WARNING: SPOILERS INBOUND!
The nature of heroism is something that seems simple enough to define from a personal point of view. Some define it as being self-sacrificing for the greater good; some define it as being a protector and savior of innocents. Some define heroism as taking it upon themselves to act for the good people; while others simply define it as getting through the day surrounded by obstacles life throws in our way. In a city like New York and in a neighborhood like Hell’s Kitchen, just leaving your house seems to be a heroic act. But with the imprisonment of a man hell-bent on destroying it in order to create something better, it’s been a little easier. With a masked protector prowling the rooftops and alleyways, it’s easier still. But something has happened in Hell’s Kitchen. The criminals intent on occupying the vacuum created for control are being murdered with military precision. Hell’s Kitchen is now a battlefield, and one man has taken it upon himself to put an end to the chaos. That man is Matt Murdock, lawyer by day and vigilante by night, who they call Daredevil. In much the same way that “The Dark Knight” expanded the universe of Batman and presented its heroes with moral dilemmas, season 2 of Netflix’s “Daredevil” does much of that as well. Where in most areas it succeeds in surpassing the first season, the show starts to lose focus in the middle. The finale seems more rushed than it should, perhaps because it’s trying to tell too many stories.
While we have the returning cast of Charlie Cox as Matt/DD, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen and Elden Henson as Foggy, there are new cast members that take up a good deal of focus, and not without good reason. The inciting incident of the season is when a gaggle of Irish mobsters looking to step into power, are savagely gunned down with expert precision and efficacy. The lone survivor of this is a man called Grotto. Grotto goes to find Nelson and Murdock, so they can help him get into police protective custody. He knows that the man who did this will likely come for him. They look to the district attorney, Samantha Reyes (reprised by Michelle Hurd, who played her briefly in “Jessica Jones”), a political animal who sees Nelson and Murdock as foes. She is hesitant to put Grotto in witness protection, despite the information he can offer. The man who does end up pursuing Grotto is a man the police and D.A.’s office have nicknamed “The Punisher.” The Punisher (played by “The Walking Dead” alum Jon Bernthal), is a former soldier named Frank Castle. He is pursuing various gangs for one purpose which fans of the character will know, but new viewers will not.
Matt, Foggy and Karen initially believe that The Punisher is an aimless animal waging a one-man war on crime. Despite the fact he has only killed criminals, innocents will eventually die because of what he’s doing. Once Karen starts trying to look more in-depth into his life, she starts to find out that he’s more than that. Frank is a decorated war hero who came back to his wife and two children, but lost them in brutal gang crossfire in Central Park. The incident has been covered up by the police and the D.A.’s office. Where Karen is working the more personal story of who Frank is, Matt is just out trying to stop him from killing anyone else. They meet several times as adversaries, and ultimately, Daredevil is chained to a rooftop chimney while Frank sets up his next mission. Daredevil tries to talk him down in a scene that is taken almost directly from Garth Ennis’ run on “The Punisher” comic. It’s an excellent scene that compares and contrasts the two men; Daredevil believes part of his strength comes from letting the law punish the guilty, where The Punisher sees that as his weakness. Frank calls the Daredevil a “half-measure” and a “coward” because he’s unwilling to cross the moral line of killing.
DD ends up saving Frank from torture by another Irish mobster Finn (based on another of Ennis’ creations from his “Punisher MAX” run) only to turn him over to newly-minted Detective Brett Mahoney (reprised by Royce Johnson). So, big win, right? The Punisher is off the streets, and Hell’s Kitchen is safe again. Right?
Yeah, no. Things don’t work out that way for Matt Murdock and company, because thanks to an incompetent public defender, Matt decides unilaterally that Nelson and Murdock are going to represent Castle in his trial. While they’re not going to keep him out of prison, they can maybe keep him alive and get him the help that he needs. Also, the romance that is blooming between Karen and Matt has a wrench thrown into the works, and that wrench has a name: Elektra.
