Oh hey guys. What’s up? Been a little while. Plenty to talk about. I have a nostalgia trip to wax poetic about, stories to tell about the Big Apple, and since by the time I’m done my Doctor Who rewatch series 11 will be done I guess I may as well write it up… but before I get to any of that, there’s just oooooone little thing I need out of my brain.
Let’s talk Daredevil.
Daredevil Season Three: Fall and Rise
Daredevil season three dropped not so very long ago, making 2018 the first year that Marvel Netflix released a solo season for each of the four Defenders… and, given that it came on the heels of the cancellation of both Iron Fist and Luke Cage, the last.
(Also, real quick, gonna cram in another blog topic I’m probably unlikely to get to.)
(Ahem. Dear Iron Fist. You were pretty shit in your first season, and you dragged down the first and only season of The Defenders, making this whole Marvel Netflix connected universe feel like a let-down. But damned if you didn’t at least try to bounce back. You took some of the big problems of season one… Danny has no personality beyond being the Iron Fist, Danny is bad at being the Iron Fist, Colleen was more interesting as a lead… and made them into your narrative arc for the year. Clever move that made for a better show. The show still wasn’t perfect… I never had any sympathy for Joy Meechum as a character, Colleen’s subplot got put on hold so many times I kept forgetting what it was, and your A-plot boils down to two five-episode slogs to two plot points of interest… but hey you were trying. Shame you left so much on the table for a third season that isn’t coming, but you were no longer Marvel’s worst TV show, not even the worst this season.)
(Look, I’m sorry if you disagree, but Cloak and Dagger had some goddamn flaws and maybe we could just admit that.)
So. Yes. Daredevil. A few spoilers will result, there’s really no way around that if I’m going to discuss this in any detail, and I mean to do just that.
First off, the basics, in which Daredevil has fallen but the Kingpin is on the rise. We pick up a couple of months after Defenders. Matt, presumed dead by his pal Foggy Nelson but merely missing by still-not-his-love-interest Karen Page, is in the church where he was raised after the death of his father, healing from having a building fall on him, and spiritually crushed from the whole business with Elektra. Wilson Fisk, meanwhile, begins to enact a plan to get himself out of prison and back into the heights of high society, while building a new crime empire. Matt, Foggy, and Karen each search for ways to get Fisk back in prison, but he’s worked hard to be untouchable, sets out to destroy Matt and the very name of Daredevil, and begins grooming a new chief enforcer in Ben “Dex” Poindexter, an FBI agent with lethal aim and severe borderline personality disorder.
Yes, I know exactly which comic character he is, thanks, but I’ll call him Bullseye when they call him Bullseye. Until then he’s “Dex” or “Fake Daredevil.”
It’s the follow-up to Daredevil’s great first season that season two failed to be, the Fast and Furious to season two’s 2 Fast 2 Furious. Season two, in fact, is all but scrubbed from memory. There are some lingering effects… The law firm of Nelson & Murdock remains broken up, we address what happened immediately after the season two cliffhanger of Matt confessing his other identity to Karen (through a flashback, since all of Defenders happened since then), Fisk seeming to have figured out Matt’s secret comes into play, and Elektra gets mentioned exactly once, but otherwise season two is forgotten. We just pick up on everything that’s been dangling since season one and try to pretend the Hand didn’t happen.
Which is for the best. Marvel Netflix fucked up the Hand so thoroughly there’s no real redemption for it now.
So how’d it turn out?
Good. Pretty good. Couple… couple of problems I want to get into, but first let’s cover what they did well.
The cast is stellar. Charlie Cox does solid work as the spiritually lost Matt Murdock, turning his back on his old path and considering breaking his no-kill rule to keep Fisk from hurting anyone. Vincent D’Onfrio remains excellent as Fisk, now adopting the name Kingpin (leaving him off the Best Villains list three years back remains my biggest blunder in comic TV rankings… also I seem to be the only Flash fan who liked Tom Felton as Julien Albert, but that’s another issue). Deborah Ann Woll is riveting as Karen Page. She’s been doing great, subtle work conveying Page’s guilt and torment over killing Fisk’s right-hand man Wesley back in season one, but this year it finally comes to a boil. Wilson Bethel kills it (excuse the expression) as Dex, and newcomer Jay Ali is great as FBI Agent Ray Nadeem. And Elden Henson (Foggy) doesn’t whiff his big moments as badly as he did in season two.
