Superhero movie sequels often suffer from the disease of more: more villains, more costumed sidekicks, more (and bigger) explosions, etc. Some of this comes from an understandable desire to top what the audience saw in the original movie, but often it seems to arise from a fear that the superhero at the center of it all is kinda boring, and needs to be surrounded by as many colorful allies and rogues as possible.
Netflix's Daredevil had a very strong first season with lots to recommend: great fight sequences (particularly the single-take hallway fight), a compelling villain in Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, and strong supporting performances from Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Rosario Dawson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and (for an episode) Scott Glenn. What it never entirely figured out – neither under original showrunner Drew Goddard, nor his replacement Steven DeKnight – was what made the title character, played by Charlie Cox, compelling in and of himself. In his civilian guise as blind attorney Matt Murdock, Cox was charmingly soft-spoken – I would absolutely watch a USA legal procedural starring Cox, Henson, and Woll where Matt had no superpowers of any kind – but whenever he suited up, Daredevil was interesting in combat and rarely outside it.
The Daredevil TV writers – now headed up by new showrunners Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, both of whom worked on season 1 – are far from the first group to struggle to make the hero of Hell's Kitchen distinctive. Daredevil has gone through long fallow periods in the comics, and his title was on the verge of cancellation when a young Frank Miller gave the book a dark, ninja-filled makeover that has come to define him for most of the decades since, until eventually that approach turned into self-parody. (These days, Daredevil comic stories seem to work best when they go in an anti-Miller direction, like Mark Waid's recent, relatively light-hearted run.) And given that Miller's ensuing similar approach to Batman would in time influence every depiction of the Dark Knight on the page and screen, it can be hard in turn for anyone to make Daredevil seem like anything but a Caped Crusader knock-off. Even the costume introduced at the end of the first Netflix season looked more like a DIY Batman uniform than the classic red Daredevil outfit from the comics.
So it's hard to fault the show for not having a firm handle on its hero in the first season. But rather than step back and see if they can make Daredevil more distinctive in his second go-around, Petrie and Ramirez have instead gone down the traditional superhero sequel route.
Fisk is gone, and two opponents – and, occasionally, allies – from the comics have taken his place: Jon Bernthal as homicidal vigilante Frank “The Punisher” Castle, and Elodie Yung as Matt's martial artist ex-girlfriend Elektra. A lot of time is devoted to building up the two newbies, to arranging a series of interlocking mob rivalries for Punisher and Elektra to intrude upon, and to setting up a rivalry between Matt's law firm and a local prosecutor with a vendetta against costumed heroes. The new episodes (I've seen the first seven) can go long stretches without Matt appearing in either his civilian or costumed identities, and even when he's on screen – particularly in the early, Punisher-focused installments – he often feels like a supporting character on his own show.
Some of this is a credit to Bernthal, who's so confident and focused as Castle – who contemptuously refers to Daredevil as “a half-measure” and “a coward” – that it's no surprise there's already talk of a spin-off series. There's a scene at the end of the fourth episode where Castle talks about the events that turned him into a killing machine, and Daredevil might as well not even be there, given how the force of Bernthal's acting wipes everything else off the screen. At the same time, the show also deserves points for making its third episode an adaptation of a memorable Garth Ennis-written Punisher story, which was entirely about making Daredevil look like a loser, in a way that now gives equal weight to both characters. And the Elektra stories feel a bit more balanced, in part because she knew him first as Matt Murdock, and thus he gets to be more human with her even when he's in the costume (which still doesn't look great, even after a few tweaks early in the season).
But there's just too much flab(*) – too many characters and subplots, and too many scenes that run on and on for no particular reason – on top of the unmistakable blandness of the guy in the red(ish) costume, for Daredevil to feel as satisfying so far this season. Every now and then, there will be a great moment, like the aforementioned Punisher monologue, or Henson's Foggy calming down a violent situation, but on the whole it's too unfocused to entirely work, and has to lean even more than before on the inherent charisma of its actors. (There's a subplot about Woll's Karen investigating Punisher's backstory that doesn't make a lot of sense, but gets by as a delivery system for one of the show's best performances.)
(*) Streaming seasons in general tend to suffer from sagging middle sections, as part of the attempt to treat them less as individual episodes than as 13-hour single stories, but that feeling sets in earlier than usual here.
The staged combat remains excellent, of course, as Daredevil and Cinemax's Banshee keep operating on an action level above anything else on TV. In particular, there's a fantastic sequence near the end of the third episode where production obviously decided they had to top last year's hallway fight, and did so. For a few minutes, the new season's more-is-more ethos actually pays off. Mostly, though, the new batch feels lesser than the more streamlined show we got in season 1.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org