Elektra Natchios (played with a hell of a lot of verve by Elodie Yung, who played Jinx in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”) is the spoiled daughter of a Greek diplomat who was Matt’s first great love back in his college days. Their romance is played out in flashbacks where they meet, fall in love, and she discovers his secret abilities. Her reappearance in Matt’s current life causes great distraction for him. She has returned to New York under the guise of fixing a financial discrepancy but in reality, she’s drawing out the Yakuza, who have remained underground since DD’s vanquishing of the mob in Hell’s Kitchen. She wants Matt’s help, and knowing Matt, he can’t stay away from her for too long, even though he knows what she’s capable of. In their last flashback together, she brings Matt to a mansion that, unbeknownst to him, belongs to Roscoe Sweeney. Roscoe is the man responsible for his father’s murder. He refuses to kill him, and she leaves him, no longer believing they’re as similar as they seemed.
But Elektra has kicked up a massive hornet’s nest when she draws out the Yakuza. She also draws out an ancient clan of ninjas called The Hand, who are fighting and killing their way to a weapon they refer to as The Black Sky. This weapon carries the power to lead The Hand to their ultimate victory. This story is relayed to Matt not by Elektra but by Stick (reprised wonderfully by Scott Glenn), who turns out to be a member of a warrior faction called The Chaste, the eternal enemies of The Hand. This was briefly hinted at in his appearance in the first season. To make matters even worse, the trial to exonerate Frank, spearheaded by Foggy, is derailed not only by Matt’s consistent absence, but especially when Frank turns into a madman on the witness stand and is sent to prison.
Karen finds an opportunity to dig deeper into the conspiracy surrounding the death of Frank’s family. She does so by taking an ad hoc job with The New York Bulletin under the wing of Mitchell Ellison (reprised by Geoffrey Cantor), Ben Urich’s old editor. Ellison senses that Karen really has a nose for investigative reporting, particularly when it comes to her tenacious qualities, and even goes so far as to give her Ben’s old office. Here is where we find out that Ben, who had referenced her past as something she was trying to escape from, discovered her involvement in a fatal car accident Karen had either been part of or had likely caused. In the process of her investigation, she finds that an undercover cop was killed in the shootout that caused the deaths of Frank’s family. This leads her back to D.A. Reyes and her A.D.A. Blake Tower (played by Stephen Rider), who had helped Karen previously in an unofficial capacity.
At the same time, in prison, Frank is summoned to a mysterious meeting where he meets Wilson Fisk (happily reprised by Vincent D’Onofrio), who tells Frank that another man, Dutton (played by the great William Forsythe) was involved in the massacre of his family. Each knowing who the other is, Fisk plays Frank off his vengeance angle to kill Dutton. Dutton is nothing more than a competitor for Fisk’s takeover of the prison’s contraband, but even Frank’s distrust of Fisk won’t stop him from getting the answers that he seeks.
Before Frank kills Dutton after discovering the same information Karen has discovered, he also gets a reason for why all the gangs met there. The police, under orders from Reyes, were setting up a sting operation for a massive drug importer known only as The Blacksmith. And when The Blacksmith didn’t show, all the gangs felt the other was setting them up which caused the shootout. With Fisk now controlling the prison, Frank is sent back out in order to continue his work, which both Fisk and Castle know will only strengthen Fisk’s power upon his release. Frank goes regardless, promising that if he and Fisk meet again, only one would walk away. When Matt, Karen and Foggy hear of Frank’s “escape”, they are met by Reyes in her office where she reveals the truth about the sting operation and is in fear for her life. These fears turn out to be justified when the room is shot up by an unknown assailant, killing her and injuring Foggy.
Karen, having met alone with Frank several times during the course of their trial, doesn’t believe the random violence to be Frank’s work, though, and pursues that angle with Ellison. Matt just believes that Frank needs to be taken off the streets again and, upon discovering that he shared a cellblock with Fisk, goes to meet with his foe again. All signs show that Fisk had everything to do with Frank’s escape, and he easily has the upper hand when Matt goes to visit him. But the shoe briefly is on the other foot when Matt mentions that he has the power to keep Fisk from Vanessa for the rest of their lives by revoking her visa. This sends Fisk into a towering rage, vowing that when he’s released, he will stop at nothing to utterly destroy both Matt and Foggy.
