Monday, May 20, 2024

Daredevil Season 2 Review and Retrospect

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Here were are at the end of season 2. It’s been a fun ride and one I was glad to take for the second time (and counting). Today I’ll be covering both the finale, “A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen,” as well as my (mostly positive) thoughts on the season as a whole. As usual, I have a lot to blab about Daredevil this week. No time like the present.

cold day
Come ON, Karen!

There is a lot about the individual parts of “A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen” to like. However, they don’t really gel and add up into the total sum of all those parts, and instead are rushed into place alongside a few questionable decisions and oversights that rob things of the drama they should have.

As you would expect, Matt and Elektra vs. the Hand is the major focus of the episode. The Hand’s retaliation for Matt and Stick taking “Black Sky” is to kidnap people that Daredevil has helped since beginning his vigilante days, in hopes of luring Matt and Elektra into their grasp. Among these captives is Karen Page (who gets her usual awesome moment in convincing Turk to reactivate his ankle monitor). Obviously this leads Matt to try and rescue them, with Elektra at his side, and a final climactic battle that ends with the hostages rescued, the Hand defeated, and Nobu and Elektra both dead.

It’s no secret at this point that I like Matt and Elektra together on screen, and that remained mostly true here. I like their continued connection based on Stick’s very similar praise when they were children, Matt’s struggle between his dual natures allows him relate to Elektra’s struggle and make her genuinely believe she can change, and when Matt admits how important his Daredevil persona is to him/how Elektra is the only one who truly understands who he is. It’s all compelling content.

One problem, however, is that it feels very rushed. Even worse, it feels like a rushed retread of development covered over the previous few episodes. We’ve already seen Matt trying to convince Elektra she can be a good person. We’ve seen Elektra’s struggles to believe him. We’ve seen their declarations of love and their arguments over whether killing is necessary. Throwing it all at us again wasn’t entirely necessary.

And while Elektra’s ultimate decision to jump in front of the sai aimed at Matt does feel somewhat natural (her standing on the edge of the roof near the beginning was clearly foreshadowing that she at least thought about her death), it is an ultimately rushed decision. There was no indication of such thoughts before this episode. In fact, we’ve seen nothing but the opposite. I can buy that she was just pretending while Matt and her talked about running away together, but more was still needed. Perhaps a few more hints that Elektra herself did not believe she could change, and that her death was the only way to escape her fate as Black Sky would have done the trick.

The tension of that scene before the final fight is also lessened significantly by the actual numbers they face. All throughout Matt and Elektra’s conversation we see cuts of what looks like at least 40-50 Hand ninjas hurrying to the rooftop. Then they step outside and there’s maybe 15-20. Certainly big numbers, but not the “we can’t escape and will probably die” type numbers presented beforehand. These two have beat up groups of 20 ninjas all season. The late arrival of Frank Castle at the end of the fight also feels like a huge missed opportunity. Why not actually throw a good 40 ninjas at them, have Frank show up to even the odds, and really deliver the kind of fight scene this show usually does so well?

(I’ll talk about the final scene with Elektra later.)

I also have one more huge issue with the final fight scene: Nobu’s death. Why did they not make something of this?! There is absolutely zero ambiguity as to Matt’s intentions when he tosses Nobu from that rooftop. But this should have been a huge moment for his character! After a season focusing on the right and wrong of vigilante justice, here Matt straight up murders Nobu, only to have this moment taken when Nobu resurrects/wakes up/whatever and Stick actually does the job. It feels like a huge missed opportunity for something that shakes the very foundation of the show, and like with the love triangle is just another excuse to keep Matt from looking like a bad guy.

Despite these complaints, the episode certainly wasn’t bad. The buildup to that final fight was handled very well. Karen and Foggy have a great closeout scene when they settle the tab at Josie’s. I already mentioned Karen’s continued awesomeness while captive. Frank’s return to his house is just as emotional as you expect, and it’s a huge fist pump moment when he spray paints the Punisher symbol on his body armor. Foggy and Hogarth’s exchange when she offers him a position at her firm is one of my favorites of the season:

Foggy: “You mean vigilantes.”

