Further proof that ninjas make everything better
by Thom Yee
Even in the superhero golden age that we’re now living in (though, admittedly, this precise moment is a bit of an extreme valley, right after Batman v Superman and right before Civil War), the state of broadcast superhero television is still a little disappointing. With the mediocrity of shows like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. typifying the space, it’s fallen to the Berlanti-verse group of superhero television series (so named after their producer Greg Berlanti) to headline the genre, but even its best show, The Flash, doesn’t showcase the genre’s potential on a regular basis. It’s a likable, occasionally ambitious, and incredibly sincere show, but it’s still far too often a sloppy mess that usually only pulls itself together at its key moments while spending the rest of the season meandering until reaching its various finish lines. I mean, I love The Flash, but it’s not exactly a show that trades in depth or complexity or adult themes like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, and with all of this past season’s broadcast superhero TV shows — ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter; WB’s Arrow, Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow; CBS’s Supergirl, NBC’s Heroes, and Fox’s Gotham — past, at, or near their seasonal (or series) conclusions, that’s not a trend that’s likely to end very soon.
And then there’s Netflix.
Last spring, Netflix’s Daredevil debuted to impressive critical results, and then in the fall, Netflix’s Jessica Jones did much the same. They were mature, adult shows, and because they were on Netflix, they were able to feature a level of violence and reach down into a level of darkness that shows on national broadcasters like NBC and CBS can’t, and most critics came away so impressed by these two series that they were put on a pedestal, well above and far away from their superhero television brethren. But we didn’t exactly agree with those sentiments, with Daredevil’s first season ultimately falling short of its promising start and Jessica Jones’s first season losing the plot halfway through its run.
But that was last year, and this… well, obviously this is this year, and at the very least, I’ll admit that last year’s first season of Daredevil laid a solid foundation for this year’s second season to pick up on. With the news that Netflix’s Defenders, a teamup series featuring the aforementioned Daredevil and Jessica Jones along with the forthcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fist, is moving forward before the end of the year, Netflix’s roadmap with its Marvel properties is now more than set for the next few years, and after watching Daredevil season two, I’m prepared to say that that’s probably a good thing.
What’s going on?
Having defeated businessman and criminal Wilson Fisk and foiled his corrupt plans for Hell’s Kitchen, Matt Murdock has finally achieved success in establishing his day-time presence at his law firm, Nelson & Murdock, while protecting the streets of Hell’s Kitchen as the costumed, night-time vigilante, Daredevil. But a new kind of violence is growing in the city’s dark alleys and mean streets, criminals are being executed, a mysterious underground group of assassins is spreading in the shadows, and in the midst of all this madness, Matt, Foggy, and Karen have become the public defenders of the gun-toting maniac the press has come to call the Punisher!
If you were a big fan of Daredevil season one, you’re far from alone, and though I’m not going to say that you’re outright wrong to have liked it, I will say that you and I certainly aren’t seeing eye to eye on this one. It was a good, fine story, one that held promise and had good moments, but for me it was more than a little undercooked when it came to the bad guys that Daredevil faced, and I especially disliked Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin. The actor’s portrayal of the crime boss earned him considerable praise among fans and critics, but I couldn’t stand the guy. He felt like a Shakespearean villain in the worst… most stilted… and least… believable… sense. If reading back that last sentence felt a little familiar (and I encourage you to read it out loud with all of the hesitation that the ellipses suggest), it’s because D’Onofrio filled his line deliveries with false starts and pregnant pauses. D’Onofrio has the requisite physical presence that the Kingpin calls for, but especially after seeing how quickly and straightforwardly his criminal empire fell apart, I saw a villain who was ultimately much more bark than bite. He didn’t have the impenetrable criminal network I expected him to have, he wasn’t ahead of the game in any way that really mattered, and other than all of the times he crushed people’s heads in with his bare hands, he wasn’t very intimidating and was kind of unbearable to be around. I guess I’ll just have to accept that when it comes to Kingpin, I have a very different opinion than a lot of you, but without a formidable or even likable villain in Daredevil season one, there just wasn’t enough in the show to make me really like it.
