Marvel Netflix Series: DAREDEVIL (Season 2) ... Is the Best Rambo Movie Since First Blood
The third in a series on the ex-Netflix Marvel shows. More like the FUNisher, amirite?!
It’s even more explicit the second time around that DAREDEVIL is trying to be Marvel’s Batman. It leans harder than Season 1 did into the eternally intoxicating (if historically problematic) iconography of the “city on the brink” — pushing Matt Murdock’s moral dilemmas and relationship tensions much further than I expected.
In Season 2, we open on a radio broadcast warning about a heat wave; then we cross colorfully lit rooftops in high contrast and silhouette; and finally, we land on a violent confrontation in an eerie church. The cold open ends on Daredevil’s fiendish grin.
This is a show that actually understands the aesthetics of superhero comics — and crucially, the flow of action and visual kineticism of comics panels as a medium.
This show knows its strengths and plays them well. By episode 3, we’ve been treated to a rotating non-combat long take in the ER, reminiscent of the iconic Oldboy homage in Season 1 — and not long after, a new long-take hallway fight that rotates down the center of a spiral staircase, framing brilliantly choreographed, perfectly timed brutality with phenomenal precision and cadence. The sequence is pure visual poetry in violence, a deeply immersive marriage of choreography and cinematography.
That scene could serve as a summary of the creative ethos of Daredevil, at least in these first two seasons. There is an attention to detail at play that speaks to me on a deep, deep level both as a filmmaker and a plain old fan. Now that Daredevil’s world and trials are an established quantity, Charlie Cox’s (often shirtless) body actually begins to show persistent, permanent scars, even some that refer back to specific fight scenes from Season 1 — and treating no detail as too small to care about, all the recurring characters who face intense battle sequences in Season 2 actually bruise and heal from injuries in visually consistent ways over time.
Of course, these elements alone don’t make a story compelling — John Wick is a perfect example of work I view as finely crafted but narratively thin — but when the people behind a work care this much about getting every little thing right, on top of caring about delivering a rich, fully realized, satisfying narrative? The end result of that top-to-bottom commitment is that we get to feel genuinely respected as an audience. Given Daredevil arguably marked the approximate beginning of the Age of Infinite Content, as media time becomes so much more precious, this is no mean feat.
Speaking of feats of meanness, this season also improves on the show’s weaknesses. One welcome update to the formula, consistent throughout the season, is that the writers seem driven to bring Matt’s support team — Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson and Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page — much closer to the action. Though there are a few instances where Foggy’s arrival on the scene does feel a bit improbable, the way Karen finds herself at numerous sites of action and danger follows believably from her increasing, and increasingly official, investigative journalist routine. It’s a smart choice to get these charming, beloved supporting characters so integrated into Daredevil’s reality and not just Matt’s, making them feel less like they’re off on a separate track.
Where Season 1 had, for me, sort of a two-chunk structure — divided by the point in episode 7 where we learn about Scott Glenn’s irascible old rapscallion Stick and the depths of Daredevil’s backstory — this season seems broken up into discrete, smaller, authentically comics-like story arcs: episodes 1-4 neatly outline Daredevil’s hunt for Jon Bernthal’s deadly new game in town, the Punisher; then we spend a few episodes reconnecting Matt with star-crossed sex-assasssin, Élodie Yung’s Elektra, over a conflict with the most stock (ayo) of Marvel’s evil corporations, Roxxon; and then we zoom in close on Punisher’s trial and imprisonment, before launching into an extended home stretch that lays out the extent of the conflict between some tasty, mysterious, ancient-ish martial arts cabals. If that doesn’t sound like about a year’s worth of story arcs for a mainstream superhero comic, I don’t know what does.
Now…about the Punisher.
Introducing Frank Castle as an antagonist is a very clever move — and even moreso as a foil to specifically this show’s take on Daredevil as a character. After all, where Netflix Daredevil’s core conceit is his Batmanesque obsession with the difference between vigilante justice and murder…the Punisher’s literal whole deal is being like, “I am the one superhero that absolutely kills bad guys and I love it so much when I am murdering people.”