Hogarth: “Let’s call them…people with complexities.”

Foggy: “You have no idea.”

Hogarth: “Try me.”

And while Karen’s article (at least in my opinion) doesn’t quite work, it is a decent enough speech to listen to while we get our final scenes of the episode. So, not the best episode of the season. It is arguably even the weakest. Still, less than stellar Daredevil remains solid television.

daredevil finale 1

Here we are, all 13 episodes done for the second season. How was it as a whole? Pretty freaking good.

So much of this season just clicked for me. I’ve mentioned my affinity for the whole ethical debate about vigilantism and its boundaries, and considering that was the main focus of almost all of the main characters, of course I’m going to enjoy that focus. There are many different opinions of vigilantism presented throughout. Good questions are asked, and no easy answers presented, because there are no easy answers. Every person is different, vigilantes included. It is a big part of one of the best aspects of both seasons of Daredevil; the realistic depiction of the consequences of one’s actions.

Very few times did season 2 take the easy way out to avoid facing the consequences of something the main characters did. Frank Castle’s killing spree is not treated merely as revenge porn, glorified and revered. He faces very real consequences for his actions, both at the hands of the criminals he attacks and law enforcement. Matt’s increasing isolation is not glossed over. It creates the natural separation from those close to him that should happen. Elektra’s affinity for violence is never glossed over or forgotten. Karen’s search for truth lands her in danger. Foggy’s admirable performance during the Castle trial gets him the attention it should, at the expense of Nelson & Murdock. Characters progress naturally based on the consequences of their actions. Rare are the instances where characters are not true to the characteristics that define them.

In fact, this is mostly this is true of two thing: Karen and Daredevil’s identity, and the love triangle between her, Matt, and Elektra. I already talked about the love triangle, so quick rehash; Karen’s complete avoidance of questions about Elektra in Matt’s bed is contrary to everything that defines her character, and seems to be based solely on keeping Matt from looking bad for his flaky nature regarding his love life. It is especially unfortunate because that flaky nature fits perfectly into the whole struggle between two natures that this show does so well with him. It was surprising to see the show not fully embrace that internal conflict.

As for Karen and Daredevil’s identity, well, I want to give this show the benefit of the doubt that Karen at least had some idea that Matt was Daredevil before he revealed such to her. I admit that her reaction suggests otherwise. Once again, the issue is how uncharacteristic it is for Karen not to figure this out on her own. This is a woman with an insatiable drive for truth. She spends the entire season figuring out the truth about Frank Castle through persistence and intuition. She spends the first season working hard to reveal the truth about Wilson Fisk. This is a woman who notices things and figures them out.

It would be one thing if Matt at least did a good job hiding his vigilante activities, but he doesn’t. He shows up to work covered in cuts and bruises. He has a shouting match with Foggy about Daredevil with Karen well within earshot. He’s gone constantly. Karen walks into his apartment and freaking finds an old blind ninja and a wounded woman in Matt’s bed. In the finale Matt literally talks to her in his normal speaking voice while tenderly placing a hand to her cheek. Come on! Karen Page should have figured it out right there!

The other huge issue with the season, as I’ve mentioned before, is how freaking much happens. Between the Hand, Frank, the Blacksmith, each of which on its own could almost fill an entire season itself, there was too much. This felt like a bit of an over-correction for a complaint about the first season of Daredevil (and also of Jessica Jones): that the material seemed too light for 13 episodes, causing stretches that dragged the story unnecessarily. While their seeming overcompensation didn’t cause major problems until the finale, the problem still existed. If I had to choose, I’d say the stuff with the Blacksmith should have been either dropped or had its resolution pushed into the future. Too much of an emphasis was placed on this subplot to suddenly resolve within a single episode.

(Plus it would have been the perfect starting point for a potential Punisher series. Which, if the disc with the word Micro on it is any indication, is at least a possibility. For those who don’t know, Micro is short for Microchip, Frank’s only real friend in the comics and a very important ally.)

I wish we had gotten more of this guy
I wish we had gotten more of this guy

But enough complaints. There was a lot of great here; far too much for me to completely talk about without rambling far too long.