Meanwhile, Karen arrives at her apartment to gather her notes when Frank shows up. He tries to explain that Reyes’ death wasn’t him. She doesn’t believe him and pulls a gun on him. But when Frank saves her from the rain of bullets that fill her apartment a moment later, she believes in him again, realizing that these assassination attempts are just part of the machinations of the unseen Blacksmith. Both Matt and Frank utilize unusual methods of finding out where The Blacksmith’s operation is, and naturally find each other there where they play out much of the same argument as before when Frank is about to kill everyone on board a ship that’s bringing in massive amounts of heroin. Frank ends up pushing Daredevil overboard and making a suicide run against a cadre of The Blacksmith’s goons. The ship explodes, leaving several bodies for the police. Frank’s body is not found.
When Matt comes back to rejoin the fight against The Hand, he finds that another player has rejoined the stage. The man seemingly in control of The Hand is actually Nobu (reprised by Peter Shinkoda), the Yakuza killer who seemed to burn to death in the first season. According to Stick, The Hand have discovered the secret to immortality, and Nobu seems to be proof of that. He has kidnapped several young people and is using them as blood donors for what seems to be a large stone crypt. What is in the crypt is unknown, but Daredevil saves the children and brings them secretly into the care of Claire Temple (reprised again by Rosario Dawson). Daredevil believes that the children are still in danger and intends to stand watch over them, but Claire tries to remind him that he’s still not only just one man but also a friend. She asks him to visit Foggy, who is still recuperating from his wounds in the hospital. Matt refuses, trying to keep his friends and loved ones at arm’s length.
Without warning, Stick is now all about killing Elektra. As she’s trying to leave New York for good, Stick sends a Chaste assassin after her before she tries to leave for reasons not apparent at the beginning. We start to get glimpses of Elektra’s childhood. An alternate version of her origin is told here, where Elektra is an orphan being trained by Stick and The Chaste to fight The Hand and kills another of their trainees who attacks her. Another member of The Chaste tells Stick to kill her, but instead Stick brings Elektra to the home of a childless Greek ambassador in order to learn to blend in and hide in plain sight. But things change, and Stick wants her dead. She comes at him, looking to kill him. Before she can, Matt learns of her plans and goes to stop her, since while he doesn’t trust or even really like Stick, he’s the closest thing he has to a living father figure. Elektra warns Matt that if he gets in her way, she will kill him as well. Alas, it ends up being too late for either of them as Stick is kidnapped by The Hand. Matt begs Elektra to work with him to save Stick, but she sets about on her own.
Once Matt finally fights his way to Stick, Elektra is hot on his heels to kill him. The unrepentant Stick makes no bones about thinking Elektra should die, but still hasn’t revealed why. Then Nobu comes in and the big reveal is made on their end. The reason that they’ve done everything up to this point is to give control of The Hand to Elektra because she is The Black Sky. Things seemingly begin to click into place for her once this reveal is made. Why she seems to be a cold and unrepentant killer and how she secretly does crave power. Matt continues to chalk it all up to a fairy tale and that Elektra is more than capable of deciding who she is. Is she a killer destined to lead The Hand and be their ultimate weapon, or is she a hero who may have done bad things for good reasons?
Foggy, who is still in the hospital recuperating, gets a visit from Marci. She is now working for a different law firm (which just so happens to be a law firm that viewers of the brilliant “Jessica Jones” series should be familiar with). She lets him know that despite their loss of the Punisher case, are still very impressed by his work on it. This reprises the question of whether or not Nelson and Murdock is still salvageable, both from a partnership and friendship standpoint.
Back at the Bulletin’s offices, Karen is fed up. She doesn’t feel like there’s a story anymore because Frank is likely dead and her reasons for writing the story don’t seem important to her. Ellison, being a good editor, encourages her to find the rest of the story that the press still isn’t telling. The story of who Frank Castle was before he became The Punisher. This leads her to a character witness they used, Colonel Schoonover (the great Clancy Brown), to hopefully fill in some of the blanks. This leads to the discovery of The Blacksmith’s identity and Karen in another perilous situation. Her savior turns out to be a very alive (in body) Frank Castle.