It helps this case tremendously that Jon Bernthal is…fucking incredible? Like, actually delivering a rich, nuanced, bone-chilling, yet vulnerable performance?? I’ve already said that Season 1 of Daredevil kinda shits all over the non-Loki MCU shows on Disney+…but this take on Frank Castle alone puts most “MCU Proper” from Civil War onward to absolute shame. Nearly every recent Marvel (or Star Wars) series frankly (ayoo) looks like a kids’ cartoon next to this goddamn performance.
Episode 4, “Penny and Dime,” opens with a winking replay of the post-teaser opening scene from episode 1: we’re again introduced to a fresh new group of gangsters who are treated with gravitas and significance, immediately followed by a violent twist on our expectations. Where E1’s twist was that all of them but one are gunned down suddenly before the opening titles — by the Punisher, of course — this time it’s that a new face on the scene shows up and sneakily executes the presented Mob Boss Guy and redirects the gang’s operational agenda — toward finding the Punisher, of course.
The same episode also ends with one of the best scenes I’ve seen anywhere in some time: when Castle appears to be taken down by Daredevil — a moment many of us probably expected to be the endpoint of Punisher’s arc, late in the season — Bernthal launches into a full-on, uncontrived First Blood war-trauma monologue that tells us Frank Castle’s arc is only just beginning, inarguably cementing the character as one of the richest and deepest in superhero franchise media.
The episode doesn’t even quit there. That high point is quickly followed by a moment of genuinely poetic romantic drama between Matt and Karen — a wordless exchange centered on a drop of rain rolling across her skin — that makes most other supposedly romantic beats in these franchises feel undernourished by contrast. Just as Castle’s E4 monologue would feel perfectly at home in a great anti-war film, this is the kind of emotional chord I expect, in all sincerity, from a great indie lesbian drama; not a hero-driven action-thriller.
Before I hurt your feelings by saying this show has like two flaws, why not subscribe to the EASY ANSWERS weekly content roundup? I promise next time I’ll say your fave is perfect.
I admittedly start to have some trouble in episode 5, struggling to buy the way newspaper editor Mitchell Ellison (played by Geoffrey Cantor, a much cooler name) is suddenly happy to print Karen’s hard-hitting investigative crime reporting pitches after all the guff he gave Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall, also a much cooler name) over exactly that in Season 1. This is the first instance of the main recurring problem with this season for me, which is that the writers play their hand so close to the chest, slow-rolling sooo many reveals — over the course of 13 whole episodes, remember — that some of their asks of us feel like too much, for too long, before being explained.
To wit: eventually, it’s heavily suggested that Ellison feels tremendous guilt about his role in Urich’s last days and sees his relationship with Karen Page, Urich’s protege, as a chance at redemption — and don’t get me wrong, that kind of guarded unveiling of character and motivation is, for me, a very welcome breath of subtlety in superhero media. The problem here is that when such a reveal is spelled out nine hours later instead of one hour later, as it might be in a feature film, it screws with the ratio of how much of our time-spent we’ve been able to actually relate with a given character. (And though Ellison’s guilt about Ben is made explicit, the way in which it relates to his willingness to alter the paper’s direction for Karen really is never spelled out. We still have to just infer that part and hope that it’s what the writers were going for.)
The area where this is most troublesome is with Elektra, who’s such an essential piece of Daredevil lore that her introduction should have felt like an unequivocal slam dunk — and yet, she’s completely overshadowed by Frank Castle throughout this season. Bear with me as I come back around to this.
First, to be direct, something about Élodie Yung’s inhabiting of the character just never quite clicks for me — perhaps because I grew up with the comics iconography just enough to have the character’s classic costume and musculature etched in my brain forever. I’ve always seen Elektra as more of a buff, earthy, butchy-femme warrior, where this version is much more of a high-femme, high-society, Bond-girlish Wispy Vixen Who Also Fights type. I don’t blame Yung herself for this at all, but it is the first major character choice I strongly disagree with the show over, and I do think she was somewhat miscast in terms of pure physicality. It’s a shame, because she’s clearly a strong actor, and I’d have loved to see her bring this sultry energy to a more fitting Marvel icon like Spider-Man’s feisty Catwoman analogue, Felicia Hardy / Black Cat.