There is the obvious, of course. The fight scenes were incredible as ever, with the stairway and the prison fights both strong candidates for the best in Daredevil’s brief history. The visuals were fantastic with some absolutely gorgeous shots, most of which involved the Daredevil costume. The acting is almost uniformly excellent. This was true of the first season, and the expanded cast did not detract at all from this.

(My only real complaint is Elden Henson as Foggy. Even then I don’t even think he’s awful, but he does not live up to the standard the rest of the cast sets.)

Whatever one thinks of the story behind it, this is a very fun show to watch. Here at Fandom Following, however, we tend to believe style means little without the substance beneath. There needs to be a reason beyond “it looks cool” for these fights and cool visuals. The acting needs to serve some real purpose.

Thankfully, Daredevil delivered that substance.

Matt Murdock is our hero, and a constant in almost every storyline. While I have voiced my complaints about some moments this seasons, I am a huge fan of the direction and ultimate resolution of his story. His ever-present internal conflict between his lives in and out of the costume was fantastic. Nothing makes good drama like realistic internal conflict, and Matt Murdock experienced that in spades in season 2. He really does believe in the law. He has always been a man who wants to have faith in the system and wants to believe anyone is capable of finding something good within. He believes that because he always needs to believe that he is capable of finding that good within.

Season 2 saw that belief pushed to its limits, and for a brief moment past them. The system failed him constantly. Be it small things like Turk the arms dealer bouncing in and out of jail or larger examples like Wilson Fisk taking over a prison, the law is not doing its part to transform Hell’s Kitchen. It is tough for Matt to truly argue Frank Castle, Elektra, or anyone else that his way is the better way when he finds it increasingly hard to believe. It is an old question existing decades in comic books, and while Daredevil did not have any particularly original spin on the argument, that doesn’t mean their version was not really well executed.

With so much of Matt’s identity tied to his belief in the law, it was only natural that with shaken belief came a pendulum swing further towards the side that puts on a costume and beats the crap out of criminals. He may protest constantly about taking the Hand down “his way,” but you notice how he never really has a plan on how to do that? They are empty words as he tries to ward off “the Devil” and keep hold of the good in him. All the while he moves further and further away from his friends towards the vigilante life. In the finale he is genuinely willing to walk away from everything and go into hiding with Elektra.

Whatever Karen’s knowledge, or lack thereof, regarding Matt’s identity, the season ending with his reveal to her was a great place to end things. Matt realizes he needs to find some middle ground between his dual natures if he wants to keep going. I can’t wait to see how this works out. Matt Murdock has no idea how to exist without his conflict with “the Devil” and I doubt it is going away any time soon.

Opposite of him throughout this season were Frank and Elektra, who were both fantastic additions to the Daredevil universe. Both characters represented the darker side of what vigilantes do and fully embraced the idea of “the ends justify the means.” Matt is the deontologist where they are the utilitarianists. There has been enough (well-deserved) praise about Jon Bernthal’s performance as the Punisher. He was frightening, fleshed out, and always compelling. His story was the most consistently compelling part of season 2. His story is what made so much of the vigilante debate so good. I’m not here to disagree with any of that.

So let’s move on for now, because Elektra deserves some praise, too.

What made her and Matt work despite the relative weakness of the story with the Hand was one word; chemistry. Maybe others disagree but I felt it every time Charlie Cox and Elodie Yung were on-screen together. Writing is great, and the writing did a terrific job paralleling Matt and Elektra, but it still comes down to the actors to make that writing count. Cox and Yung did just that. Whatever the weakness of the story they were in I greatly enjoyed watching them go through it (especially when Stick was involved).

I went into this knowing almost nothing about Elektra. Her initial appearance would have made me roll my eyes watching any other show. We’ve all seen the sexy, seductive femme fatale a hundred times by now. Thankfully it was made clear early on that there was much more to her than that stereotype. Elektra is basically a dark reflection of Matt Murdock, the person he very well might have been with a change or two to his life. She experienced the same training with Stick. She has the same internal conflict between her violent tendencies and a desire to be a better person. She feels the same loneliness from living a life no one can understand. That specifically is something Matt and Elektra find with each other that they find nowhere else.

