(SPOILERS) A sure indicator of a TV show’s quality is the degree to which you’re itching to watch the next episode. If it’s immediately, the chances are it’s pretty damn good. Ironically, given Netflix is producing product where the selling point is bypassing the traditional week’s wait for satiation, their Marvel shows are failing in that regard. Admittedly, Jessica Jones worked that magic a few times, but for the most part Daredevil has left me resoundingly indifferent.
And it’s not as if the second season hasn’t gone for it in attempting to up the ante and all-round stakes. It’s undoubtedly an improvement on the first run, but still ultimately a disappointment, and I think the clincher as to why came with the ninth, and best episode. It barely featured our central trio of Matt, Karen and Foggy, focusing on newcomer Frank “The Punisher” Castle and the return of Wilson Fisk, now assuming his better-known moniker of Kingpin. And it was riveting. Which rather suggests something is seriously awry in either the character or casting department of Marvel-Netflix’s Defenders trailblazer.
It took me two weeks to plod my way through the season, because nothing was really compelling me to come back for more, certainly not the power of Christ. Yes, Frank Castle is a great character, performed with extraordinary conviction and dedication by Jon Bernthal (not that you’d expect anything less if you’ve seen him in anything else). Every scene with Castle comes alive, and by sheer willpower Bernthal makes the material seem more vital, more layered, and simply more engrossing than it otherwise is. That may be why, when you put him and Vincent D’Onofrio in a scene together (and it helps when that scene is also set in prison), the results are electric.
But the rest of it? The wholesale embracing of genuine supernatural elements is all very well, but there’s something consistently pedestrian about the approach to plotting and structure; it’s too systematic, insufficiently interweaving and entwining its elements, unable to develop genuine intrigue and suspense. No sooner has Frank been apprehended than Elektra (Elodie Yung) shows up, who should be really interesting but somehow is just so-so vampish. It doesn’t feel as if the writers have engineered her entrance as an “It never lets up for Matt” moment, rather that they couldn’t work out how to juggle both her and the Punisher at once.
It isn’t as if any of the main characters aren’t serviceably performed, but there’s something missing at the core. Charlie Cox plays a wimpily earnest moralist with an uncompromising and staunch code – increasingly ridiculous with the escalating bloodshed around him; it’s one thing to go for realism at every turn, but you end up short circuiting that foundation of your show when you make it seem as if the only way out of certain situations will be to kill someone eventually, even inadvertently; this is only further emphasised by the slaughter-happy antics of Elektra and Frank – effectively enough, but there’s absolutely no spark to his performance, nothing to make you really invested in his labours and obsession.
Angel frequently came to mind during this run – the urban setting, the legal imbroglios, the characters who don’t stay dead, and flashbacks and echoes from the past – and it always ended up looking better in comparison. David Boreanaz’s lead was never anyone’s idea of an acting legend, but his character actually had some edge, and more significantly, the Joss Whedon (or more particularly, David Greenwalt) approach to narrative and character arcs, Big Bads, rise-and-fall-and-rise-again plotting, was consistently vastly superior (at least, after the rocky first season).
I don’t care about the main characters in Daredevil. Deborah Ann Woll was one of the most winning elements of True Blood, but Karen Page is entirely tiresome, only ever given beats that emphasise her nature as a paper thing cliché; good-hearted, earnest, empathic. When they resorted to giving her a job at the newspaper, complete with pure wood guru-like editor Geoffrey Cantor, I was ready to bail. I’m not remotely taken with her soporific liaison with Matt, either.
Part of the problem may be the interminable rounds of moral debate that have dogged the series, ones that no one has been able to deliver as anything less than turgid, except possibly when Bernthal is spitting out self-justifications like they matter. I get it, this is a series about vigilantes, and you need to discuss crossing the line, but every character spouting the same interchangeable dialogue, be it Karen, Claire (Rosario Dawson) or Foggy (Elden Henson), or even Matt, when it’s the variation of Daredevil doing his thing as a contrast to Electra and Frank doing theirs’ murderously, quickly becomes a bore. Characters frequently take positions simply because the scene requires a point of conflict (“Great, lying to the cops. Smart, Karen”, reprimands Matt in 2.11, .380).
