In the US/UK: Netflix
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been going great guns for the past decade, the Marvel TV world is in a sorry old state, isn’t it? Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD was largely unwatchable in its first season until Captain America: Winter Soldier gave it a twist that made it really rather good… until the end of the season. Then it all went to pants in season 2 and I didn’t even bother with season 3. It’s about to get even worse in season 4, by the looks of it, now that the only two decent characters in the show are going to get their own spin-off series, Marvel’s Most Wanted, leaving the dregs behind.
Meanwhile, Marvel’s Agent Carter, while having far more engaging characters than SHIELD and the delights of a post-war setting to play with, had soporific, unengaging storylines. As with SHIELD, a tie in with the MCU gave the first season a welcome twist – a glimpse at the Black Widow training programme in Russia, as well as of one of its graduates
But season two was so dull, I didn’t even make it through to the end and chances of the show being renewed are slender.
I did say ‘TV’ but Netflix is different. It’s not TV. Except in Eastern Europe.
Season 1 of Netflix’s Marvel’s Daredevil is one of the best shows the Internet TV provider has so far produced, while Marvel’s Jessica Jones actually managed to exceed it, while simultaneously deconstructing all the assumptions of the superhero genre. Very adult, unencumbered by the restraints of network TV, they make superhero TV shows – and many other dramas – look very inadequate.
When originally announced, Daredevil and Jessica Jones were both part of an attempt to do an MCU-style team-up on Netflix, with the first seasons of those shows to be followed by Marvel’s Luke Cage and Marvel’s Iron Fist to introduce those superheroes, and then by Marvel’s Defenders to bring them all together in one big show. However, both individually proved so popular – Jessica Jones was the top original streamed TV programme in the UK last year – that they’ve both been renewed for second seasons ahead of schedule.
And now, with Iron Fist himself only just getting cast, here’s season two of Daredevil, with blind but superathletic New York lawyer Matt Murdock having to deal with the fall-out from his quest against Kingpin last season, as well as his attempts to escape from his old mentor, Stick. But can the second season match the quality of the first, despite losing showrunner Steven DeKnight? Has it been rushed onto our computer screens too soon? And will Daredevil himself be overshadowed by the season’s two guest ‘superheroes’ – The Punisher and Elektra, both of whom have had their own movies?
Here’s a good batch of NSFW trailers for you to enjoy. Discussion after the jump: multiple spoilers ahoy, obviously, so probably best if you watch the entire second season first – unless you don’t care about being spoiled, of course.
Is it any good?
Well, to cut to the chase, yes, it is very good and I binge-watched the whole thing over the weekend, which is something I never do. It also corrects some of the problems of the first season. However, it’s not as good as its predecessor and surprisingly, rather than learning from its counterparts over in the DC TV Universe, it makes the same mistakes they have.
Unlike both the first season and Jessica Jones, there’s no clear through line for this season, which is clearly angling for a third, given the number of answered questions and unresolved plotlines left at the end of the final episode. However, it essentially gives us two extremes, which both the show and Daredevil oscillate between according to mood.
The first five episodes involve Frank Castle aka The Punisher, craggily played by The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal in what is undoubtedly the best live action incarnation of the character. He is the magnetic allure of the hyper-real, hyper gritty aspects of the show’s first season made flesh and probably warrants his own spin-off show. A former marine sniper, Castle’s a slab of walking muscle with elite military training and enough stolen money to buy an arsenal of weaponry. Mirroring his original role in the Spider-man comics, he thinks Daredevil is a ‘pussy’ and that bad guys simply need killing, rather than locking up, otherwise they’ll simply get out to commit more crimes. It’s Daredevil’s job to show him the more caring, gentler, more moral side of punching-based vigilanteism.
Fuelled by the need to avenge his family’s death – as well as a possible brain injury – Castle’s mission is to take down criminals however he can, with fists, guns, grenades, rifles, improvised weapons or his teeth if necessary. There’s no Daredevil gymnastics, no tricky martial arts here, just smashing, breaking, locking, throwing, stabbing, head butts and whatever else works.
Slowly, over the course of these episodes and the rest of the season, Bernthal’s face and body acquires more and more wounds and bruises that only ever slowly heal, never quite disappearing.
The show gets a little bored of Castle at this point, with Elektra tagging the Punisher out of Team Adversary. The next few episodes involve this sociopathic former girlfriend of Murdock, alluded to in the first season, and her mission against the yakuza of New York City. Trained by Matt’s mentor Stick to be an assassin in his great war, she just wants Matt to give up his normal life and become Daredevil properly, with a bit of killing thrown in for good measure.
The opposite of The Punisher, Elektra represents the equally magnetic allure of the fantastic, über comic book aspects of the first season, never really getting hurt for more than a couple of minutes, despite all the bone-crunching sounds going on. Played by French-Cambodian karate black belt Elodie Yung with the same “where’s that from?” faux English accent deployed by Katrina Law over on Arrow, this Elektra isn’t as engaging as Jennifer Garner’s or even the comic book version, but thankfully has enough going for her that you never wish for Castle’s return when she’s on-screen.
