Sunday, March 27, 2016

Devil May Care: Daredevil Season 2, Reviewed

I would love to tell you it was common sense or a new appreciation for delayed gratification that prompted me to take 9 whole days to finish watching season 2 of Netflix's Daredevil, but that would be a lie. In truth, it was just scheduling.

More than half of this season was watched on my iPad this time around, either at the Sturgeon Hospital or during interludes while visiting the in laws in High River, but I finally watched the last half of episode 13 tonight. Now, you've probably already made up your mind as to whether or not you are going to watch season 2, but as a guy with three-and-a-half decades of being a fan of ol' hornhead, I feel obliged to weigh in regardless.

Daredevil season 2 has a lot going for it: great cast, great action, and the debut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most popular morally conflicted characters, Elektra and the Punisher. Still and all, I can't say I liked it as much as season 2 1.

I'm surprised to say it, since Elektra and her feud with the mystical ninja clan The Hand is what sparked an interest in these feudal Japanese spies and assassins that permeated my adolescence and lingers to this day, but her story just didn't feel as compelling as it has in her various comic iterations.

Make no mistake, I have no issues with revisionism in comic characters, but Elektra's initial appearance in the comics is as a paid assassin, wading grimly into the organized crime and noir-influenced gang wars that typified Frank Miller's run, a run that made Daredevil a breakout hit and established him as a writer to be reckoned with. Like her namesake from Euripedes' play, her adult life is defined by the loss of her father at the hands of criminals while at college with Matt Murdock in his pre-Daredevil days.

In the series, she re-enters Matt's life as a wealthy socialite, concerned about shady goings-on at one of her portfolio holdings, Roxxon Oil. Flashbacks to their college romance are a heady mix of combative flirting and adolescent risk-taking, with a faint veneer of Natural Born Killers. Thankfully, The Hand still have role to a play, and they are just as inscrutably apocalyptic as they are in the comics.

Cambodian-French actress Elodie Yung brings continental sophistication and natural exoticism to her portrayal as Elektra, as is only appropriate; I just wish her story was a little more substantive, and that they had kept a bit more of the original backstory for her TV debut.

Jon Bernthal's Punisher though, that is a treat. I am most familiar with the 80's iteration of Marvel's premiere villain-killer, a somewhat transparent iteration of of Don Pendleton's paperback vigilante The Executioner. In those comics, writers like Steven Grant and Mike Baron portray former Marine Frank Castle as a ruthless, intelligent, but somewhat detached veteran who brings military tactics and equipment to an increasingly militarized one-man war on crime.

Netflix gives us a Punisher who is short on style and long on fury. Bernthal's Castle is an indignant and enraged man who is less the calculating jungle predator of the comics and more of a charging buffalo who is brute-forcing his way through the gang factions he holds responsible for the death of his family.

This version of the Punisher feels a bit more blue-collar, which took some getting used to, but the showrunners wasted no time echoing his relationship with Daredevil from the comics, setting them up as adversaries and moral opposites.

The Punisher story runs somewhat in parallel to the Elektra angle, which I think may have been part of the reason this season didn't feel as coherent or cohesive as the first. The only common link between them is poor conflicted Matt Murdock, whose life becomes more and more unravelled as he tries to figure out what he wants, and balance it with the needs of the city he loves. I hate to say this, but the angst and guilt that drives this character really makes this feel more like a DC movie in many ways.

In the comics, even at their darkest, Daredevil has allowed its title character an opportunity to swagger, to cultivate a somewhat swashbuckling air, but Charlie Cox gives us a Daredevil who is, in many ways, grimmer than Batman. Thank goodness for TV's Supergirl and The Flash, who remind us that some superheroes actually enjoy what they do!

None of this is to say you shouldn't watch Daredevil, or that I didn't enjoy it. There were lots of things to like, including a couple of unexpected surprises I will let you discover on your own, but in brief, I really appreciated:

  • The new costume; the helmet looks better, with more pronounced horns, and more red in the suit overall.
  • A billy club even more in keeping with the source material.
  • Much-needed comic relief from Eldon Hensen as Foggy Nelson, who continues to deftly sidestep buffoonery through periodic displays of intelligence and bravery.
  • A commitment to great action; remember the hallway fight in season 1? I honestly think they outdid it in episode 3 of season 2.
  • More displays of legal brilliance from Nelson & Murdock.
  • A willingness to blow up the status quo.
  • Ninjas.
  • Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) as someone who not only provides needed exposition on occasion, but who displays her own bravery and intelligence, and who is instrumental in advancing the story.
  • Limited but effective callbacks to season 1.

In short, while I miss Buffy alumni Steven S. Deknight, who replaced another Whedonverse expatriate, Drew Goddard, as showrunner last season, Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez do show that they know a lot about what makes The Man Without Fear tick. Their rookie season is a good one, if perhaps a bit overstuffed or overreaching at times.

I am confident we will see Daredevil again, whether it is in season 3 or in the eventual Defenders series which will link all the Marvel TV properties (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist), and I will be there to see what hell the powers that be will bring to bear on the Devil of Hell's Kitchen

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