Daredevil and Elektra are gearing up for a final fight with Nobu and The Hand, with some help provided by Melvin. Melvin is the savant who designed DD’s threads, has actually built him the famous billy club with a line that works as a grappling hook, and even designed some additional protection for Elektra. But before they face off against Nobu, they find that many of the people saved by Matt in his career as Daredevil are being kidnapped to lure them both into a trap, and naturally one of those people is Karen who is in danger all over again.
This is where one of the pulp pitfalls that this season is a little too reliant upon occurs. At virtually every turn, Karen finds herself in some kind of intense danger, but instead of making her a damsel in distress, it’s as if the show is trying too hard to make Karen into the “strong female character”, which seems a little dehumanizing in and of itself. They give her some veiled lip service at the end of the season when she basically writes a column about how everyone is a hero who lives in Hell’s Kitchen, but it’s a little too on the nose. I’m not stating that somehow Karen should be the shrinking violet she was in the 1960’s comics, but there’s a balance to be struck. Woll is a gifted enough performer to make these moments work, and I would much rather see this Karen than the 1960’s Karen or even the Frank Miller drug-addled Karen Page. Some more nuance would have been nice, for example, how she is in the first half of the season, as the relationship between Karen and Matt builds.
While not being explicit, there has always been an undercurrent of attraction between Matt and Karen, and the show has done an excellent job of building their budding romance organically rather than just putting them together because they were together in the comic. The one thing the show is very aware of is that this version of Karen Page is much different than the one that was in the comics when she first came to work for Matt and Foggy. A lot of that is in the writing and a lot of that is in the wonderful performance by Woll. In this season, they do decide to finally admit those feelings they have for one another, and their romance is very sweet and effective initially. Once Elektra comes along, their dynamic changes, and that’s to the show’s benefit.
Elektra creates an entirely new romantic dynamic for the show. It never devolves into a simplistic love triangle, but since Matt has no secrets from Elektra, he gets to be every part of himself around her. And while they’re not having sex in their present (there’s a sexy flashback scene of them at Fogwell’s Gym going one-on-one), the way they fight together is very sexual, predicting each other’s moves and being, if you’ll forgive the term, in rhythm with one another. Even after a fight they battle together, Elektra playfully asks Matt if he’s hungry. Part of Matt is in love with Elektra, despite all the lies and the darkness in their lives together, because he sees a peer that he can be himself with. But part of Matt is repelled by her because of her cavalier attitude about taking lives. Which brings me to another issue. That’s the issue of Frank Miller. Miller stated early on that the version of Elektra on this show would not be “his” Elektra. Of course Miller created her and is responsible for the best work on her character in the comics, but honestly, if he somehow thought that the Jennifer Garner version was closer to his creation, I don’t want Yung’s version to be his Elektra.
The finale is a little too messy in its execution as we see Daredevil and Elektra have their Butch and Sundance moment against The Hand and Nobu. It adds a moment that is vital to the mythology of the comic but gives it to a completely different character. From a creative perspective, it kind of works only because they’ve kind of written themselves out of having to introduce another major Daredevil character. But from a dramatic sense, they’ve now practically made this character (whom I won’t name because it would spoil a major moment of the finale) irrelevant because of their impact on Daredevil and Elektra’s lives and that’s a bummer. I would have LOVED to see this character in this show. But the one thing we get, albeit far too briefly, is a glimpse of Bernthal decked out in the skull bulletproof vest looking and acting like the best screen version yet.
That comment about Bernthal as the best version of The Punisher isn’t just hyperbole. Bernthal delivers the powerhouse performance of the season as a Punisher. He pulls inspiration from the best creators of Punisher work like Mike Baron, Steven Grant, Greg Rucka and particularly the aforementioned Ennis. He also gives us a Punisher we’ve never seen before. He has moments of vulnerability and humanity, which is sparse to find in any of his previous incarnations. He’s much more talkative than in any previous screen version, certainly, and much more verbose than any time he ever appeared in the comics. His comic persona is much closer to the quiet and ultra-violent gunslinger presented in Lexi Alexander’s underrated “Punisher: War Zone”. To see a Frank Castle that is less of a Terminator-esque killing machine and much more human was very exciting and fresh. And Bernthal sells the living hell out of it. There’s never a moment you don’t believe Bernthal isn’t Frank Castle.
