dehumanization of the character. Will we enjoy him if he becomes remorseless or unconflicted? And if he doesn’t, will The Punisher be untrue to the developments in the last four episodes of this season? (Regardless, Punisher v. Kingpin Take 2 needs to happen ASAP.)
Elodie Yung‘s Elektra is an interesting conundrum for long time comic fans. She doesn’t feel super faithful to the source material. She is a bit too chatty and fun. Even though she’s a killer, in the comics she is often stoic. Yung, on the other hand, seems to love the banter part of her portrayal and plays up the chemistry with Murdock. That said, I feel like the character works. She doesn’t feel like the comic version, but I like her a lot more. It becomes clear that her party facade is often conniving and planned, but you can understand Murdock’s interest. How she could feel intoxicating to Matt makes sense.
My one concern with Elektra’s arc is the way that Daredevil slowly falls for her and ends up confessing love right before the final battle on the roof. While you can see why Elektra would be a great college fling for Murdock, he seems like he should be too smart to fall for her crap after a decade. His inability to stand firm in his knowledge that she is ultimately a bad influence on him is a regression of character for me. Some of those developments may sit ultimately in the demands of the larger piece. One can imagine the showrunner(s) of The Defenders slipping a note that said “Make Matt isolated by end of season” and forcing some of the destructive decisions he makes late in the season. Karen and Foggy are too important to Season 1 Matt to make his rejection of them in Season 2 feel genuine for my tastes.
The flashbacks with Stick and Elektra are helpful to make them both, and Matt, fuller characters. Comparing and contrasting Matt and Ellie is a helpful exercise in making Stick’s treatment of Murdock a little clearer, if not more understandable. Stick really is prepping for war and he doesn’t want people who are well balanced. Murdock was always too human for Stick’s needs. He needed a psychopathic killer, like Elektra.
Thematically, there is a lot of interesting discussions in this season about what a person is or isn’t. Characters often wax philosophical about existential concerns. Punisher talks about he and Daredevil being the same person at their core, just with different methods. Several times Elektra and Daredevil go back and forth about whether or not he can accept her “the way she is” or if she should resist the character attributes Stick and others have put on her. Stick clearly sees the two of them as fundamentally different in their core. Elektra deals with major identity issues surrounding whether or not she is the “Black Sky.” While none of it goes much past Freshman Philosophy class kind of thought, it is interesting to see Matt extol the idea of making your own identity while other characters seem to feel stuck in their core identity. A little more attention could have brought out some interesting conversations about Western and Eastern philosophical traditions as well, seeing as the clash of Western and Eastern cultures are a necessary part of Daredevil/Hand story.
The Hand is introduced well, though many fans now are torn due to issues involving that bunch in Iron Fist. At the time many complained about the mythology of the Hand being convoluted. It doesn’t strike me as that big of a problem. No, we don’t know how draining blood and putting it into a sarcophagus brings someone back to life. Then again, is it really so crazy to have an ancient magical ritual with blood? Push the logic too far and you end up with a “Mithochlorian” situation where the plot is explained and everyone hates the mechanics. A little bit of mystery is fine. Obviously, the hole was a set up for a future season. The exact nature of the “Black Sky” is the most serious charge against the mythology, but it also makes some sense. Stick is obtuse because no one believes him when he speaks anyway. And the Hand have never had a Black Sky, so why would they know what to do with one?
Much of the action is really good in this season. The jail fight with Punisher is the most brutal one in the show yet. It is brilliantly shot and edited, including great sound work. Many of Matt’s exchanges with the Hand are great as well. Storytelling wise, his need to listen to their weapons, their discovery of that weakness, and his readjustment to listening for breath, are all told very well and simply with smart shots and edits. The show is also getting closer and closer to Daredevil swinging from buildings with the billy club ala Spider-Man. They probably will never go full comic book on that visual, but they are doing an admirable job inside the realm of more believability. The main disappointment is the final fight scene. So many comics feature fight panels where Daredevil is working his way through dozens of ninjas. That final fight, however, feels a bit tame. After all the build up, it just felt like they ran out of budget for more extras or a CGI horde. A slow mo money shot of Matt dancing thru 50 ninjas would be so good!
One final note, though a slightly petty one that many people have complained about. Karen Page’s news piece is really cringe-worthy. It is not believable as something that a newspaper would really print and almost as unbelievable as something a Netflix show would actually put into an episode. Her career is already magical. She went from a secretary to a murder suspect to the best paralegal in NYC to a professional journalist in a pretty short span. If I was working at the Bulletin, I’d want to know why the new woman who can’t write is getting an office larger than my apartment. Since they are hell bent on going that direction, the least that they could do is make her piece a real hard hitting news piece, not some sort of Hallmark fluff about New Yorkers that most New Yorkers would actually roll their eyes at.
Looking ahead to The Defenders a big question will be how the Hand story continues to develop. As we mentioned in our most recent podcast, the shows are reaching a critical point with the Hand. Season One of Daredevil planted some seeds, this season sprouted them (albeit in a way that confused some), and then Iron Fist seemed to make it all wonky. One of two things is happening. First, there is a master plan that will be innovative and different than the comics. Everything will come together and fans will go “Ah! I see what you were doing!” Second option, the shows aren’t communicating well and it’ll be all scrambled and fans will be forced to put all the pieces together in a hackneyed way. Only time will tell, but that time is growing short!