As for our central character, I liked Charlie Cox’s portrayal of both Matt Murdock and Daredevil, though he was unbelievably reckless in his pursuit of dark, night-time vengeance, most of the time heading out without even a weapon or basic body armour, but when it came to his supporting cast, Foggy never really stopped being annoying and Karen kind of got everyone killed. Both characters lacked the kind of moments that would make them truly independent outside of their relationship with Matt, and, like the Kingpin, it was sometimes very hard to want to spend time with them.
Those were my primary grievances with Daredevil season one, and though all of that was a lot to overcome, I was still looking forward to season two, and there were three very obvious and very straightforward reasons for that:
- The Punisher;
- A version of Elektra that actually looked pretty hot; and
- Ninjas are everywhere.
Is it any good?
Oh man, Daredevil season two is so good.
I could lay out a list of grievances I had with Daredevil in its first season (I kind of just did), but most of them boiled down to one simple problem: The show lacked conviction. I just couldn’t get into the show because I didn’t believe in a lot of what was going on as it became what felt simply like levels for Daredevil to make his way through before reaching the Kingpin, the final boss of the entire video game. More than anything else, season two of Daredevil is convincing. Though it establishes its central conflicts with aplomb, it doesn’t feel like a show that’s taking its time before getting to the good stuff. The struggles our heroes face feel real and important to the people they affect, and they grow naturally from what’s happening. After the first episode establishes that things are finally going right in the Daredevil world, the season promptly begins tearing down these characters in a way that will scar them for the rest of their lives.
As an action series, I couldn’t believe how well choreographed and high-flying and brutal the fights are. This isn’t Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. where I have to begrudgingly accept that actors only have so much time to train and budgets can only go so far, and most of the season’s action scenes had a cinematic quality that could easily stand with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s movies. I never once saw any of these actors as incapable or only able to mimic fight movies, they look well-trained, they look like fighters, and Daredevil looks like a character capable of fighting at a superheroic level. After movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that might not seem like the biggest deal, but these types of scenes have only recently arrived after years of action movies where the action was hard to follow and Batman movies where the dark knight never looked all that impressive in a fight, and we’re at a point with superhero movies where the superpowers operate on such a world-shattering scale that we need to clearly see and believe that the more human, street-level characters can compete. Last season’s hallway fight was brutal partly because it was clear how much it took out of Matt simply to survive it, but this year’s corollary in the stairwell hits so much harder just because of how much ass it kicks, and because it takes place on a confined stairwell, now it actually makes sense that the bad guys only attack one or two at a time.
Once again, Charlie Cox as Daredevil is a hero we can get behind, charming attorney by day and brooding vigilante by night, only now he’s not constantly getting himself beaten up, donning protective armour that actually makes him look like an intimidating figure. Season two Daredevil would kick season one’s ass without breaking a sweat, and this time he’s finally given a much more personal stake than simply the broad injustices of the law when his former college girlfriend Elektra shows up. Their relationship was central to the show and could be seen as the season’s primary conflict even without all of the ninjas everywhere, and the very singular, specific nature of these two characters made it very easy to believe that they would fall for each other.
Elodie Yung’s Elektra iss even more impressive as a very smart, tough, independent woman and as the lady love that Matt just can’t quit no matter how bad she is for him, and the emotional beats of their relationship made me actively care about what was going on as we learn more and more about their past, present, and her prophesied future. She’s probably the most dynamic character on the show, and her actions throughout the season are ruthless, arousing, and heartbreaking all at the same time.
The Punisher is not only almost perfectly realized with actor Jon Bernthal, but absolutely necessary as a counterpoint to Daredevil’s brand of less-permanent justice, and his mere presence raises real questions as to what’s right and wrong in this world, and the crucible he puts Matt Murdock through is crucial to shaping the hero he will be in the future. Watching the two fight (in the very first episode!) was exciting, and I loved the Punisher’s gun-centric fighting style, but seeing the places he takes Matt to in the season’s first four episodes and the sympathy and understanding eventually established between the two made me love the character even more. You can see and understand the path the Punisher takes through the season as he slowly relinquishes his own humanity.
