Matt Murdock is a self-pitying, inconsiderate dick, and always has been. And the creators of the third season of Daredevil would like you to know that they are very well aware of that. As a result, the latest chapter in the saga of the blind lawyer who moonlights as the vigilante protector of Hell’s Kitchen is the show’s best yet.
When last we saw attorney-at-law Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil (Charlie Cox), he seemed to get buried, along with nemesis / former lover Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), underneath a collapsing skyscraper at the end of the tepid team-up effort The Defenders. Turns out he survived, though, as we find him bruised and bloody (a standard look for him, BTW) and recuperating in the basement of his local Catholic church, under the watchful care of the no-nonsense Sister Maggie (Joanne Whalley). His finely tuned “radar” is way out of whack and he’s plagued by a ringing in his ear. He is despondent, considers himself a failure and is drowning in self-loathing and a loss of his Catholic faith. He will recover, of course – he’s Daredevil, dammit! – but he first needs to recuperate and, more importantly, get his head out of his ass. The first couple of episodes, in fact, are the most challenging, with Matt being in full-blown emo mode, throwing himself a pity party that none of us want to attend. If you can brave that, though, the rest of his storyline improves from there.
Meanwhile, across town, FBI Agent Ray Nadeem (Jay Ali), a loving family man up to his eyeballs in debt and desperate for a promotion, has been stranded on the shit detail of trying to pry information out of the incarcerated Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) regarding goings-on in the world of organized crime. One day, seemingly out of nowhere, Fisk requests a deal: that he will give the FBI valuable intel regarding a major crime organization, in exchange for his girlfriend Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) being permitted to return to the U.S., free from any prosecution. After his information proves fruitful, Wilson survives an attempt on his life in prison, and the FBI moves him into a high rise penthouse, his personal safety now an additional condition of his continued and now highly valuable cooperation. Nadeem is placed in charge of this special detail, and finds his star on the rise, along with heightened risk to his life. However, unbeknownst to Nadeem and to the FBI in general, they are just pawns in a larger, nefarious scheme that Fisk has set in motion. Worse, a new threat is on the horizon, as Fisk takes under his wing the emotionally unstable Agent Ben Poindexter (Wilson Bethel), a former military sniper with ridiculously accurate aim and the ability to turn just about any object into a lethal projectile.
The first two seasons of Marvel’s inaugural Netflix show, as well done as they were, approached the storytelling from the conventional, hero’s perspective and expected its audience to be firmly in his corner, come what may. Which is fine if we’re talking about Steve Rogers or Peter Parker. But a chief takeaway from those earlier episodes was that Matt Murdock increasingly became a hard guy to root for, as he continued to make asinine decisions which served only to complicate his life and alienate those closest to him. Murdock is a lawyer, which leads us to presume he’s smart, and a superhero, which would imply to us that he is always considerate of the well-being of others. This is also a guy who routinely lied and kept secrets from his friends, and who decided at one point to tag along with his reckless, impulsive college sweetheart – a known assassin, no less – on an ass-kicking spree which served only to endanger him and bring him perilously close to getting disbarred. This all wouldn’t be so bad if we saw that there was a wisdom and underlying plan behind such shenanigans, but there wasn’t. And, again, we’re not talking about Spider-Man, who is a teenager and therefore makes mistakes out of inexperience and youthful impulsiveness; Daredevil is a thirty-something attorney-at-law – again, presumably a bright guy – so his antics came off as selfish and immature.
Well, just as Iron Fist’s second season self-corrected and addressed the whiny and pig-headed personality of Danny Rand, so too does the third season of Daredevil call out its protagonist on his worst tendencies. Specifically, it recasts Matt’s actions and decision making as nothing more than self-destructive and self-serving, a strain of toxic, macho, lone wolf bullshit that benefits nobody. As a result, the show pivots away from its “one man against the mob” sensibilities and becomes a full-fledged ensemble; each of the supporting characters – Matt’s best friend and colleague Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), journalist Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), Sister Maggie, Agent Nadeem, police chief Brett Mahoney (Royce Johnson), and newspaper editor Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor) – has an important contribution to make to the nigh-insurmountable task of taking down Wilson Fisk, complete with their own individual motivations, agendas and inner lives, and are not simply there to help out Daredevil without question.