One thing that this season lacks, though, is a quality antagonist. Even the most casual fan of comic book lore knows that The Punisher is not a villain. He’s an anti-hero crafted back in the 1970’s when “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish” were huge films. And while Elektra is one of those characters that straddles the line between good and evil, it would have been an impossible feat to pull the rug out from underneath everyone and have her be a Keyser Soze-type villain by the end of the season. By default, this leaves Nobu as the villain, and frankly, Nobu isn’t a particularly interesting or charismatic villain. At the least, he’s miles from the award-worthy work that D’Onofrio did in the first season; by making Wilson Fisk a deadly, scary, imposing and also, through some acting/writing alchemy, a sympathetic and relatable villain.
Part of why this season is different is that Steven S. DeKnight stepped down as showrunner and first season creative staffers Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie picked up where DeKnight left off. Tonally, the feel of the show is similar, but surprisingly the show is much, MUCH more violent than it was before. Particularly when DeKnight was the showrunner of Starz’ “Spartacus”, which was easily the most violent and bloody show on all of television. Since his departure, the bloodletting on “Daredevil” was turned up to eleven. Most of this bloody action is provided by The Punisher, but the most dynamic action comes from the titular character. Those like myself who were absolutely floored with the single-take hallway fight from season one will be very pleased with another long-take fight sequence with DD taking on an entire biker gang on different floors of a building. And the first time you see Daredevil sling his grappling Billy club and swing from rooftop to rooftop… if you don’t get up and cheer a little bit, I don’t know what to tell you. The suit has some aesthetic improvements even if it doesn’t have the double “D” emblazoned across his chest, but it still keeps with the semi-realism of the costumes of the rest of the MCU.
The writing on the show is on par with most of the first season, and even improved in some areas, particularly when it comes to the nature of heroism versus vigilantism. This scene is best explored in Episode 3, entitled “New York’s Finest” where Daredevil and The Punisher have their rooftop debate on whether either of them are completely right or completely wrong. As “The Dark Knight” explored the ideas of escalation and copycats post-“Batman Begins”, season two also brings those themes to light. And while The Punisher isn’t a copycat, per se, his pursuit of what he sees as justice is only dissimilar to Matt’s because Frank is willing to take that step into the abyss while Matt hangs upon its precipice. That’s where some of the similarities exist between both seasons, even on the most basic level. The Punisher is much like The Kingpin in the sense that they are both looking to save the city in the way they see having the best result.
The finale also leaves a lot of doors open for forthcoming seasons as well with Easter Eggs for every character. This is very typical of the MCU’s modus operandi, but fortunately for this show, nothing is done at the expense of actually hurting the narrative structure like what happened with “Age of Ultron”. However aside from a very brief teaser for “Luke Cage” there is still no definitive setup for the eventual “Defenders” crossover that will include Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. The final moment of the season does create an entirely new dynamic for upcoming seasons of the show. I’m very excited to see what the next season will do and if it will somehow take us into the story that all Daredevil fans are awaiting, which is the famed Frank Miller/David Mazzuchelli “Born Again” arc since the groundwork is more or less already paved along those ways with subtle hints here and there set up in this show as well as “Jessica Jones”.
While the biggest miss here is the lack of a quality central villain, season 2 of “Daredevil” is certainly more ambitious in scope and narrative structure. All the performances are fantastic, with Charlie Cox still hitting all the right beats for Matt Murdock both in and out of costume and Elden Henson striking a more balanced comic relief/best friend in Foggy. Rosario Dawson always brightens up pretty much anything (ask me why Kevin Smith’s “Clerks II” is watchable) and Scott Glenn just knocks it out of the park as Stick. The real standouts are Yung and particularly Bernthal as they give layers, nuance and humanity to characters that haven’t really had much of either in either their previous film or comic appearances.
While not as solid of an overall show as “Jessica Jones”, or as pulpy fun as “Agent Carter”, “Daredevil” still stands tall as a real achievement of storytelling, character, performance, writing and directing for any kind of show, let alone a superhero show.