To dig a little deeper into the issue, the flashbacks surrounding Elektra — especially, but not exclusively, those around her past with Matt — just feel less true-to-life than Season 1’s flashbacks surrounding Battlin’ Jack, Stick, and the Fisk family. For too much of Season 2, as in my criticism of Jessica Jones Season 1, it simply feels too implausible that Younger Matt would keep meeting such violent, hellbent assassin-mentors throughout his past. It could have been written to spell out a tragic narrative where his whole life path has been steeped in these ideology-warping influences he could hardly avoid, but in real practice it just doesn’t feel like that’s what’s going on.
Now this is the point in my notes where I wrote: “And I’m sorry, but there’s also just no way that woman was interested in a college-aged Matt who was probably living off a diet of ramen noodles.” If you’ve ever had to hang around many 21-year-old matriculating USAian cis boys and borne witness (or pathogens) to the subterranean standards of hygiene, grooming, and habitation they’re typically held to, the premise of Yung’s mature, confident, self-assured Elektra falling for one so quickly becomes honestly absurd. I’m sure it’s happened — but like a lot of things that actually happen in real life all the time, it’s a lot to ask of an audience to take for granted in a movie.
There’s that pattern I mentioned earlier, rearing its head again: her relationship history with Matt gets far more believable later on — once we learn that she was a Stick agent on assignment all along, fulfilling the classic “At first you were a mission, but then I fell in love with you!” trope from The X-Files and beyond. Unfortunately, by the time we find that out, we’ve for too many episodes been expected to invest emotionally in a romantic arc and grounding backstory that, on its face, has never made any real sense. Not only was Younger Elektra at least a full order of magnitude outside of Younger Matt’s softball (softboi?) league, but their Younger Chemistry also feels too familiar — too rooted in where the characters are at the time of their present-day reunion. You could write the latter off as an early signal of the fact that Elektra was doing an act, but it doesn’t convey that either — and it doesn’t feel intended.
There’s a lot for me to chew on intertextually as well as ideologically in the back half of the season, where we get into grappling with depictions of the US legal system and a covert, ancient, international conflictspiracy.
Episode 7, “Semper Fidelis,” starts on a dicey scene where mainly Black prospective jurors have proto-fascist Punisher support put in their mouths, while mainly white jury candidates pretty fairly call him a fascist and an animal. I’m completely certain this was unintended, an obvious result of creators just not thinking hard enough about the racial implications of which background character says which line — but that doesn’t make it without real material impact and influence. (That said, I do love the way that cold open closes on a powerfully grim shot of Frank’s face framed by the US flag.)
Episode 8, “Guilty as Sin,” is a turning point on numerous axes. I had already been thinking all along that this season was Daredevil’s version of The Dark Knight — and Stick’s inevitable explication of the League of Shadows-like occult ninja cabal, The Hand, makes Season 1 feel, retroactively, like a stealth iteration of Batman Begins. This effect is magnified further when Stick reveals how The Hand once labelled him “the Chaste,” which we’re later led to infer is now the moniker for the organization of super-sexy counter-operatives he’s apparently been cultivating for decades.
(As a quick aside, Stick feels from the feet up as if, even back in the Daredevil comics of the 80s, he must have been written to one day be played by David Carradine; hell, there’s even a Kung Fu reference in Season 1 that can’t help feeling like it winks at this. No shade against Scott Glenn, who’s fantastically gravelly and committed in the role, but I have to wistfully wonder what might have been if Carradine had lived to play this part.)
Going back to the parallels with The Dark Knight: one metatextual thorn that occurred to me here is that it gets tricky to pick apart where this series was modeled after the wildly commercially successful Nolan Batman trilogy, versus where the two franchises are merely both pulling from a shared iconography and body of ideas, because both are so deeply rooted in the superhero comics of the 80s — specifically, the work of visionary-turned-actual-fascist Frank Miller, who set the defining aesthetic and narrative gold standards for both Batman and Daredevil in the early to mid-80s.
