Comic book adaptations are difficult and on that front I think credit really has to be given to Marvel and Netflix for teaming up to adapt characters that either 1) wouldn’t get a movie, 2) have gotten movies and failed or 3) aren’t a good fit for network television.
Take for instance Jessica Jones – a brilliant series by Marvel that would have been stripped of substance and themes if it aired on the family network ABC (owned by Disney who owns Marvel and is family friendly. Contrast this to the CW who is owned by Warner Brothers who also own DC – it’s why Smallville, Arrow, The Flash and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow are aimed at the key demographic for each network).
Instead Netflix gave their sophomore series to a female led series more about what makes a character tick (and endure) than punching people who need it.
Daredevil was a character in need of rehabilitation. After appearing in the 2003 Fox film back when comic book films were still fairly new and the approach taken by Fox could best be described as ‘cookie cutter’. Fox’s Daredevil existed around the time of Eric Bana’s Hulk, Nicolas Cage’s Ghostrider, Thomas Jane’s Punisher and of course Jennifer Garner’s Elektra.
It is safe to save that comic book adaptations have evolved since then. Not just Marvel Studios which was the first time a comic book company was making their own films that turned out successful adaptation after adaptation but auteurs such as Christopher Nolan reinvented the character of Batman with The Dark Knight Trilogy.
Which brings is to Netflix’s Daredevil. I think it’s safe to say that Season 1 rehabilitated the Daredevil character and removed any vestiges of the film adaptation from 12 years prior.
Season 2 had plans that were even more ambitious – to rehabilitate The Punisher and Elektra. The Punisher has had perhaps more versions and reboots than any other comic book character. Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane and Ray Stevensen have all played the character previously in three separate continuities. The Burton/Schumacher films all exist in the same continuity so the newest Batman in the DC Film Universe represents the 3rd continuity. Spider-man is about to get his 3rd continuity.
The Punisher in Daredevil represents the 4th version of that character. Elektra starred in her own appalling film (yes – it’s even worse than you remember).
So Daredevil Season 2 brings in two characters in serious need of a reboot. And the reboots are successful – how successful depends on your point of view.
A criticism of the The Amazing Spider-man series was that Spider-man was fairly peripheral in his own movie. Despite the subplots and the narrative of the season Daredevil remains centred on one character – The Man Without Fear himself.
I would argue that is the best way to present both The Punisher and Elektra – they are supporting characters in a Daredevil series. The Punisher was first introduced in The Amazing Spider-man series in 1974 and got his own series in 1986.
In the Netflix series The Punisher appears fully formed. The fleshing out of his backstory occurs as the season progressed. I would argue that it is the splintering of this plotline that undermines the character (somewhat – to my mind this is still the best version of the character so far).
The Punisher works best when he is used as a foil for Daredevil. An early episode based heavily on ‘The Choice’ features Daredevil and The Punisher essentially talking for an entire episode on a rooftop. It is episodes like this that show the strength of a Netflix series – designed as one long movie the scenes are allowed time to breathe. The Punisher is presented as a parallel to Daredevil and forces Matt Murdoch to question his believes and his crusade.
Season 2 is very much a deconstruction of both Matt Murdoch and Daredevil. Where does one end and the other begin. Can Murdoch truly have the happy life he wants while he is a masked vigilante? Can he do both?
For me Season 2 is about putting Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdoch through the ringer physically and emotionally as he struggles to maintain not just his dual identity but his own moral and ethical fortitude. The Punisher I would say is similar to The Joker in The Dark Knight – he emerges fully formed and is used as the catalyst for the season’s storyline and the antagonist for the season.
Jon Bernthal portrays Frank Castle/The Punisher and his performance is award worthy. From an unstoppable force against the criminal element, his conflict with Daredevil about the differences between them and whether Daredevil’s refusal to kill is an asset or a liability coupled with the moments when Castle’s motivations are laid bare are brilliantly portrayed by Bernthal.
