Boxset Monday: Marvel’s Daredevil (season three) (Netflix)

A disappointment and a relief

Daredevil and Fisk

Available on Netflix

Well, that was a disappointment. And a relief. But probably not for the reasons you were thinking.

So, Netflix’s various Marvel superhero shows have been in something of a funk of a late. When they were first announced, everyone was sceptical. With all the best Marvel superheroes in the cinema, what was Netflix going to do with a bunch of also-rans like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist?

But under the auspices of Steven DeKnight and Drew Goddard, the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil blew everyone away. This was quality TV. Okay, the costume was a let-down but at least that was only five minutes at the end of the last episode and we could just about excuse the magic ninja, the extreme sadism and Daredevil’s ability to heal crippling injuries in a couple of days using only the power of meditation before that.

Then Marvel’s Jessica Jones came along and that was the end of that – it looked like Netflix was doing for superhero shows what it had done for Internet TV with House of Cards. Phew. We were in safe hands. Roll on the other two shows.

Since then, those of us following these shows have largely been in a state of perpetual disappointment. Maybe it would have been better if the first two shows hadn’t been quite so good, then we wouldn’t have been quite so disappointed. Marvel’s Luke Cage was okay, but not great. Marvel’s Iron Fist was awesome! Unfortunately, I’m probably the only person who thought that (screw you, haters). The much-anticipated second season of Daredevil was half-good, half-dreadful. The great big team-up of all four superheroes, Marvel’s The Defenders, was a bit blah thanks to a rushed conclusion and poor characterisation. Season two of Jessica Jones was season one of Jessica Jones again. Yawn. Season two of Luke Cage was a marked improvement over season one, but still not good enough to prevent it getting cancelled. Season two of Iron Fist was not only soporific, it was season two of Luke Cage as well, so it got cancelled, too.

The one bright star in the Marvel firmament was unexpected addition The Punisher.

So it was with low expectations but a certain degree of hope that I went into season three of Marvel’s Daredevil. Would it be as good as season one? Would it even be good?

I crossed my fingers, anyway.

Bullseye

Daredevil to hope

As I said, after 13 episodes, both relief and disappointment were the results. Disappointment, not because it was bad, but because it starts so well. The first six or so episodes are great. It then just turns into absolute rubbish. It’s stupid and almost unwatchable at times. Remember the Hand? Just as bad.

Oh the disappointment.

So why relief? Because thankfully, the final three or four episodes are great again. Woo hoo!

And it’s all by going back to the first season and what was good about the show. And by ditching that stupid costume. Spoilers after the jump.

Daredevil

Back to basics

Season three is effectively a Quantum Leaping of Daredevil – “putting right what once went wrong”. Everything that season two ruined about Daredevil, with its departure into the supernatural, the stupid costume, the breaking up of the Foggy-Karen-Matt friendship, the uninspiring fight sequences and more – all gone. It’s not an instant fix, but the show slowly mends everything using a surprising amount of Care Bear love in its tummy, rather than grimdark misery.

The first two episodes are a little dark, it’s true, with Matt/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) convalescing in the Catholic orphanage where he grew up, after an entire building fell on him in The Defenders. Helping to heal him, body and soul, are the priest (Peter McRobbie) and the nun (Edge of Darkness‘ Joanne Whalley) who raised him. Matt’s lost his faith in God, thanks to everything that’s happened to him, but worse still, he’s partially lost his hearing, rendering him properly blind. He then has to spend his time arguing with Whalley about the nature of God, while feeling sorry for himself and hoping he’ll be able to hear again. Fortunately, that doesn’t take too long, otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a show.

Meanwhile, Karen is still a reporter and Foggy is still an expensive lawyer, both unable to get on with their lives until they’re sure their friend Matt is as dead as he appears. But with no body to confirm it, they’re stuck holding out hope.

Season one Big Bad Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) is still in prison. But with his girlfriend Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) out in the world and potentially at risk from his enemies, as well as the US government, Fisk decides to make a deal with the FBI. In return for his testimony against his enemies, he’ll get a few of his nice things back and the government will drop the charges against Vanessa.

This makes struggling FBI agent Jay Ali (The Fosters) very happy, as it’ll help him with his career. However, lethally talented FBI agent Wilson Bethel (Hart of Dixie) is far less happy about it – which is nothing compared to how Matt Murdoch feels. He’s going to do whatever it takes to finally stop Fisk, even if it means committing a mortal sin and killing him.

But how much should the FBI trust Fisk, a man who can not only work out your every weakness and use it against you, but has also already worked out what your plan is and incorporated into his own plan?

Matt and Foggy

Mirror mirror

The season structure is a mirror of season 1 and 2’s. Fisk starts out lowly then slowly rebuilds his old life to ascend to the very top of the criminal underworld he once occupied; meanwhile, Murdoch starts off with nothing, not even himself, and slowly regains everything, rather than losing it.

We have the same arguments as seasons 1 and 2 throughout, too, with continual discussions of the morality of killing and vigilantism, what to do when the legal system is completely broken and everyone is corrupt, and whether someone who goes out at night to punch criminals can ever be close to someone else. Didn’t we answer them the last time? I’m sure we did.

Still, the show is very keen on this mirror motif, with elaborate directorial compositions designed to show that Murdoch and Fisk are “two sides of the same coin”. It’s not a very convincing parallel – even when you have fat Fisk all in white, skinny Daredevil all in black, arguing the moral toss with one another, the show making yin-yang, God v Satan, and Manichean allusions for all its worth, it can take a hike because you don’t believe that they have the same duality as Batman and the Joker, say. One’s a Catholic boy trying to do good for other people, the other’s a psycho criminal. Try another parallel, please.