Is it that this series is an attempt to shape a Marvel franchise around Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which was itself deeply influenced by Miller’s iconic graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (as well as Anarchist/occultist Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke)? Or is it just that both this series and the Nolan films both have their roots in the comics writing and aesthetics of the same period — and even the same bitter old asshole?
A crucial point of diversion between the two franchises, though, is their implicit politics. It’s not an unheard-of interpretation to read The Dark Knight, which was released at the tail end of the illegitimate Bush regime, as an apologia for the Iraq War. It insists to us that “the hero we deserve” is not the same thing as “the hero we need” — and, one is left to assume, vice versa — a verbal ninjutsu of empty sophistry from a film that also explicitly lauds Batman’s extralegal freedom to cross national borders and implement whatever “justice” he desires. After all, “Batman has no jurisdiction.”
(Obligatory note that MCU gleefully dipped its own toes into this poisoned water in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier — “The Dora Milaje have jurisdiction wherever the Dora Milaje find themselves to be” — but I digress.)
While Daredevil thus far could reasonably be read as falling into a similar mentality, the difference is that where Nolanverse Batman pretty much only has sycophants egging him on via Nolan’s takes on Gordon, Alfred, Lucius, etc, this Matt Murdock faces a legitimate ideological push and pull from Nelson and Page. This dynamic hits something like a thesis in episode 9, “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” where Foggy — whom we understand to be a voice of reason and, basically, Matt’s externalized conscience — signals a stark contrast in politics from those of Nolan’s films:
“You don’t get to create danger, and then protect us from that danger.”
Few turns of phrase could more cleanly call to mind the poisons of the Bush era.
Reflecting that moral dichotomy, when this season starts to lean all the way into the show’s legal drama aspects — which I already wanted more of in Season 1 — it ends up being Foggy who gets to shine in the courtroom, Doing It By The Books, because Matt’s too wrapped up in his extralegal nighttime Daredevil business. This reaches a climax toward the end of the aforementioned E8, when Castle delivers a monologue to chill anyone’s veins, screaming “I am the Punisher!” to the court and tanking his own case. From there we go to the reveal of Vincent D’Onofrio’s utterly transcendent Wilson Fisk in prison, and as we soon learn, he’s offered Frank Castle one more shot at revenge — as long he lands on the inside.
This is followed by an amazing ten-minute cold open at the top of “Seven Minutes in Heaven” that lovingly recounts what old Fisky has been up to since landing in prison at the end of Season 1. Unsurprisingly, what he’s been up to is: taking over prison.
Among several purposes this top-shelf opening serves, my personal favorite is the smoothness of execution with which it sets up Fisk finally calling himself the “Kingpin” of the place. Rather than taking the easy move of sticking it on a newspaper front page, as we did with the term “Daredevil” at the end of Season 1, or blaming the name on law enforcement as we do with the Punisher, instead they slyly break Kingpin’s symbolic rebirth in two by first having another inmate refer to himself as the prison’s kingpin — only to have Fisk appropriate the term as a counter many scenes later, as casually as any line has ever been delivered, once he’s got the guy by the balls.
It’s a strange new world we live in where these comics franchises have taught us to anticipate and expect and look forward to these reveals of things we already know before they start — yet they still need to find ways to ease us into these reveals without coming off as too obvious, hokey, or entitled to our suspension of disbelief.
The last few episodes are dense with genre trappings and juicy, satisfying tensions. There’s one especially well executed sequence of thriller-y parallel revelation where Karen Page and Frank Castle simultaneously discover a massive law enforcement coverup in different places, by different means. There’s a ton more hinting-and-hawing, and actual onscreen imagery this time, about the mysterious “Black Sky” bioweapon(?) only mentioned briefly in Season 1. And perhaps coolest of all, there’s an unexpected turn into torture-pornish body horror where DD discovers what can only be described as The Blood Prison™: a room full of malnourished people in cages, hooked up to an intricate network of intravenous tubes — like a mix of Fury Road’s human “blood bags”; this unsettling sculpture I saw in a museum once that was just a bunch of arbitrary blood-tubes all around a humanoid figure; Donald Trump’s actual concentration camps; and the “tape recorder room” from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. (Don’t google it unless you’re definitely okay with spoiling a wonderful experiential moment in an all-time great video game.)