“You put them down, the get back up, I put them down, they stay down! You’re nothing but a half measure”
The Punisher is a man of staunch principles and his own code of ethics and morals. The Punisher is a man who believes that once faith has been broken, once a line has been crossed, then that man needs to be removed for the protection of others. Daredevil is the opposite who believes that every man deserves a chance at redemption. Bernthal’s Punisher makes a good point – how many innocent people need to die because of your rehabilitation approach.
The character of Elektra also makes a welcome appearance and is played by the enthralling Elodie Yung. Yung’s Elektra is an interesting addition – she is someone who clearly has feelings for Matt and yet struggles with her own issues. Much like Daredevil himself, Elektra is torn between Matt and her mission (that I won’t spoil here). Yung’s take on Elektra reminds me of Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa from Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – never quite knowing what her intentions were or what decision she would make. A reveal later in the season about Elektra casts her actions and behaviour in a new light and adds to the complexity to the character.
Elektra has a tragic past similar to that of Black Widow but the characters are very different. Natasha Romanov is an Avenger to try and redeem herself (to reference 2012’s The Avengers – to balance her ledger). Elektra is driven by her past but that drive is one of someone who is confident and craves a lack of control while Romanov is always in control. Romanov can respond enter a situation and be in control, Elektra is unpredictable and thrives on chaos.
It has been suggested that Season 2 is dominated by both Elektra and The Punisher to the detriment of Daredevil. I would respectfully disagree and liken the storyline to ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’. The character arc for Steve Rogers in that film was that he did not compromise his principles despite the events occurring around him.
Daredevil in Season 2 is an established hero. The two series are similar to Capaldi’s time on Doctor Who. Series 8 of Doctor Who had as a central theme of ‘Am I a good man?’ while Series 9 was ‘What is a good man?’ Season 2 of Daredevil is about Daredevil being tested through the entirety of the season. Is his no killing rule an asset or a liability? Is he being selfish? How many died because of his principles. Is it better to work within a flawed system or outside of it?
The performances this year were universally strong despite some pacing issues. Charlie Cox continues to own the dual role of Matt Murdoch and Daredevil and put in a consistently strong performance despite some character issues. It is difficult to overlook that Daredevil imposing his ‘thou shalt not kill’ on other characters does lead to some compromising situations. In one instance it is Daredevil’s intervention to prevent the death of a faceless ninja assassin (is there any other kind?) that results in another character being grievously wounded.
Daredevil as a character falls into the same issue that the Green Arrow on Arrow does – a self-righteous hero who sprouts the virtues of not killing villains in long monologues. That said in Daredevil it is more reasonable to expect this from as a major arc of this season was The Punisher and Elektra pushing Daredevil to take more extreme steps and be more pragmatic in his crusade. The Punisher’s utter sense of conviction in his actions would make Daredevil seek to reaffirm his beliefs.
I appreciate that it seems like I am being critical or mixed on Daredevil’s second season. As it is I think that Marvel and Netflix are putting out the absolute best Superhero television series and that the flaws in Arrow are much more apparent compared to the strength of Daredevil.
Daredevil Season 2 marks a very strong return from the series after a strong first series. Your appreciation of The Punisher storyline will depend on whether you went in expecting The Punisher as the protagonist and supporting player to Daredevil (despite him having a very large role) or if you expected The Punisher to be a co-lead (which at times he threatens to become). Bernthal’s Punisher is for me the definitive take on the character and his monologue about his family is heart breaking and full credit to Bernthal for his understated and at times genuinely moving performance. A series built around this character and actor pairing would be very much appreciated.
Yung’s Elektra is a terrific compliment to Cox’s Daredevil and added a layer of intrigue and complexity to the season. The decisions made by Daredevil and Matt Murdoch more specifically were certainly more interesting due to this dynamic. Both Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson put in strong work however Page’s storyline I would argue came at the expense of Nelson’s. Henson’s work as Foggy Nelson continues to impress and while he has less scenes than the other members of Nelson and Murdoch his work demands a larger role in Season 3 (or Jessica Jones Season 2).
While the season was uneven at times and lacked the linear focus of the first season the second season is still a resounding (if not unqualified) success. The season serves as an introduction to not just The Punisher and Elektra but concepts that those characters represent to the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. For all of the strengths of the season it is easy to accept the small missteps.