A more centralized arc makes for a stronger season than… most Marvel Netflix seasons. The focus on Nelson, Murdock, and Page against Fisk and Fake Daredevil means no third act collapse like early Luke Cage or season two Daredevil, and no games of villain roulette like early Iron Fist. All without spending six episodes getting to the point like Jessica Jones’ second season.
There is, however, one large problem. Let’s discuss it.
The Problem With Kingpin
In last season’s rankings, the silver medalist for “Worst Trend” was the all-knowing mastermind, and that one’s all over Daredevil this year.
Okay. Let’s assume that you, reader representing all readers, don’t watch as much comic book TV as I do. This seems highly probable because I don’t actually know anyone who watches as much comic TV as I do. So based on that, let’s further assume that you haven’t done this dance with Prometheus, Cayden James, Ricardo Diaz, Shadow King, Hiram Lodge, and lesser versions like the Thinker. That your reaction isn’t “Jesus, not this again.” Kingpin being five steps ahead of Daredevil and pals all season still doesn’t really work. Allow me to explain.
Yes I have to get into spoiler territory. I’ll try to avoid specifics but I have to talk about the season as a whole, yeah?
For twelve episodes Kingpin can’t be touched. For twelve episodes we learn again and again that his influence is worse than we knew, that he has leverage everywhere. For twelve episodes every single move Matt, Karen, or Foggy makes fails completely.
It is one thing for Ethan Hunt to be playing defence for an entire Mission: Impossible movie. Over two or two and a half hours, with action movie pacing, it’s thrilling. Over 13 hours, it’s a slog. When you’re ten episodes deep on a show, and the heroes haven’t had a win yet, and there are three episodes left, it can make pushing through a challenge. And it’s repetitive. It’s a slog and it has no levels. Daredevil’s first season managed this so much better, with Fisk’s criminal cabal of international stereotypes acting as minibosses, giving Matt a sense of progress as the season played out. Now it’s just Fisk winning more and more and the audience thinking “I don’t know, maybe Matt does need to kill him.”
And the other issue is, when Team Daredevil hasn’t managed a win in twelve episodes, it makes the wrap-up super forced and very unearned. There isn’t a thing they’ve been able to do to get Fisk one step closer to prison the entire season, their one big chance collapsed at the finish line in episode 12 because Fisk is that good, and then in the finale, they topple his entire operation with two phone calls and a viral video. Poof. Mission accomplished in one afternoon, with time to grab a slice downtown before dark. Fisk was a brilliant mastermind, constantly five steps ahead, able to counter any gambit, and then all of a sudden he wasn’t and his whole life fell apart (literally, thanks to the big final fight). That’s weak writing. Maybe if over the course of the season Team Real Daredevil had actually made progress, whittled down some of Fisk’s infrastructure and support system (like they did in the superior first season), the ending would have felt more earned. But they didn’t and it felt forced. They reached a mega-happy ending that would make a decent series finale so fast that it’ll give you whiplash. Of course, if the Marvel TV purge that brought down both Iron Fist and Luke Cage hits them next, we’ll be glad for the closure, but still.
At first, towards the end of the premiere, when all the characters we knew disappeared and we shifted to some guy we’d never met having a party for his kid, it was a little throwing. He’s Special Agent Rahul “Ray” Nadeem, and he’d had to foot the bill for his sister-in-laws’ cancer treatments, which makes him ineligible for promotion because he’s seen as a criminal recruitment risk, or so they tell him. If you’re like me, when he takes up maybe a third of the premiere, you might think “What’s up with this guy?”
But do it with genuine curiosity in your voice, not annoyance, because he works pretty damn well.
Agent Nadeem puts a human face on Fisk’s ability to control people. The way he creates a need, provides a solution, and then leverages that to control his target. Ray’s a good guy, but he’s forced into a bad place, because that’s what Fisk does. Were it not for Ray, Fisk’s growing influence would have been even harder to choke down as a long arc, but viewing it all through Ray’s increasingly troubled eyes makes it almost work (again, all-knowing masterminds are just… they’re not as interesting to watch as people think).