There’s also inventive play with physicality in combat. The Kingpin-Punisher prison brawl is followed immediately by Daredevil’s battle with The Hand’s mysteriously resurrected Ninja President, Peter Shinkoda’s Nobu Yoshioka, creating a spellbinding contrast: Fisk and Castle take big, wild, animalistic swings, freely letting themselves absorb heavy blows like tanks — where Nobu’s confrontation with Daredevil is more ≈realistic and tactical, each block followed by a quick, opportunistic counterattack. It’s like the difference between watching moshing and ballet, or UFC and fencing.
(Speaking of, how tf is there still no AAA Daredevil game in the vein of Spider-Man for PS4 or the Batman Arkham series?)
There’s also plenty of late-game character development. It took me longer than it should have to realize that, where Season 1 was drawing parallels between Matt’s and Fisk’s respective father figures, Season 2 had been drawing parallels between the respective redemptions — or really, the redeemability — of Frank, Elektra, and Matt. A subtle touch in this direction is that in the climactic series of beautifully staged large-group fights in the finale, when these three bad bitches finally team up, Elektra and Punisher kill…a lot of ninjas…and Daredevil doesn’t blink so much as an eye at it.
He doesn’t even seem to notice anymore.
When the dust settles, the season’s ending is kind of superb. Between Matt’s reveal of his double life to Karen, the ultimate elusion of The Hand and the Black Sky, and a moody cemetery scene I could have simmered in for hours, I’m honestly impressed by how much the show was willing to leave unsaid and unexplained. Some of that, of course, is about leaving us on a cliffhanger, begging for more — that old linchpin of serialized pulp storytelling, especially superhero comics, and now for better or worse the cornerstone of the Marvel Model that has conquered the Universe — but some of it is also just good, old-fashioned, writerly restraint.
If there’s one thing superhero media since Daredevil needs more of, it’s restraint.
Season 2 of Daredevil is a high-water mark of the superhero metagenre.
This is not to say it’s perfect. On top of my aforementioned issues with the excessive slow-rolling of information, antagonists like Roxxon or the Irish mafia fade away and/or resolve too easily. Side characters get dropped more casually than any in Season 1 (though still not as often as in Jessica Jones.) The more limited flashback structure in this season also doesn’t cut quite as deep as S1’s deeply grounding use of flashback. And though it’s no knock against Season 2, there’s no denying that this season does confirm my expectation that S1 would forever remain a kind of special, self-contained, magical experience, rooted as it is in the unavoidably temporal narrative of the “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” as a nascent, unknown NYC quantity — and the early, blossoming tensions between his and Wilson Fisk’s irreconcilable moral crusades.
It also doesn’t have to be perfect, because — as I discussed in Jessica Jones Season 1 Is Way More Racist Than You Remember — major superhero media has more or less always expected us to grade it on a curve. I do not believe we should comply with that expectation — but thakfully, Daredevil is one of the few pieces of mainstream comics-inspired content that genuinely does not dare (ayooo) to demand that of us.
Season 2 of Daredevil didn’t have to be perfect. Not because we should temper our expectations of popcorn hero franchises, but because excellent is good enough.
P.S. — Shout out to the dinner date scene at one of the iconic Indian restaurants on 2nd Ave with the bazillions of pepper-shaped lights overhead. NYC pride babeyy.
This piece is part of an ongoing series. Find the other parts below:
Daredevil (Season 2)
SINISTRA BLACK is an LA-based writer-director, Transgender Anarchist killjoy, and unmuscular, watery, femme4femme witch.
She is available for hire or fight choreography, but she will
not do John Woo’s doves.
For less-glowing Marvel fuckery, check out Jessica Jones Season 1 Is Way More Racist Than You Remember. If you like revenge but not Tom Hanks, try DEAD EYES: On Hating the Nicest Guy in the World. If neither, wow how dare u tbh
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