Toward the end of the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil, an exhausted Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) tries to encapsulate all that’s happened to her in an article for the New York Bulletin. Her editor, Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor), advises her that because she’s dealing with readers who think they’ve seen everything, her only choice is to “prove them wrong, tell them something they don’t know.” It’s good advice that showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez don’t follow often enough. Instead, they double down on things from the inaugural season: more martial arts, bigger fight scenes, more flashbacks. What’s missing is a sense of visual inventiveness, and ambition toward fleshing out the characters hastily added into the show’s universe.
The season mostly does succeed in its depiction of Frank Castle, a.k.a the Punisher (Jon Bernthal), whose willingness to murder criminals pushes the series to an angrier, rawer place. The grim resignation that Charlie Cox brings to his role as Matt Murdock, a.k.a Daredevil, feels almost one-dimensional compared to the vulnerability that informs the Punisher’s commitment to cleaning up the streets. Even when he isn’t hiding behind an armored suit and mask, Matt keeps his emotions in check, which contrasts with the openness of the Punisher’s convictions. There’s a vivid sense throughout Daredevil’s second season that the Punisher’s scrappier, more savage methods of laying waste to a city’s lowlifes are an extension of his haunted conscience.
Daredevil largely strays from examining the men (and women) beneath the masks and the reasons they put them on in the first place. Throughout their battles against superfluous and often nameless foes, the beats of the action choreography register more than the characters’ motivations. When Matt struggled to rescue a kidnapped boy in the first season, the stakes felt immediate; here, in a shameless replication of that episode’s one-shot hallway scene, he’s just a costumed vigilante hitting his marks as he luridly beats his way through a horde of bikers. There’s no specificity to these struggles, especially when the series introduces a mystical element, pitting the resurrected Nobu (Peter Shinkoda) and his ninjas against Matt’s former mentor, Stick (Scott Glenn), and his own band of ill-defined warriors.
Daredevil is shot as a gritty, often graphic crime drama, in which a man maintains justice as a lawyer by day and vigilante by night. As such, the introduction of zombified warriors to this universe feels out of place alongside Daredevil and company’s takedowns of all-too-human mobsters and drug dealers. It’s why the Punisher’s storyline feels truest to the show’s aspirations toward realism. Frank Castle has no superpowers; he’s simply a dedicated soldier who, after watching his family massacred in the crossfire of a botched drug deal, decided to go to war against those who wronged him.
Regardless of whether one agrees with the Punisher’s morals, it’s hard not to concur with him when he calls Daredevil a “half-measure.” Daredevil is predictable in the way he grudgingly doles out beatings without ever losing control; the Punisher doesn’t have those same limits, and so the writers are able to push him toward increasingly graphic ends. He’s also never dismissed as insane, which forces us to take his actions more seriously, even at their most extreme. His violence is always making a point, as when he chains Daredevil to a chimney and tapes a gun to his hand, trying to put the hero in a position in which the only way to stop a killer would be to use lethal force.
There’s also an edge of recklessness to Elektra (Elodie Yung), but her behavior is harder to pin down, given that she’s used more as a tool to elicit reactions from Matt and his new girlfriend, Karen, than as a character with her own agenda. She’s introduced largely through flashbacks that serve to metaphorically pit Matt between two women and two worlds. Elektra represents Matt’s past, his violence and rage, and she’s constantly tempting him to give in to his baser instincts, as when she leads him into a confrontation with the man who killed his father. (There’s a scintillating sliver of psychosis to the way Elektra delights in violence not as a means to an end, but it’s buried under an all-too-familiar archetype in which a woman, ordered to seduce a man, ends up falling in love with him.)
Matt finds Elektra dangerously intoxicating, and the lavish parties and the endorphin high of fights in her company represent polar opposites of his time with Karen, all take-out dinners in the office and chaste winks. Elektra is interesting, then, only because she brings out a wilder side to Matt, at least until the penultimate episode of the season, when we learn the first honest thing about her: that she was violently recruited into Stick’s ninja wars as a child. Whereas Matt and Frank both struggle with the weight of their actions, Elektra keeps her face masked, either literally with her costume, or figuratively, a coy half-smile on her face, even as she’s telling a would-be assassin that it’s “rude to keep a lady waiting.”
Elsewhere, two of the show’s major supporting players are beginning to feel almost beside the point. Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Matt’s best friend and law partner, and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the helpful nurse who’s always on hand to patch up Matt’s injuries, basically repeat the same few talking points each time they appear on screen. The way they stand up to corruption (or their superpowered friends) is meant to demonstrate how civilians can be heroes too, but they’re so underutilized that they become mere mouthpieces for the season-long obligatory debate on vigilantism.
Karen isn’t similarly trivialized, as her killing of someone (in self-defense) during the show’s first season practically required the showrunners to further flesh out her turmoil, and they do so by giving her a convincing personal stake in helping to defend the Punisher. She doesn’t just casually argue her opinions and ambitions with Matt; she actively takes matters into her own hands, whether breaking into an apartment, striking a side deal with the ADA for evidence, or temporarily working with the Punisher. Through her, Daredevil reveals that continuity of characterization is often more graceful and compelling than increasingly tiresome displays of martial-arts kineticism.