Added to which, Foggy, or more particularly Henson’s porcine performance, is a perpetual anchor around the show’s chances of swimming for a better shore. Every time he’s on screen, given the same whining/ smart-alec/ self-righteous/ sanctimonious (“You’re right. This city needs heroes, but you’re not one of them”), or even self-aggrandising (“I’m really good at my job” – could have fooled me) dialogue for the umpteenth time, I’m at a loss why Murdock wants to be in the same room as him, let alone best buddies and business partner.
It says something that Michelle Hurd does her best to make Assistant DA Samantha Reyes as objectionable as possible, but I’m still on her side in any scene where she’s locking horns with Foggy. In 2.6 Regrets Only, when Frank, in custody, refuses to speak to Karen with the portly curtained-haired werepig in the room, I thought at last someone was going to call him out, but then Castle only goes and lets him represent him (as a consequence of which we’re subjected to a quite dreadfully written scene where Foggy has no idea what to say for his opening statement, only to then give the most over-written, thoroughly rehearsed speech imaginable when he decides to address the jury from the heart). Any attempts to give Foggy more space and substance (“You’re the heart of this place” Matt tells him, omitting the part about him being an interminably irksome windbag) fail dismally, and I suspect it’s equal parts actor and material.
None of the main (good) characters really come alive; they’re simply “types”. Kind of corny, with undistinguished dialogue and interactions. This is standard, traditional, old-style network TV in design, just with added bloodshed. Constant Buffy-esque quipping would be a mistake, but that’s not the only way to imbue the proceedings with energy. What works on the pages of a comic book doesn’t necessarily as live action, and Daredevil is consistently undermined by its sheer functionality. It does a job but without any true flair, except when it comes to the action scenes.
Which is one aspect that is undeniably top notch. The choreography of the extended fight scenes, particularly those involving one guy against the many, is often giddily kinetic and superlatively sustained (the standouts being 2.3 New York’s Finest’s stairwell fight and Frank’s bloody prison brawl in 2.9 Seven Minutes in Heaven, although Matt’s rescue of Stick via the latter’s instructions, in 2.12 The Dark at the End of the Tunnel is also first rate). They’ve finally got a handle on how to shoot Daredevil in his revised mask so he looks imposing rather than Neanderthal (kind of important to make your hero look at least vaguely cool).
And there are solid passages here and there, often where characters team up for a mission, notably Matt and Elektra in Regrets Only as they go to a party, break into offices, pretend to shag and beat bad guys up (a good blind gag too, relying on the victim’s apologetic cordiality when Matt deliberately spills his drink all over their target).
The return of Scott Glenn as Stick is engaging simply because Glenn can’t help but be great. D’Onofrio has a magnificent opening ten minutes in Seven Minutes in Heaven, charting his prison time to date, that trounces his entire first season material put together, and William Forsythe makes for a suitably worthy opponent. But come the risen-from-the-dead ninja assassins, the whole deal with Black Sky and the return of Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), and I’m curiously unmoved by what should be classic mystery and intrigue, the sort of thing Whedon could do in his sleep.
One easily identifiable problem is that these Netflix shows are simply too long, their showrunners insufficiently adept at devising sufficiently labyrinthine plots to sustain them. There’s a surprising linearity that’s suggestive of the ‘80s or ‘90s. Eight episodes would probably be ideal, in order to achieve tighter leaner, and more focussed storytelling.
Despite Bernthal’s commendable performance, I don’t hold out high hopes for his solo-Punisher outing (even here, where the character is consistently the best conceived aspect of the show, they fluff his catharsis and manage to make the Clancy Brown – you don’t waste Clancy Brown on piffle! – the rather uninspired subject of a reveal in the process. As soon as you make Castle central you inevitably have to soften him, have him interact in human ways that make his mission statement a constant source of conversation (even more so than here, and Karen harping on every five minutes).
I wonder if the broad brush, compressed, key notes approach of the Marvel movies isn’t the best way to portray these characters, simply because their modes quickly reduce to repetitive cycles; they can’t really grow or change, so they’re stuck on a hamster wheel that inevitably draws attention to itself. So far, Jessica Jones has worked because it actually allowed its character some teeth and trajectory, and its villain even more. Perhaps they do need Matt Murdock to kill someone (accidentally), only then we’d have half a season of mind-numbing introspection before he finally comes back round to the conclusion that his way is the right way.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.