Season 2 of Daredevil was released on March 18 via Netflix. This review contains spoilers for the first few episodes of Season 2.
The first season of Marvel’s Daredevil explored what it means to be a hero in a world wracked by moral ambiguity. Matthew Murdock (a.k.a. Daredevil) wrestled with his conscience at least as often as he fought against crime lord Wilson Fisk’s cronies. Season 2 continues with this theme by pitting Daredevil against other vigilantes. This season introduces the Punisher and Elektra, superheroes who don’t share Matthew Murdock’s aversion to killing criminals.
Like Batman, Matt Murdock refuses to kill his enemies. Season 1 seemed to argue this conviction was a key part of what separated Daredevil from his foes, what kept Matt Murdock in the graces of God. By contrast, the Punisher (a.k.a. Frank Castle) lives in a world of moral absolutes. He divides society into innocents and criminals, and has no qualms about murdering the latter in cold blood. During the first half of Season 2, Daredevil spends more time trying to prevent the Punisher’s murderous rampages than he does fighting actual criminals.
Elektra Natchios, a deadly ninja assassin, presents yet another superhero archetype. She is consumed by passion. We first meet her as Matt Murdock’s former lover, a rich dilettante who takes extreme risks for the sheer thrill of it. Where the Punisher is coldly indifferent towards his victims, Elektra seems to actually enjoy shedding blood. She manages to recruit Daredevil in her fight against The Hand, a shadowy ninja organization with links to the Yakuza, but Matt is never entirely comfortable with her methods.
Season 2 also explores what a life of vigilantism does to one’s humanity. The Punisher and Elektra both cast aside parts of their humanity, namely their compassion and pity. Throughout Season 2, Matt Murdock has to decide if he too must shed his humanity to become a more effective superhero. Matt’s former mentor, Stick, returns and tells him that his friends have become a liability. Indeed, Matt’s vigilante activities increasingly become a source of tension with his colleagues Foggy Nelson and Karen Page. As he spends more time fighting crime, he neglects his work as an attorney and cuts himself off emotionally.
Daredevil is refreshingly aware of the ethical issues embedded in the Marvel concept of heroes. Midway through the season, Daredevil literally puts the Marvel brand of vigilante justice on trial when Frank Castle is prosecuted for the murder of 37 people. Nelson & Murdock represent Castle at trial and attempt to persuade him to plead insanity, putting Matt in the awkward position of having to confront the legality of his own vigilante activity.
With The Avengers and Batman v. Superman, it seems that there’s a market for stories about superhero fighting each other. The first half of Season 2 is a model of how to tell these types of stories effectively. Whereas Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America simply engage in glorified ego contests, the conflict between Matt Murdock and Frank Castle actually has some substance, with each side representing different conceptions of justice. It’s as if Marvel is implicitly acknowledging that superhero justice has a darker side.
Unfortunately, the plotting of Season 2 often gets in the way of its ideas. One of the most impressive aspects of Season 1 was how well it integrated the plot with the broader themes. The contrast between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, especially the way each character went about achieving his goals, felt relevant to the question of what makes a hero. By contrast, there’s a lot going on in Season 2, arguably too much. In addition to the Punisher and Elektra, there’s also The Hand, the Irish mob, a drug dealer named the Blacksmith, a scandal in the District Attorney’s office, as well as a Wilson Fisk’s triumphant return in prison.* The ultimate result is a series of false starts as the show introduces one concept or character and then quickly moves on to the next.
* As much as I love Fisk (and Vincent D’Onofrio), his presence here feels more like setup for the inevitable Season 3 than part of the story of Season 2.
Elektra’s quest against The Hand, which dominates the second half of Season 2, is rather generic. The shadowy ninja organization remains shadowy throughout most of the season. Its goals are never clearly defined other than that its members want eternal life of some sort (and the mysterious Black Sky). Although the group does have a leader, he never receives the sort of characterization that made Wilson Fisk such a fascinating villain. Moreover, The Hand doesn’t speak to the themes about vigilante justice that makes the Punisher such an interesting addition to the show. The Hand is about as evil as Marvel villains get, leaving no room for moral ambiguity. In more ways than one, The Hand ninjas are lifeless, so there’s no sense of consequence when they die – a problem when the primary moral dilemma of the season is about killing criminals.
Season 2 of Daredevil would probably have worked better if it had narrowed its focus. The show contains a lot of intriguing ideas, but the execution often feels rushed. It feels like less than the sum of its parts. Fortunately, Season 2 has enough to make it worth watching, but it doesn’t come together as well as Season 1.