Karen in particular goes on quite the emotional journey. Fisk’s release from prison sets off in her a buzzing swarm of paranoia and obsession. Woll brings a nicely evolved sense of both steeliness and frayed nerves, as Karen struggles to conquer some unearthed demons. As a nice bonus, the show’s writers smartly decided to do away with Karen’s role as a potential love interest for either Matt or Foggy. They recognized that Karen has evolved as a complex, vital character in her own right, for a host of reasons, and that being “the girlfriend “ or “the crush” did nothing to serve her own storyline, and as a result she is one of the very best things about this season.
Also noteworthy is series newcomer Bethel, who creates in Agent “Dex” Poindexter a creepy and formidable foe who, like Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, is both terrifying and pitiable. Similarly, and not surprising in the least, D’Onofrio delivers another epic portrayal by making Wilson Fisk both a larger than life evil mastermind, casting a long shadow over Hell’s Kitchen, and a lonely, lovesick lug whose true north is and always has been Vanessa. As such, he, and the writers, manage to make the “Kingpin” an even scarier threat than he was previously.
Lastly there is Cox, who makes Matt Murdock leaps and bounds more interesting than he has ever been. In past seasons he portrayed this hot mess of a man with the stoic, stalwart delivery of a True Hero; think Captain America meets Batman. This time he shows precious little pretense about being The One Who Knows What He’s Doing. He’s a wreck, he knows he’s a wreck, and he acts like a wreck. Every single fight he has feels like it will literally be his last one, and regardless of what he would have the world believe, the so-called Man Without Fear is scared out of his mind. Not only by the threat of Fisk, but also by the prospect of losing control, losing his mind, and losing his soul. Cox truly swings for the fences on this go-round.
Speaking of the fighting, the choreography in this thing is just plain bone-crushing. A couple of punches don’t look real, but by and large this is a punishing exercise in savagery. Any graceful, zen-like fluid moves Matt may have learned from mentor Stick (Scott Glenn) in season one have been long forgotten. This is ugly, smash-mouth street brawling, both shocking and visceral. And it bears repeating: poor Charlie Cox really looks like every punch and kick he receives will be the one that does him in for good. And yet the Devil keeps on going. He is committing acts of sheer superheroism fueled by piss and vinegar.
Just as gutsy as the fight choreography is the decision to make this season as non-comic booky as possible. Daredevil has always felt grounded and realistic, but in past seasons that aesthetic felt like a function of the need to stay within a TV budget. This time it feels more like a conscious decision, bolstered by confidence in the storyline. To that end, Matt pretty much rejects the fancy crimson costume he has worn recently, returning to the grubby black workout sweats he wore back in season one. Sure, his insanely heightened senses set this series apart from your standard crime drama, and sure, Poindexter’s deadly throwing skills are fascinating to see rendered in live action. But in the comics, Poindexter goes by the code name Bullseye and, like Daredevil, is a masked character, except he sports a target on his black cowl instead of DD’s crimson horns. The show does not try to find a reason to dress its Number Two villain in so gaudy a fashion and frankly, it does not need to. In fact, there are isolated moments throughout the story that evoke the mood and scope of The Dark Knight, and that’s not a bad thing. Largely, though, the story evokes some of Frank Miller’s darkest work with DD in the comics (something the 2003 Ben Affleck-starring DD tried, and failed, to do), which was pretty grim and gritty to begin with.
Hopefully Daredevil does not get the axe from Netflix, as has happened with both Iron Fist and Luke Cage. DD, in the comics, does not have a particularly deep bench when it comes to a rogues’ gallery – Fisk and Bullseye are pretty much the highlights – but considering how loosely this series plays with canon, that should not be a concern in future installments. Hell’s Kitchen is a memorable neighborhood, and Daredevil is – finally – a fascinating character.