This latest round of adventures for the Man Without Fear couldn’t have come at a stranger, more necessary time for what’s left of the Marvel/Netflix experiment. A week before this season debuted on October 19th, Netflix canceled the oft-mocked Iron Fist. Luke Cage then followed his frequent comic book partner out the door a few hours after Daredevil‘s premiere.
Disney is busy setting up its own streaming service, which will reportedly feature higher-budget Marvel shows featuring higher-profile Marvel characters like Loki and Scarlet Witch, with Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, et al. reprising their roles from the films. These will come directly from Marvel Studios, whose executives are responsible for all the hit movies, even as they look down their noses at their TV counterparts. Daredevil was introduced as the first in a mini-Marvel universe of street-level hero shows that could have expanded for years and years. Disney branching off on its own, and letting a different team develop these shows, left the Netflix shows as dead-enders, unlikely to inspire more spin-offs or ever appear alongside their more famous MCU peers.
So in theory, Netflix should have been hanging onto what it had for dear life. Instead, Cage and Fist are gone, reportedly sacrificed as part of an ongoing dispute between the streamer and the studio about how many episodes to make each season. (Netflix’s Cindy Holland talked about this back in the summer.) Almost all of Netflix’s dramas struggle with pacing, and with trying to stretch too little plot over too many episodes. But the Marvel seasons, even the good ones, have been the worst offenders in this regard. What was most exasperating was how these shows all seemed to be getting worse at this as they went along, rather than better.
That first year of Daredevil was probably the most consistently satisfying of any of these, even though the peaks of Jessica and Cage were much higher. The creative trend was going alarmingly in the wrong direction. After sampling the first three hours of the new Daredevil — which had their moments but moved along at the same glacial pace that had become much too familiar — I shrugged and prepared to write off the entire endeavor as too much effort for too little reward.
Then the full season dropped, and word began to spread about a single-take fight sequence in the fourth episode that was even longer and more audacious than the first season’s famous hallway fight. Always a sucker for an elaborate oner, I dove back in, and found the narrative had finally built up enough momentum to keep me going all the way to the end. It wasn’t great, but it was the first Marvel/Netflix season in years where the ratio of what worked versus what didn’t was positive — a bounceback this show, and this entire mini-franchise, very badly needed.
Sure, the new round of episodes was still too sluggish, in part because of the Marvel Netflix penchant for offering up variations on the same six-minute conversation over and over until the viewer has been, like one of Matt Murdock’s opponents, pummeled into submission. But the show was able to rise above that flaw by playing to its three biggest strengths (spoilers ahead):
1. Kick-ass fight scenes.
Daredevil has long been a cut above its Marvel peers (and above all but a handful of recent series like Banshee and Strike Back) when it comes to action choreography and direction. Season Two squandered this advantage a bit by hurling waves of faceless ninjas at Daredevil, which made some of the fights more chaotic and less character-driven. (It also turned some of the combat over to Jon Bernthal as the Punisher, whose blunter fighting style didn’t play as much to the strengths of this show’s stunt team.)
The new one — a 10-plus minute sequence taking place in and around a prison riot, where the camera follows Matt (Charlie Cox) from room to room before he finally escapes and collapses in the back of his cab — is, as promised, even more technically impressive than either Season One’s hallway fight or Season Two’s stairwell fight(*). But the season’s loaded with action, particularly once sociopathic FBI sharpshooter Ben Poindexter (Wilson Bethel) begins wearing a fake Daredevil costume and making like his comic book alter ego, Bullseye. A villain whose gimmick is that he never misses when he shoots or throws something is a hard thing to adequately dramatize. (The 2003 Daredevil film, with Colin Farrell as Bullseye, never quite pulled it off.) Yet again and again, the directors and stunt people made Bullseye’s accuracy seem positively terrifying, even as there were plausible explanations for how Matt and others survived his onslaught of hurled projectiles.
(*) There are moments where it is almost too impressive. As director Alex Garcia Lopez explained to Vulture, they shot everything in a medium take to draw the viewer’s attention to the fact that they weren’t cutting away. At times, it becomes hard to focus on Matt’s physical ordeal rather than the question of how they pulled this off. The beats where Cox is rapidly swapped out for his stunt double in particular are much more noticeable this way than they’d be in a more conventionally-edited sequence (and/or one where Matt was wearing a mask to hide his face).
Daredevil, like all of its peers, mistakenly thinks that characters discussing their motivations ad nauseum is compelling in and of itself. But this season also had an uncanny sense of when the characters had been talking too much and it was time for fists, bullets and even forks to start flying.
2. A great villain. (And a great henchman.)
It’s not a coincidence that the best stretches of these shows have come when they had bad guys who were at least as compelling as the heroes, if not more: Vincent D’Onofrio as kingpin of crime Wilson Fisk in Daredevil, David Tennant as mind-controlling Kilgrave in Jessica Jones and Mahershala Ali as brash gangster Cottonmouth in Luke Cage. Most of the heroes are well cast, but without an equally charismatic opponent, the energy level dissipates in a hurry.
Fisk was in prison throughout Season Two, and the one episodes that featured him prominently throughout was unsurprisingly the highlight of that year. This season — loosely adapting one of the most acclaimed Daredevil comics story arcs ever, Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s “Born Again” — wisely puts him back front and center. Fisk uses a mix of blackmail and emotional manipulation to corrupt an entire FBI unit (including both Poindexter and Jay Ali’s more conflicted Ray Nadeem) and get out of prison to have his revenge on Matt, Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). A more active Kingpin is more to the good of the series. D’Onofrio’s performance is so charismatic that he’s able to carry the long expository monologues in a way that almost no actor on any of these shows can, at least not as often as he’s asked to talk about his abusive childhood. The sheer number of these monologues have proved meme-worthy, but only because D’Onofrio sells them all so effectively.
Random henchmen: Sir the car is ready for you outside
— ꜱᴀʟ™ (@salazar2049) October 24, 2018
Other Marvel Netflix seasons have largely stumbled in doing “birth of a villain” arcs, either waffling on the idea while killing time over a long season (Mariah Dillard in Luke Cage year two) or focusing on a character not worth the fuss (Will Simpson in Jessica Jones Season One). Poindexter’s gradual transformation into Bullseye, on the other hand, plays out carefully but convincingly. Bethel’s performance carries both the physical and emotional demands of the character, who should seem utterly ridiculous if not handled right. (Again, see Colin Farrell in the Ben Affleck movie). And the season cleverly combines these first two major strengths with one hell of a climax, where Daredevil, Kingpin and Bullseye are fighting each other simultaneously in Fisk’s hotel suite, both villains trying to kill each other and Matt even as he’s trying to hurt both while keeping them alive.
3. The chemistry of its three leads.
When it comes to its good guys, Daredevil is a show where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Cox, Henson and Woll all have their moments individually, but keep any character on his or her own for too long and things risk getting awfully dull. When two or more of them are in a room together — whether plotting against a villain or simply drinking beer and shooting pool — their chemistry is abundant and very welcome, a level that none of the other Marvel Netflix heroes reach with their respective sidekicks.
The trio were largely separated in Season Two, and for half of this season, which began with Foggy and Karen thinking Matt was dead after the events of The Defenders(*). The various creative teams did their best to provide them with alternate foils while the characters were on the outs, but the only one to really click was this season’s Sister Maggie (Joanne Whalley), a nun at the church where Matt was raised, whom he discovers is the mother who abandoned him decades earlier. Every other outside pairing involving the core trio ranges from decent (Karen’s newspaper editor, Foggy’s girlfriend) to tedious (Foggy’s restaurant-owning family).
(*) When even hardcore Marvel fans were struggling to stay interested in Iron Fist‘s first season, a common refrain I heard was, “But I need to see them all so I’ll understand what happens in Defenders!” As it turned out, not only was Defenders easy to follow without having finished Iron Fist, but none of the Marvel seasons that followed really require having seen it. If you enter Daredevil year three knowing that people think he died when a building fell on him, you’re good to go.
But if the season starts off by tearing down Matt, it’s for the purpose of building him back up again so he can be the kind of person who would want Karen and Foggy in his life. The later episodes frequently pair him off with one or both of them, and those scenes feel much livelier than when they’re apart. Their decision to reopen their old law practice, with Karen now working as their investigator rather than their secretary office manager, left me feeling hopeful about the feel of a potential fourth season, even if will likely have to be one with little to no Fisk.
It may be damning this season with faint praise to say that it’s better and more consistent than anything else this awkward partnership has made in the last few years. But it’s also true, and necessary. Canceling Fist and Cage on consecutive Fridays, coupled with the diminished buzz and praise for the whole franchise after Cage Season One, suggested the whole thing could go away without too many people objecting. But fans want to like these shows, if only they would be offered enough reason to beyond the characters themselves. This branch of the Marvel line is diminished now, and might continue to suffer attrition along the way. (We’ll see how Jessica Jones does, for instance, now that showrunner Melissa Rosenberg is gone.)
But Daredevil Season Three is emblematic of a show, if not a franchise, that understands its own strengths and at least some of its weaknesses. It provided me with reason to feel happy beyond recognizing plot points from a comic book I loved reading when I was a teenager. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start on the road back to respectability.