Tuesday, 29 March 2016


So far, Marvel’s Netflix-exclusive series have been very impressive. Daredevil season one was a gritty crime drama, Jessica Jones was a feminist exploration of abuse; both took the Marvel universe and used it to tell very serious, relevant stories with distinct styles, and yet never lost the sense of humour and fun that typifies the Marvel superhero adventure. It’s no wonder both were brought back for second seasons.

Daredevil season two kicks off pretty much where the first left us; Matt Murdock, Foggy Nelson, and Karen Page’s law firm is building a reputation for itself, and with Wilson Fisk in prison, there's space in Hell's Kitchen for a new villain – enter Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher.

The first four episodes focus on Frank Castle’s reign of terror on New York’s gangs, and are fantastic. Castle is an instantly iconic antagonist, and the series wisely avoids too much build-up by pitting him against Daredevil early, ending the first two episodes with gloriously nasty punch-ups. It also uses the difference between the two to explore the ethics of vigilante justice, making this more than just a shoot-em-up; Jon Bernthal’s Castle may be a mass murderer, but he does live by some sort of moral code, exemplified by the chilling scene in which he beats to death the gun store owner who tried to sell him child porn. Like Fisk, this villain is made all the more scary, the fight against him all the more tense, because of how we get to spend time with him and understand him; the sad climax at the end of episode four, in which a defeated Castle reveals his tragic backstory to Daredevil, heartbreakingly explains his motives.

And then he’s put in jail. The season could end there. Until Elektra appears.

A face from Matt’s past, Elektra is a kick-ass mercenary with no restraint about killing. Now, it’s great to have a female superhero who isn’t sexualised, and Élodie Yung puts in a superb performance, complete with a miscellaneous European accent that’s a joy to listen to. But the story that she brings to Hell’s Kitchen with her is so depressingly mediocre compared to everything else going on. She’s tracking the Hand, an ancient cult of ninjas who are going to unleash war on the world because… well, just because. A lot of mystic fluff is talked about but it all comes down to an excuse to get Daredevil into more and more punch-ups with a lot of ninjas.

Over the next few episodes, this storyline is presented in parallel with that of Frank Castle’s trial, a storyline which does carry on asking interesting questions about what to do with vigilante killers and to what extent we should sympathise with dangerous criminals. It’s actually an interesting legal drama – a sentence it’s a little odd to say about something set in the same world as Ant-Man – and it's good that Foggy and Karen, too often relegated to supporting status in the first season, both get opportunities to shine.

The throughline connecting these two stories, however, is the struggle Matt Murdock faces to juggle both his lives, a story type familiar to fans of Dexter, or indeed any superhero tales from back when secret identities were the in thing. It does take oddly long for either Karen or Foggy to ask him where he’s been wandering off to as opposed to simply telling him not to do it again, but my main problem with this story was in attempting to understand what’s going on in Matt’s mind – his loyalties seem to change every episode between determination to help Castle and determination to take down the Hand, between affection for Karen and affection for Elektra, and it’s rarely clear why, meaning the hero I grew to like throughout season one comes across here as rather shallow.

Meanwhile, things start moving rapidly again in Castle’s storyline towards the end of the season, when he’s greeted in prison by none other than Wilson Fisk – a well-kept surprise and a welcome cameo which makes for an exciting (if very macho!) sub-plot. Yep, the prison system is so corruptible that Fisk can still be the Kingpin behind bars, and he’s terrifying as ever when he’s ordering the guards around. And Castle beating up Dutton’s goons is gloriously brutal.

Fisk helps Castle escape, leading us steadily towards the endgame… well, sort of. There isn’t much of one, as the final two episodes are a bit of a disappointment.

In the penultimate episode, Karen works out that Ray Schoonover, Castle’s former Commanding Officer, became a drug baron called the Blacksmith and set up the deal which resulted in the death of Castle’s family in order to get revenge on him for some wartime incident, and subsequently killed the DA in order to frame him – what? It’s a scheme so needlessly elaborate that it detracts from everything that’s been great about Castle’s story so far. (OK, so Schoonover may not have been the Blacksmith but was working alongside him, but still… what?) And then Schoonover kidnaps Karen and Frank needs to rescue her, Frank kills Schoonover, and thats kind of it. Over and done with before we've had time for the sheer nonsense of it to settle in.

The final episode throws this clearly unfinished story aside and focuses on Daredevil and Elektra’s war with the Hand, who kidnap several people Daredevil’s previously rescued, including – you guessed it – Karen. This season had been doing a reasonably good job of letting her lead her own story and then she ends up as a damsel in distress two episodes in a row. And compared to some of the incredible action scenes earlier in the season, the fight this results in is a rather weak climax, with Daredevil and Elektra beating up some ninjas on a rooftop as the police stand around obliviously, doing fuck all. Matt is, by this point, completely and arbitrarily in love with Elektra, meaning it takes her supposed death for him to remain as the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen and for a third season to be possible.

The point of these last two episodes, it seems, is to set up questions for future series. What went on between Castle and Schoonover? What’s on the Micro disk? Is the now-resurrected Elektra really the Black Sky, and what was all that crap about anyway? For that matter, what was that bloody big hole in the ground? By focusing on teasing what’s to come, the finale fails to satisfactorily conclude what we’ve had.

Don’t get me wrong; Daredevil is still one hell of a good show. The casting is perfect, the action is electric, and the Frank Castle storyline is a thrilling and intriguing take on the vigilante justice trope, almost as good as season one’s Murdock/Fisk duality. But the boring, motiveless ninja villains let this season down, as does the development of Murdock’s character, meaning it doesn’t work as a coherent and whole story.

Still, there’s got to be a third season now, right?


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