Fortunately, unlike Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, which seemed content simply to repeat the same plot without much variety, season three of Daredevil is a far more scintillating beast, thanks in part to the addition of (spoiler alert) Bullseye. Okay, so it was only a matter of time before he showed up, so spoiler cloaking is probably unnecessary to anyone who’s so much as seen the Ben Affleck Daredevil, let alone well versed in Daredevil comics lore, but the character does provide a much-needed bit of originality to the show.

Rather than just another good martial artist – oh, no, I wonder if Daredevil will beat him by the end… snore… – our new villain is both multi-dimensional and differently abled. If Daredevil is the king of close quarters fighting, what can he do against a man with the same skills at ranged fighting and who can turn more or less anything into a weapon? At times, it becomes a little bit laughable, until you remember you’re watching a show about a blind acrobat who can fight using echolocation, but it does lend itself to some original stunts and moments unlike anything you’ve seen in a TV superhero series. And Bullseye isn’t always the villain, either…

Daredevil

The hole in the middle

I did say that there are about four or five episodes in the middle that are truly dreadful and I meant it. Unlike Altered Carbon, however, which smashes into a tree of unmatched idiocy without warning, Daredevil‘s descent is far slower and almost imperceptible initially. It starts when Fisk starts boning up on that new villain and we get to see him walk through a black-and-white recreation of said villain’s backstory. Imaginative directorial flourish, maybe, but it doesn’t half seem silly, when the show’s been trying to recapture that gritty, visceral, realistic edge that so exemplified the first season. You can forgive it at that point, though.

After that, it gets sillier and sillier, right up to the point where former good guys are being invited to sit at a table of conspirators and asked to call Fisk by his codename, “Kingpin”. Suspension of disbelief? See that window over there? It just flew out of it. Sorry.

You can almost get a sense like a GPS co-ordinate of exactly how far you’ve gone into silly land from Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance, since it seems exactly calibrated to how daft the rest of the episode is. Perfectly believable, marvellously impressive, nuanced Full Metal Jacket D’Onofrio? Must be an early or a late episode. Hammy, cringe-inducing bluster machine, Ghost War D’Onofrio? Yep, we’re in the middle episodes.

So when we get a pace-destroying flashback episode all about Karen’s teenage years, that’s just par for the course, rather than the killer Avatar moment of Altered Carbon. Sure, Deborah Ann Woll (age 33) looks 18. Sure. We’ve had a different actor playing young Matt Murdoch – why would we need a young actress to play Karen?

Sure we needed Karen when we’ve already had the entire backstory explained to us in the dialogue, not only before the episode but also afterwards. Show don’t tell? How about we show and tell? How about that?

Fortunately, Karen is the show’s nadir – and, to be honest, not that bad, just a bit pointless. It’s also the end point of our misery, because after that, the show pulls back on the throttle and soars back into the sky with a return to the smart psychology, legalities and dialogue that marked out the first season and the initial episodes of the this season. The final episode’s so good, it even manages to fix that naff Affleck movie.

Daredevil

No slowing down

Even though the quality really plummets during those middle episodes, characterisation does at least remain solid throughout. Karen and Foggy are very well served, pushing the plot and action in their own directions without having to rely on Matt, and even the likes of Foggy’s girlfriend (Amy Rutberg) get to surprise by being something more than simply the ‘bitchy materialistic blonde’ we were all expecting her to be when she first arrived. Geoffrey Cantor’s newspaper editor manages to be plausible and to tread a more comfortable midpoint between the craven fool of the first season and the inspiring leader of the second season.

Both Whalley and McRobbie get to be a bit more than the standard “Catholic truth-tellers/paedophiles” we usually get and Ali gets to be both Indian-American and more than a simple “dynamic super-minority”. The overall story arcs for everyone really work, although sometimes, just sometimes you have to rein in your disbelief a little bit, particularly with Bullseye, even though he’s largely a rather well handled, if a little OTT character.

Then there’s the action. While Daredevil has made the “single-take” action scene something of its calling-card, the second season attempt felt more like a half-hearted effort to repeat the success of the first version, rather than anything that tried to do anything new. By contrast, this season’s prison scene really pushes the envelope.

And that’s just the half of it. Literally. It’s twice as long as that, at least.

Then there’s the Daredevil v Bullseye fights, which again are great pieces of choreography:

Where next?

Like the second seasons of both Iron Fist and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency before it, the show polishes off all its loose plot points, winds up story arcs, and leaves all the characters in very nice places, leaving you dying for more. However, the observant reader will note both those shows got cancelled after their second seasons and so I can’t help but feel as a result that the same fate is coming for Daredevil. The fact that Disney, which owns Marvel, is thinking about creating its own streaming service and the recent cancellations of both Iron Fist and Luke Cage suggest the same, too.

On the other hand, we’ve season two of The Punisher coming, Jessica Jones already has a third season on the way and maybe Netflix is readying a Heroes For Hire series for Danny Rand and Luke Cage instead. A fourth season might be possible.

If Daredevil does come back, that would be great. This set-up I would happily watch more of, provided there aren’t any more magic ninja on the way and Kingpin is done and dusted, at least for a while. But if it doesn’t, this was at least a decent swan-song that re-established Daredevil as the best of the Marvel superhero shows on any platform.

Even if it was a bit silly in the middle.