It’s hard to do anything new in the superhero genre, but the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil seems resolutely determined not to try. The seven episodes released to critics are a dour parade of one cliché after another, recycling themes, images, and rhetoric that audiences have seen countless times before. It’s not exactly bad, but in a year with six superhero movies, at least five superhero shows on broadcast TV, and three superhero Netflix original series, it feels woefully unnecessary.
Perhaps we were just spoiled by the last Marvel/Netflix team-up, Marvel’s Jessica Jones. That show may have dragged on a little longer than it needed to, but it took astounding risks for a superpowered, crime-fighter narrative. It dealt frankly with rape, PTSD, misogyny, queer sexuality, and — perhaps most thrillingly — the deep bonds of female friendship. After all that, it’s hard to go back to Daredevil’s competently produced parade of Bechdel-Test-straining man-pain.
This season picks up more or less exactly where the first one left off. Charlie Cox is fighting for his legal clients by day as Matt Murdock and punching his way toward justice by night as the so-called Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. At his side in the courtroom and the barroom are assistant Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and legal partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson). Crime boss Wilson Fisk is in jail and out of the picture, leaving a power vacuum in the neighborhood. The weather is heating up, the legal trio are running out of cash, and crime is rampant. To make matters worse, the cops are dealing with vigilantes inspired by Matt’s alter ego — the boys in blue have started calling them “devil worshippers.”
But one lone wolf is the most terrifying of them all: a former soldier by the name of Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, played with electrifying focus by Jon Bernthal. The heavily armed Punisher has long been a beloved character in comics (as well as the preferred superhero of the late Chris Kyle), and any Castle fanatic will be delighted by Bernthal’s pitch-perfect portrayal. Frank is a heavily armed Travis Bickle, a scarred veteran waging a one-man war on crime to avenge the lives of his slain family. When we see him saunter calmly through a hospital ward with a massive rifle or stare with bloodlust at a purveyor of child pornography, his face and body remind us why urban crime thrillers are such an enduring genre. Much as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Fisk was the standout performance of the first season, Bernthal gives us another excitingly sympathetic antagonist.
That said — and this is absolutely not Bernthal’s fault — he’s nowhere near as fun as D’Onofrio was. Daredevil is, for the most part, a humorless show, which made Fisk’s bizarre vocal intonations and hammy temper tantrums a perpetual source of delight last year. (My fellow Fisk-mongers and I had a whale of a time imitating him on Twitter.) Frank, by definition, cannot really be fun in any way. That said, he can be a lot more interestingly written than he is here.
The agonizingly long scenes in which Daredevil and the Punisher debate their varying approaches to crime-fighting really get at the heart of what makes this season so dull. They more or less boil down to a philosophical debate that can be paraphrased thusly: “I have a lot of pain!” “Well I have a lot of pain, too!” “Yeah, well, I think you inflict too much pain on other people!” “Oh yeah, well, I don’t think you inflict enough pain on other people!” “Criminals need to get beaten up!” “No, they need to get killed!” And so on and so forth. When Frank snarls, “You're one bad day away from being me” to Matt, it’s hard not to groan — I mean, haven’t we heard that exact same line in, like, 100 Batman stories?
Speaking of tired dialogue: Hoo boy, is this season filled with it. “Vengeance is not justice — what he is doing is completely wrong!” Matt yells at Karen while they discuss the Punisher. “Right or wrong, you can’t deny that it works!” she counters. When Matt’s martial-arts-expert ex-girlfriend Elektra (Elodie Yung) shows up, she tries to tempt him into giving in to his anger by saying, “This is who you are, Matthew. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s anything else.” Worst of all are the attempts at jokes, which usually just consist of a character saying some dialogue and another character laughing to signify that something funny is supposed to have happened.
None of which is to say the show is unwatchable, by any means. It might just be that I’m not the target audience in that I don’t care much for action sequences. If you do dig fight scenes — and Marvel certainly knows that your ilk are legion — there’s a lot to love here. Matt fights local gangsters, Japanese gangsters, Elektra, and many others. There’s nothing quite as innovative and dazzling as that famous single-take hallway fight from season one, but the punching is plentiful and powerful. If that’s what you’re into, that is.
But for a show that’s fascinated with the movement of bodies, it’s astoundingly un-sexy. Jessica Jones was the Marvel juggernaut’s first attempt to depict sex in any kind of realistic way, and it was refreshing to see grown-ups do what grown-ups do when they’re attracted to one another. By contrast, Daredevil feels alternatingly like a teen drama (as when Matt and Karen spend episode after episode debating whether they should hold hands or — gasp — share a kiss) and an erotic thriller after it’s been re-edited for broadcast on TBS (as when we see disembodied patches of Matt and Elektra’s perfect skin during a bout of slow-motion copulating).
The fault for all this seems to lie less with the workmanlike performances from the cast and more with showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, who fail to establish a thematic question more interesting than Should people be allowed to murder or just to punch really hard? Or maybe the blame lies with Marvel’s increasingly ossified approach to filmmaking, wherein everything has to hit a set of predictable heroic beats and any tonal variation is highly circumscribed. Jessica Jones is the hero we deserve, but I fear that Daredevil is the hero we’re going to be chronically stuck with.