Nevertheless, Elektra and her plot line are all escapist daftness, with massed ranks of sword-wielding, heartbeat-suppressing, medical-experimenting, immortal ninjas trying to gain possession of the ultimate weapon, ‘the Black Sky’, but repeatedly being beaten by a blind guy with the same training they have and Elektra, who can’t even use sai correctly. The fights here are all about gymnastic martial art moves from capoeira and wu shu that look good, but aren’t that practical against 17 people with katanas. Or even a lone Frenchman.
Essentially, the show has taken one good look at Arrow, which tried so hard to be the ‘realistic’ Batman Begins in its first and second seasons before slowly embracing the comic book silliness from the third ‘because that’s what comic book fans want’, and decided to do the same, despite the fact that the move marked a distinct downturn in Arrow’s quality. Bigger, better, more people, new moves, more magic, more things from the comics is the instinct; less plausibility is the result.
It’s even affected the returning Kingpin, with Vincent D’Onofrio’s marvellously subtle first season performance a distant memory in his sadly brief reappearances this season – all of it thrown aside in favour of his Men In Black rendition of a giant cockroach in a man suit. When he’s not chewing the scenery, he’s taking punches from Castle that felled entire prison blocks of hardened thugs just a few minutes earlier, getting barely a scratch for his troubles. Does he have super-powers now?
It’s the twin pulls of the hyper-real and the fantastical that then power the episodes, with the plot switching between Elektra and the Punisher almost at whim. Should Matt Murdock (and Daredevil) be all about the taking down of criminals and philosophical debates about the function of law in a civilised society? Or should he be saving the world from magically-powered assassins and not really caring who he kills, because, you know, they’re ninja. And they can’t be killed.
Forming the backdrop to this are the travails of Matt’s lawyer business partner, Foggy, and potential love interest, Karen, only one of whom knows that Matt is Daredevil. The season sees the hard-won legal practice of the group fall apart as Matt’s night life draws his attention away from them, leaving them to work out what to do with their lives without him. Foggy discovers he’s a good lawyer and ends up working for Jessica Jones‘s Carrie-Anne Moss.
By contrast, oddly, Karen gets recruited as a journalist. While it’s nice to have her do more than be the sighing love interest, forever wondering why her blind new boyfriend keeps running out on her and coming back with some quite hideous wounds and not-Greek women with Greek names, this is particularly strange. It’s almost like new showrunners Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie regret the killing off of Ben Urich in the first season, so decide to give Karen what would have rightfully been his storyline, since it’s really only to service The Punisher’s storyline by proxy.
It’s odder still since rather than pairing her up with returning New York Bulletin editor Geoffrey Cantor, with the driven Karen doing the investigating, Cantor doing the writing, Cantor basically hands it all over to her and demands that she write it up as 2,000 words over Christmas, providing some (admittedly useful) advice about how to overcome writer’s block. Nevertheless, it’s obvious what a mistake it is, since Karen’s eventual piece of prose is just awful. Truly heinous stuff. The moral of the story: there’s more than just research skills involved in becoming a good journalist. And always negotiate your pay rate before accepting a commission.
Like the first season before it, the finale is a slight disappointment. The show often retreads key moments of the first season, deploying early on a The Raid-enhanced variation of its famed pseudo-single shot fight scene.
The finale’s no different, with Daredevil finally getting his comic book ‘billy club’ in a mirroring of the grand costume unveiling of the first season. That reveal was disappointing, but thankfully, the costume gets improved this season; meanwhile, anticipation for the billy club is never built up, so never has a chance to disappoint – it’s just nice when it does show up.
However, if you were expecting some great coming together of The Punisher (with his much-trailed mini-gun), Daredevil and Elektra in some great send-off, you’d be disappointed. It’s just more ninja, with Castle little more than a guest star for the episode. Like Matt’s mysterious coming and goin deafness in the first few episodes, it’s like everyone forgot why they’d introduced him in the first place and decided almost to move on without him.
Now, all of this criticism sounds very harsh, and it’s probably overly harsh laid down like this in one big burst. That’s especially the case since there is so much to admire in the season otherwise, from some beautiful cinematography and Charlie Cox’s appealing central performance through some marvellously nerdy Marvel references (Roxxon!) and crossovers with the other Netflix Marvel shows (Rosario Dawson making a welcome return before heading off to Luke Cage in September) to the threads leading into the next season.
There’s also humour (such as Stick’s Highlander-esque dispatch of Nobu), warmth and genuine intelligence going on, and the almost outright sadism of the first season has been toned down this time round. And Clancy Brown! Did I forget to mention Clancy Brown was in it?
Perhaps it’s because the first season was just so enjoyable that I was slightly disappointed by this. Perhaps it’s Jessica Jones‘ analysis of power that makes this all feel a bit silly and an escapist male fantasy by contrast. It just feels like it could have done with a bit more time, a slightly tighter hand on the tone and the plotting from the showrunners, a bit more warmth, and more Punisher and less Elektra.
But even though I watched the whole season at the weekend, I could quite happily watch it all again now, I reckon. Season three please?