If Netflix’s second season of Daredevil has one reigning achievement, it’s that Marvel fans have a live-action iteration of the Punisher that doesn’t absolutely suck. It was about damn time.
The plight of an unmarvelous Daredevil fan
I’ll come clean. I am not a Marvel Comics scholar or even a neophyte of the imprint’s superhero menagerie. To me, popular superhero lore is neither here nor there, if not a postmodern, candied form of mythopeia. My ultimate problem with the Marvel universe is its overwhelming lack of moral nuance. Too often, mainstream superhero lore produces flat literalizations of ethical principles (be it good or evil), rather than complex, sentient beings that struggle with their ideologies. The very ones that drive them to dress up in masks and tights in the first place.
It’s no wonder, then, that I deem the graphic novel as one superior form of storytelling. At least over the conventional “comic book”.
Here are some examples (a.k.a., shameless recommendations in disguise):
- Preacher by Garth Ennis.
- Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis.
- From Hell by Alan Moore.
- Watchmen by Alan Moore.
- Lucifer by Mike Carey (a spin-off of Lucifer Morningstar’s character arc in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series).
- The Sandman by you-know-who.
- Sin City by Frank Miller.
- Hellblazer by various writers, including Ennis and Ellis.
- Fables by Bill Willingham.
- Punisher by Garth Ennis.
What is the point of this big overture? Simply put: I am a fan of good, engrossing fiction. Season 2 of Daredevil is no exception.
Warning: Spoilers for season 1 of Daredevil beyond this point.
Netflix is in a relatively new and unique position as a content provider. It is an entertainment powerhouse with a monopoly on streaming media services. And, since it became its own TV and film production company in 2013, it essentially took control of its own aesthetic destiny. This makes Daredevil a refreshing counterpoise to the rampant blandness of the superhero genre today. Netflix is not fettered to the same censorship strictures normally applied to regular TV networks. This grants its writers the sovereignty of humanizing its comic book adaptations (however fantastical it may be) with moral dilemmas, feelings and flaws. The Daredevil faces career aspirations, complicated relationships, disagreements with friends, mental trauma and physical injuries. These flaws plague his nocturnal vigilantism with dire, mortal consequences.
Netflix writers add nuance and complexity to Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdoch
To me, season 1’s diligence in establishing Matt Murdoch’s backstory is excessive. Frustratingly, last season doesn’t even unveil a respectable costume until the final episode. But for this series, patience pays off. This year’s Daredevil (Charlie Cox) is thrust into a bigger world of existential quandaries, which makes this second run in the series vastly more interesting. Being a dedicated lawyer, Murdoch’s piety towards “the law” can (like any “religion”) be alienating (even to viewers). While this adds heft to his beliefs when he appraises the value of human life during his run-ins with the Punisher, it’s difficult to forgive the grandstanding during these scenes (especially on behalf of Hell’s Kitchen’s criminal dreck).
Of course, on the other side of the moral spectrum is Frank Castle, Daredevil’s absolute ethical foil. Perhaps Murdoch’s Jungian shadow incarnate. From my POV, Netflix’s take on the Punisher resembles Garth Ennis’ vision of the character in 2004, which used Marvel’s MAX imprint to take his psyche into far grimmer and darker places.
Punisher is Daredevil’s Jungian shadow, incarnate
Through Punisher (superbly played by the steely, surly Jon Bernthal), we’re forced to contemplate the “paradox of the superhero”, and ultimately question Daredevil’s “PG-13” approach to dismantling enemies. Here lies the disquieting paradox alluded to above: Does not a villain scorned return with an even bigger arsenal of firepower? The perfect example of this irony is Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), season 1’s marquee nemesis. It took all of one season to give Murdoch the strength to put Fisk in prison. In season 2, however, we’re hit with the paradox of Matt’s role in actually creating Kingpin, and in turn, Kingpin’s role in enabling the Punisher’s sinister interpretation of “doing good”. This adds a riveting layer of fragility to each meticulously choreographed fight scene and firefight.
To the Punisher — the quintessence of The Antihero (a personal favorite archetype) — the swift and mortal disposal of villainy is the only worthy response to the Problem of Evil. Of course, there’s nothing like your wife and kids being murdered to motivate you.
Elektrifying dalliances, unconsummated
Somewhere in the middle, we have Elektra, athletically brought to life by the svelte Élodie Yung. Thank goodness, Yung’s Elektra is menacingly superb. She’s a far cry from Rob Bowman’s nauseous adaptation of the source material in 2005, with Jennifer Garner calling it in as the lead. In Daredevil, Elektra is given a textured graft of unscrupulous intrigue that we can’t help but root for, even despite her ambivalent loyalties. The rapport between Yung and Cox feels natural — never forced. As the show intermittently unpacks their romantic past, it’s hard not emphasize with their troubled courtship.
Season 2 leaves off with a lot at stake. The Punisher is well established in the universe. He is a disruptive force with no precedent. He has his own set of rules (and demons). Murdoch must come to terms with them as their reluctant alliance grows inevitable. They have bigger fish to fry: An ancient and supernatural evil grows inside Hell’s Kitchen’s underbelly (I say no more). Then, we have Kingpin, hellbent on rebuilding his criminal empire and exacting his own brand of unbridled havoc on the city. It’s getting really, really crowded. Fortunately, with a serial format, the story has a lot of room to breathe. It’s a fine balance, isn’t it? At times, season 2 is a tad ensemble-ridden, which runs the risk of muddying the storytelling we’ll see in season 3. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Even if you have a remote interest Marvel fodder, Daredevil is certainly worth your time. As indulgently entertaining as it may be (great fight scenes!), this show is a welcome commentary on vigilantism and the morality of gunplay. The writing is excellent and almost self-satirical, and emboldens each episode with an unusual sleight of intelligence. I mean, hey, we’re dealing with people that dress up in costumes and fight crime at night.
Daredevil season 2 is available to stream on Netflix. Watch the trailer here: