It’s incredibly tempting to write two completely separate reviews of the second season of Daredevil. The most superficial reason for this urge is simply because that’s more or less the way the season is divided: Part One, the first five or six episodes, focuses on the gun-toting, villain-slaughtering Punisher. Part Two focuses on Elektra, the long-ago flame and now-returned firestarter of Matt Murdock. Not long after the second season received the greenlight after a rollicking first season, these were the only two words you needed to mark your excitement: Punisher and Elektra.
The former was exciting mostly because the three preceding attempts to bring Punisher to life — the 1989 Dolph Lundgren version, the 2004 Thomas Jane version, and the pitiful 2008 movie War Zone with Ray Stevenson — all pretty much sucked. Marvel Studios hoovered up the rights to the character and soon announced that he’d appear in a supporting role in Daredevil, signifying an understandable hesitation to give the dude yet another full-length feature after three straight misfires. The latter inclusion was exciting because Elektra is an inextricable part of the Daredevil mythos, per Frank Miller’s incredible must-read run on the comics series in the early ’80s and, yeah, okay, fine, per Jennifer Garner in two movies. Basically this was a time for redemption for both characters, just as the Daredevil series itself is a redemption for the title character.
It’s nearly inescapable that all of this somehow made for a weaker sophomore outing. The first season was a tight, focused, complete arc that moved at breakneck speed from start to finish, and more importantly it had a finish. In the final episode Daredevil put Wilson Fisk behind bars for the crimes he’d committed all season long, simultaneously bringing closure to the season and looking forward to things to come. Not everything needs a neat little bow on it, but at the conclusion of the second season there was a sneaking suspicion that someone forgot to wrap the thing at all, gifting it in a white plastic bag. It’s a nice present, sure, but you could have at least ripped the price tags off. Sheesh.
This, of course, contributes to the desire to write two reviews at war with each other, because there’s one critic in me that liked the second season as much as the first in spite of all the wayward storytelling. Charlie Cox continues to excel in the role of Matt Murdock, and the returning supporting cast from the first season is involved in the plot in ways most supporting TV characters aren’t. Elodie Yung (Gods of Egypt) makes a formidable entrance as Elektra, capturing the batshit-craziness of her character in one moment and flipping the switch to smooth, sultry, calculated, calm in the next. There are ambitious fight sequences that only pale in comparison to other sequences from Daredevil, and there are genuine moments of emotional development from the most unexpected people. On the larger scale, of course, there’s the connection to Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and the greater MCU, Daredevil itself being the show that began the drive toward the eventual Defenders team-up.
All that’s cool, but after a certain point the only thing worth talking about in the plus column is Punisher. Jon Bernthal gave his all for this role, seething with blind rage and yet never seeming to boil over until the last possible moment, and somewhere along the way he became the definitive Frank Castle. Those other Punisher movies can finally take up eternal residence in the “gently used” bin at Wal-Mart where they belong. If there was any doubt after the first few explosive encounters between Bernthal’s Castle and Cox’s Murdock, “Penny and Dime” simplified everything into a straightforward assertion of pure do not f*ck with this Punisher. This episode saw Castle take some of the most brutal torture this side of Saw with barely so much as a grimace; as follow-up to that scene, Castle shoots a primary antagonist point-blank in the face; and, brilliantly, as a follow-up to that scene, Castle sits resting his head on a tombstone and relays his story to his fellow vigilante. It’s a hell of a comedown, yet somehow that muted scene is every bit as gripping as the action.
That’s a testament to Bernthal’s performance, but also to the character of Frank Castle. Previous iterations either disposed of this muted, human side entirely (the Stevenson one) or just sort of hinted at it (the Lundgren one) or bungled it altogether (the Jane one). Punisher isn’t just a soulless killing machine, appearances to the contrary, but he’s certainly not a run-of-the-mill “hero” vigilante who just so happens to not mind murdering people either. That was the mistake of the Jane version, wasting a potentially good casting by giving this Castle friendly neighbors and casually observing interactions with them.
Daredevil‘s Punisher has no friendly neighbors, and if he does he goes out of his way to avoid them. This Frank Castle lives “a life fueled by a single cluster of seconds”, the horrible death of his family forever at the forefront of his mind. This is even made explicit for a minute or two, what with the injury to Castle’s head in the same incident being explained as contributing trauma somehow trapping him in that exact moment. Thus is each subsequent murder spree a crime of passion, not a premeditated killing. This isn’t referenced again — it doesn’t help the court case and it doesn’t particularly help Daredevil — but it is a cool sentiment in that it puts you in Castle’s shoes. If the upstanding Matt Murdock endured the same thing as Frank Castle, would he be able to resist killing?
One major downside, then, is that Punisher seems to fade away in favor of Elektra as the season crosses the halfway mark. By the final episode Daredevil and Elektra are battling Nobu (from the first season) and The Hand (from the first season) with assistance from Stick (from the first season). Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly feel like we’ve progressed all that far. This Elektra is leaps and bounds from the Garner character (ahem, “character”) but Daredevil has more interesting people to play with, and Punisher is clearly one of them.
Okay — speculation time. What if the season were cut in two and rearranged, Part Two preceding Part One? Keep a few story elements right where they are, like the shadowy hints of the Punisher from the very first episode. Show his brutality, the aftermath, but don’t reveal him in full until the midway point of the season. This allows Elektra to make an entrance that doesn’t seem weak in comparison to the explosive Castle, allows her to introduce the idea of killing to Matt, forcing him to wrestle with that on a personal level. The mid-season introduction of Punisher would then ratchet that moral quandary up to 11, and the ending would be a fresh one rather than a simple epilogue to the first season. The flip-flop would make for a more cohesive story, allowing the seasons to bleed together a bit more and, yes, furthering the hope that Frank Castle’s story is just beginning.
But most importantly, this dream edit remedies the single greatest downside one could possibly glean from the second season of Daredevil, that being the ease with which one can write an entire review (or two) and not actually mention Daredevil himself to any significant degree. The ostensible hero still commands a solid 75%-85% of the screentime in the sophomore outing, and yet Punisher and Elektra are the primary things that stick as the final credits roll. There’s a lot to love in the first season — incredible fight scenes, awesome Marvel cameos, etc. — but the best thing about it was always the main character. This Daredevil was nothing short of the best street-level superhero ever captured in live-action; now, he’s sort of bested on that front in his own series. Though there’s certainly a lot to love in the second season as well, the thing that will really make Daredevil endure is — surprise! — Daredevil.