And as I said above, Jay Ali sells the hell out of it, especially as he tries to dig his way back out.
Would that our actual lead was quite as well realized. However.
Matt’s Moral Code (Or Lack Thereof)
The ethics of killing are always, always a talking point in Marvel Netflix shows. The Defenders take a much harder line against bloodshed than the cinematic Avengers ever have. The morality of killing was the point of contention between Daredevil and the Punisher in the good part of Daredevil’s second season, and between Danny Rand and Davos in the second season of Iron Fist (although Davos’ willingness to kill his enemies proved to be slightly less of an issue than how quickly he was willing to classify someone as “enemy”). A desire to prevent deaths was Luke Cage’s only contribution to the main story of his second season. Jessica Jones is tormented by every death on her hands.
Of course this branch of Marvel TV also has The Punisher, a story driven by dozens of justice murders, which is kind of a mixed message, but anyway.
So the big question facing Matt this season is whether or not he’ll break his moral code and kill Wilson Fisk, assuming he can even get an opening to do so. They certainly try to make the stakes on this as high as they can, but… this hard and fast “no killing” rule they’re talking about hasn’t been hard or fast for a while. The second season, which they might want to forget but definitely happened, already established that while Daredevil doesn’t kill, if someone else is killing his enemies to help him out, that’s just fine by him and God, I guess. In the second season finale, both Elektra and Frank Castle killed a bunch of Hand ninjas right next to Matt and I didn’t see him complaining.
Man. Remember when the Hand actually had ninjas? We didn’t know when we were well off.
At first, Matt just wants to get Fisk back into prison, where the Albanian gang he betrayed to set his plan in motion can kill him at their leisure. That seems to fit with Matt’s moral code thus far. He isn’t killing Fisk himself, he’s just arranging for someone else to do it on his behalf, like Frank sniping all those ninjas so Matt could throw Head Ninja off the roof and Stick could cut his head off. Like that but less colourful and more prison-stabby. But something changes after Plan A goes awry with the arrival of Fake Daredevil. From there, Matt becomes determined that he must kill Fisk himself.
Him and him alone, it seems. Because upon arranging matters to put Fisk’s life in mortal peril (those two phone calls I mentioned), Matt then saves his life so that he can do it himself? That seems unnecessary. I guess not wanting to sully anyone else’s hands with the act seems like Matt’s endless martyrdom all over on paper, even if the hands he’s keeping clean are already drenched in blood, but letting someone else do his killing for him actually is Matt all over based on his actions in season two.
Man but season two has a lot to answer for. No wonder they’re trying to forget it happened so hard they gave Punisher a second origin.
And there’s a second failing on Matt’s part. His sin, as the Operative from Serenity would say, is pride.
Despite having just made three super-powered pals (four now, with Colleen), and having a potential new friend inside the NYPD in the form of Misty Knight, Matt decides to take on Fisk’s nigh-infinite resources and unstoppable muscle all by himself, only begrudgingly turning to Foggy and Karen for help.
When Sister Maggie, the nun who raised him (and comic fans know where that’s going), asks why he doesn’t focus on healing and ask any other powered hero to take point on this, he just says “It’s not their fight.”
That is just the laziest goddamn excuse.
I’m not saying this should have become the defacto second season of Defenders, the way Captian America: Civil War was essentially Avengers 2.5. That isn’t how these things work, and ultimately it’s too easy. The real reason he never calls Luke Cage for help, even when he finds himself needing to be in two places at once, is that they needed Fake Daredevil to win his first two rounds against Real Daredevil, and Fake Daredevil wouldn’t have lasted five minutes against Luke Cage, given that being able to throw a pencil with lethal precision won’t matter to someone with bulletproof skin and super strength. But they really needed a better excuse.