This year, even Foggy and Karen are given moments to prove their worth. In season one, Foggy never really stopped being annoying, but this year I actually started to like him from pretty early on, and it’s not because he experienced some sort of major character change, but because he was used in a way that made him shine as an attorney a lawyer and a dear friend. Karen finally gained her own agency as a capable character who wasn’t monumentally naïve and eternally vulnerable, and the brief romance she experienced with Matt served to show why she was an attractive character in her own right and, no matter what happens, probably much better for Matt in the long run.
The action and character work this season is such a turnaround that the problems with the season almost pale in comparison, but they are definitely there for those who are looking. The season is propelled forward by compelling action and a sense of foreboding, apocryphal danger, but by the time we learn more about that danger, it feels badly seeded and not ultimately a perfect match for what I had hoped for. Without recalling the hints of Black Sky from last season, it almost feels like a development that comes out of nowhere, and similarly the Hand ninja clan, though formidable, never becomes truly dangerous as led by Nobu, the Yakuza leader from season one. Through Nobu, we learn very directly about the immortal danger that the Hand represents, but every time he comes back from the brink of death, it’s almost more silly and annoying than worrying. There’s also a wrinkle in the Punisher’s backstory that ties into a villain known as the Blacksmith, an unassailable drug dealer, that kind of fizzles through bad storytelling choices that feel more like a ham-fisted attempt to fit more Punisher origin in before his own inevitable show. Finally, the hospital drama with night nurse Claire (Rosario Dawson) is tacked on, and though I’m happy to see the character return, the whole hospital cover up backstory is almost entirely forgettable. I actually did forget about it until I started writing this paragraph and had to think about bad things in the show.
So should I see it?
In season two, Daredevil became a compelling, dangerous, sexy show that, unlike the previous two Marvel Netflix series (particularly Jessica Jones) was nearly impossible not to binge watch. All of its main characters worked and contributed to the show as a whole, it asked important questions about the brand heroism it presented, it left our heroes in very different places than they started from, and as an action series, it’s probably one of the most impressive things I’ve seen on television.
If you’re one of those people who absolutely loved Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, you might be more than a little disappointed at this season’s villains, but if you’re like me, the heart and emotionality at the core of the show, particularly the rekindled love between Matt and Elektra, more than made up for that, and having that key emotionality firmly in place throughout most of the season made me care and kept me going every step of the way.
Thom’s Daredevil season 2 final score
On the Edge
- Remember when Bernthal was just that goof on the How I Met Your Mother pilot?
- “Are you injured? Do you want to be?” Sometimes I think these TV nurses got into their professions just so they could be rude to everyone.
- Matt’s hair’s a lot better this season.
- A Mercedes, followed by a Dodge, and then a Chrysler? S’matter Irish Mafia, couldn’t afford luxury vehicles for your henchmen?
- He ordered a Macallan neat, just like Jeff Winger!
- You can’t just flush headsets down the toilet! That’s how they get plugged!
- Is this really the first time Clancy Brown has appeared in the MCU? That seems weird.
- So was Stick’s driver just sitting in his car all night and the next day after?
- Where does Matt live? His neighbours didn’t hear the screaming of a woman in pain? Or the smashing of a ninja vs. Daredevil fight? Or see him walk in dressed as Daredevil with a bleeding woman in his arms?
- Not to mention how difficult it would be to find an apartment in New York with enough space for a major ninja fight.
- I like how Karen’s police protection tells her, “You need anything, anything at all, we’ll be just outside,” then promptly leaves her alone and takes the elevator to another floor.
- That tiny, little New York Bulletin office is so depressing.
- So Stick… he never did get the band back together, did he?