Film

Smart and Brutal, Daredevil Improves in Every Way It Can

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Like the Juggernaut or Saint Patrick’s Day drunks, nothing can stop the hundreds of hours of filmed superhero junk that hits our faceholes each year. But rest easy, true believer! Once in a while, the onslaught can still offer surprise and pleasure. A shiver of both hit me minutes into the new season of Daredevil, Netflix’s lavishly bone-cracking series about (deep breath) a blind ninja/defense attorney who soliloquizes in the confessional about his mission to ass-stomp every mobster in Hell’s Kitchen. The first new episode opens with a rarity for Marvel Studios: a vision right out of Marvel comics. Behold the West Side cityscape that Daredevil haunts, a dark and jagged pileup of roofs and wooden water towers and hoods in need of beatdowns. Not since Sam Raimi aped Sixties John Romita panels for Spider-Man 2 has a comic-book adaptation so honored its source material.

We hear, for several moments, what Daredevil does, which means — thanks to his heightened senses — we hear everything: sirens, night chatter, bad men up to no good. Then the hero vaults into action, and he owns the night so thoroughly that the camera can’t keep up. We see the city. We see the villains. We see the devil spring from the shadows and then vanish again.

Simply put, there’s more giddy comic-book glory in the first five minutes of this season than in the twelve or so hours of the first. Last time around, the show’s creators treated with high seriousness every mad element of Daredevil’s convoluted backstory: He can tell by listening to your heartbeat whether or not you’re lying! His dad was a crumbum boxer murdered by the Mob! The crimefighting too often was a Sin City noir bummer, the fleet martial arts intercut with close-ups of busted-out kneecaps, the action forever a prelude to soggy old “We’re not so different, you and I” hero-villain colloquies. The show had nothing new to say about fantasy vigilantism, but boy was it eager to say it anyway.

After those thirteen episodes of setup — he wasn’t even in costume until just before season one’s end credits — Daredevil at last is up and running. Within an hour of that opening, season-two Daredevil (Charlie Cox) is facing off with one-man firing squad the Punisher, Marvel’s murderous parody of Dirty Harry–like antiheroes. After years of top-lining low-rent film DTV bloodbaths, this one-note character is at last properly subordinated. He’s not a hero it’s edifying to follow closely, but as a villain/foil/counterpoint to Daredevil, he proves killer. It stings when he growls that “one bad night” is the difference between these two vigilantes. Jon Bernthal embodies the revenge-mad baddie, his grim visage and sculpted hugeness suggesting the covers of vintage men’s-adventure mercenary paperbacks. The slaughter around him is inventive, impressive, more cover-your-eyes icky than torture-time painful.

That holds true for most of the action, which improves on the first season’s. One early episode pits Daredevil, wielding a chain, against a Double Dragon game’s worth of enemy bikers in the corridors and stairwells of a decrepit walk-up. The fight feels endless in a good way, wave after wave, each heavy dispatched with imagination, each corner and doorway a problem and an opportunity. It’s bravura TV violence, crisp and coherent, a death-dance that bests most movie brawls.

The Punisher drives the story of the first few episodes, but then Daredevil turns — swoons, almost — with the arrival of Elektra (Élodie Yung), a billionaire assassin ex-lover of Daredevil’s. Her backstory is as convoluted as Daredevil’s, but Yung makes her cruel and commanding, a viperous charmer nursing surprise agendas. Like everything in Daredevil, this is high nonsense, but it’s ripely compelling — the complications are something to savor rather than just plot points to binge-rush. She’s Marvel Studios’ richest character this side of Jessica Jones.

Also improved: the plotting, the pacing, and the palling-around with the workplace crew of Daredevil’s secret identity, Matt Murdock. Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson, Murdock’s best friend and co-counsel in a do-gooder law firm, has found Foggy’s heart, and the writers at last have found his voice. He’s earnest, rakish, and funny, worried about his friend’s secret life — and the fact that that friend is getting ever closer to Karen (Deborah Ann Woll), the office assistant Foggy has been crushing on. Karen’s scenes and characterization are also much improved, and Woll, already somewhat luminous, glows in new story lines: an investigation into the Punisher’s past, that possible romance with Murdock. She gives her character a spine of steel.

Daredevil‘s Hell’s Kitchen remains a gritty-city throwback, a Mob-run outer-borough neighborhood somehow situated in Manhattan, rotted through with run-down tenements and gangland executions. Blink away the real Hell’s Kitchen of bistros and Bareburger and the show offers a surprisingly engaged take on the institutions on the brink in the real New York and in all American cities. The emergency rooms are overrun; the newspapers run click-bait and dispatches straight from the mouths of city flacks; the D.A. is prosecuting according to the dictates of her political ambitions; the collaring of one big-fish crime boss inspires the rise of many others. It’s heady enough that you may find yourself wondering: How come Marvel’s movies are never so expansive in their interests or so bold in their storytelling?

Daredevil

On Netflix 

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