The what and why of the Black Sky is ultimately irrelevant to me. What matters more is how it affects her character. Elektra spent her life knowing there was something about her that made killing easy. Unlike Matt, she did not have anything to convince her she was a good person. She really wanted to believe, but Matt’s efforts came too little too late.

I don’t know where the story is going with her being dug up and placed in that sarcophagus, but my initial reaction is disappointment. The sacrifice was rushed, but right. Elektra could not bring herself to believe and took the only path she believed was the right choice. It’s tragic and should have lasting consequences for Matt and Stick. I hope her seeming future resurrection does not invalidate those consequences, either for her or them. Daredevil isn’t a show that operates that way, which gives me hope.

(To go off on a quick tangent that’s Elektra related; the female characters. Oh man, the female characters. This is still an area where superhero media is behind most shows and movies, both with Marvel and DC, but Daredevil has really delivered. They delivered a full gamut of fascinating women this season. Karen, Elektra, Claire, Reyes, and all of them with their own goals and motivations that they pursued unapologetically. Things were not perfect in this regard (though at least Daredevil isn’t killing them all off). I have seen complaints of how none of these fascinating women truly interacted with each other, and I had my own about Reyes coming across as too single-mindedly evil, but I was happy to see so many interesting women on screen. Daredevil is no Jessica Jones, but I appreciate that it makes real effort here. )

As for the rest? Everyone ended somewhere that made perfect sense based on logical character progression. Karen’s natural investigative gifts lead her to a position at the Bulletin. Foggy’s strong performance in the Castle trial lands him a position with Hogarth. Frank missed his one chance to be free of a life spent murdering. It is not easy to write a story that consistently remains gripping without bending characterization. It is even harder to connect multiple stories to the same themes while maintaining those characterizations. Daredevil is certainly not perfect in this regard but both seasons have made good, honest efforts and mostly succeeded.

This is where season 2 succeeds most for me. I’m a sucker for good characters. I read dozens of criticisms of Better Call Saul for not moving fast enough and all I have is praise for how incredible its characters are. Give me strong characters and I will forgive far too much about the story they operate within. Daredevil has built a strong cast of good characters (to the point where some, like Foggy, don’t get enough screen time). This is what makes me forgive the Hand, the love triangle, the overstuffed plot, the character 180s Stick, Matt, and Elektra pull over the second half, and the other flaws this show has.

Hopefully anyone reading this has already read Wendy’s article from earlier this week, because it really reinforces this part of Daredevil’s success. Everything that happens in season 2 can be traced back to decisions made by the characters. The plot grows organically from them. It is so much more satisfying to watch a story where characters make things happen rather than things happening to characters. Daredevil makes things matter. Matt’s vigilante actions in season 1 create a power vacuum in Hell’s Kitchen that the Blacksmith filled. The Blacksmith’s power leads Reyes to authorize the sting which claimed the lives of Frank’s family. Because of the idolization of Daredevil, Frank and others get the idea to be vigilantes themselves. Frank’s murders lead to a trial and his decision to tank it leads him to Fisk. When he is let out, Reyes is murdered.

Daredevil’s characters don’t need a sick triceratops, either.

This is one relatively minor example of how three different characters all hold blame for a moment in the story. Is Matt more to blame than Reyes or Frank? Or Reyes more than Matt or Frank? It’s not an easy question, and that’s great because easy questions are boring. Every side of the vigilante debate is represented here. Every side is to blame. It’s beautiful. Daredevil revels in messy situations. Where so many stories, superhero stories especially, shy away from truly digging into the mess, Daredevil is Dr. Ellie Sattler shoving their arm shoulder-deep into it.

Season 3 looks to be no different. Elektra has been recovered by the Hand. Fisk is likely to be released soon. Matt, Foggy, and Karen are all in different places. There are also mysteries such as what exactly happened with Karen that she is hiding. With other shows I might worry what contrivances will fuel them to reunite and inspire the new villain. Instead, I’m sitting here wishing I could see now how everything that happened in season 2 will create the next conflicts that makes Daredevil so good to watch.


All images courtesy of Marvel and Netflix

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