Outside of the annual crossover, the Flash almost never comes to save Green Arrow, and vice versa, and nobody ever thinks to ask Supergirl to pop by and solve all of their problems (Earth-1 in the Arrowverse has maybe four villains who aren’t laughably outmatched by Supergirl). This doesn’t happen because “The Hero Bravely Asks Someone to Solve Their Problems” might sometimes be the right play, but it isn’t narratively satisfying. But at least there are reasons why this doesn’t happen. First and foremost, these are episodic shows that air simultaneously, so we can always see what the Flash is busy with that’s keeping him from popping over to Star City when Green Arrow’s stretched thin. And if necessary, they come up with other reasons. Such as in this year’s Flash premiere, when they have a time travel problem, and someone actually thinks to say “Hey, why don’t we ask that spaceship full of time travellers we know for help?” and then they do (off camera), and we’re given an explanation as to why they can’t fix everything. A made-up-science explanation but still an explanation.
Marvel Netflix shows drop months apart from each other, and we’re often shown they happen sequentially (Iron Fist season two clearly takes place after Luke Cage season two, although it’s anyone’s guess when Jessica Jones’ second season is in comparison). So while Danny Rand is probably out of town, Jessica, Luke, Colleen, Misty, and Frank freaking Castle aren’t, and I have no idea what they’re doing that’s so great they can’t take an interest in the return of Wilson Fisk. Hell, Fisk’s plan should absolutely be of interest to the new King of Harlem. And while I can’t see Matt asking the Punisher to come and help him do a murder (as we discussed above, he became really weirdly insistent on doing it himself), I can certainly see Karen Page turning to her super-violent friend for backup, or at least protection.
Not to mention Punisher vs. Fake Daredevil would be a fight to see. But the Punisher isn’t even mentioned. Jessica Jones at least had her name dropped once, if not in a flattering light.
No, all we’re given is “It’s not their fight,” an excuse so hollow it becomes a weakness of character, Matt’s pride not letting him reach out to his new friends, even if they could have tipped the scales before he suffered some hard losses. I mean come on, Matt, at least let them know you got out from under that building.
(Also why did none of them come poking around when Fisk made Daredevil public enemy number one? Stubborn idjits, all of ’em.)
The more I think about it the less I’m on board with Matt giving up the Daredevil costume to go back to those black pyjamas from season one. His whole thing was giving up being Matt Murdock to focus on being the Devil (I know I say this a lot but this time for sure, can we be done with “The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen,” please? At least they only said it once that I remember this time), but why go all the way back to his first outfit? Sure he mumbled something about turning his back on what the costume represented, but it’s not like he completely changed methods and tactics when he put the red suit on. He’s the same hero in red he was in black, and going back to the PJs simply means less protection. Daredevil loses one of his fights with Fake Daredevil for only one reason: Fake Daredevil is wearing body armour and Matt isn’t. Matt was landing way more blows, but Fake Daredevil’s armoured suit could take the punishment better than Matt’s sweatshirt, something I could swear he learned back in season one when that ninja sliced him up like lunch meat. It feels to me like somebody decided the Daredevil suit is a little too comic booky, and that’s the mindset that turned the Hand from a ninja death cult to a multinational corporation of diverse businesspeople who also do crimes sometimes, and that’s the worst thing Marvel Netflix ever did other than hire Scott Buck to write a TV show, so to Hell with that approach. In the event that Daredevil survives the apparent Marvel TV purge, ditch the PJs and get him back in the suit.
Dex is never called Bullseye because he isn’t Bullseye yet. This is meant to be his villainous origin, with Fisk pulling him into the dark he’s spent his life trying to avoid. I just… I never really thought of Bullseye as needing an origin. And since the whole lethal aim with any object thing turns out to go back to childhood, it still kind of isn’t an origin? That skill is never explained. It’s just something he can do.
For the second time, Stephen Rider is credited as a series regular as District Attorney Something-or-Other. Beats me why. He is a minor recurring character, plain and simple, and should just be a guest star.
No Claire Temple, no other Defenders, not even Turk. I don’t know that any Marvel Netflix show has skipped a Turk appearance.
[spoiler title=’Okay so this is about the actual final climax’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]I disagree with the AV Club on one thing. I thought that the big final free-for-all between Daredevil, Kingpin, and Fake Daredevil was at least thematically sound, as it involved literally destroying the home Kingpin had spent the season piecing together. It provided a physical representation of Kingpin’s downfall, the collapse of everything he’d built.[/spoiler]
A lot of people are doing talented work, but there comes a time when the writers have to figure out that 13-hour TV shows need more dynamic arcs than two-hour movies.