Daredevil, or Marvel’s attempt at a ‘Dark Knight’ type of product, released in 2015 at around when making superhero media with a “dark tone” meant it inherently got positive attention for trying to be subversive and realistic. But just because they got positive attention ahead of release didn’t always mean they got a positive reception. Not the start of the dark trend, but definitely a main contributor to its popularity was Man of Steel (2013), which was mixed at best. In the same year as Daredevil’s release, Josh Trank’s nightmare take on the most wholesome superheroes ever, the Fantastic Four, failed to impress literally anyone, and Avengers Age of Ultron marketed itself as the darkest thing to ever exist before releasing as yet another generic, light hearted popcorn flick that received initial praise, followed by a retrospective wave of people saying “it was okay, I guess”. So where does Daredevil fit into this?
Well it was a Netflix exclusive TV show riding the wave of people wanting more subversive superhero media. It got out just ahead of Batman vs Superman, which failed to ride this train, and Deadpool which rode this train well in an entirely different way. So it sits between where these types of dark superhero properties were pretty much all bad or mixed at best, and those that began to raise the bar. It was also the first time Marvel would honestly try one of these dark stories – discounting Avengers Age of Ultron’s tonally misleading marketing and Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, which was owned and released by Fox, and only really a Marvel movie by extension – so it had a lot to prove.
Not only that but, because Marvel is constantly trying to prove itself the most ambitious superhero media distributor that ever existed, Daredevil would also be the first of many Netflix shows showcasing an overarching story leading into a grand finale, in the same vein as how Captain America, Thor and Iron Man all lead into Avengers (2012). On top of that, this dark show would have to take place within the same universe as the goofier Avengers movies. Before the dark reign of Disney+, Netflix is where Marvel had invested itself. As you might imagine, this likely only added to the pressure that this show needed to be good.
With the context in place, let’s take a look at how it turned out:
Season 1 starts strong. We have a pretty simplistic premise set up that Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is lawyer by day, vigilante by night and that he and his friends Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) and Foggy (Elden Henson) take clients each episode who normally have such complex cases that Daredevil needs to intervene. In the shadows these seemingly isolated cases are connected, and can all somehow be linked to an organised crime syndicate led by a man named Wilson Fisk. As the show progresses, Fisk becomes more prevalent in the story and we get to see all the different gangs in New York operating with him – Russians doing human trafficking, Chinese producing heroin, Japanese illegally securing property all over the city, and the man who handles all the money for them.
For this first half, watching Matt and friends recruit help and connect the dots between their cases and organised crime is fun. Indeed, it is mystery that keeps the season on it’s legs. We see all these horrible things and, despite us having some knowledge of who does what in the criminal underground, still have to go on the journey with the core cast of trying to understand why things operate the way that they do and how those things can be disturbed and exposed.
The action is also pretty great. There are one or two scenes that look better than most action scenes in high budget movies, if you can believe it. It’s tense and well paced. We get to see that although Daredevil is a superhuman, he is still incredibly vulnerable and is often overwhelmed or severely wounded after battle. Both he and his enemies get noticeably more tired as fights go on longer and longer, and he’ll even show signs of injury in later episodes from wounds he obtained from earlier in the season. It’s really neat, full of detail and a probably the single best thing the set pieces do to make Daredevil, as a character, feel more grounded than the larger than life Avengers.
The second half of the season, however, isn’t so great. Once the characters know they need to bring down Fisk the mystery evaporates and it just becomes a case of watching them go through trial and error scenarios until they figure out exactly what will bring him down. And so watching the main characters becomes weirdly boring. Like very boring. The thing holding the show up at this point are the scenes we get of Fisk and his crime buddies because of how complex their relationships are and it’s fun to watch them interact. The gangs are all so diverse, but clearly in need of one and other so their communication is always unique.
The casting in the show is by far the best part of it and, while Charlie Cox as Daredevil and Vincent Denofrio as Fisk are truly great, I got much more enjoyment out of side characters like Toby Leonard Moore as James Westly, Wai Ching Ho as Madam Gao, Peter Shinkoda as Nobu and, my personal favourite, Bob Gunton as Leland Owlsley. Seriously, Bob Gunton is great whenever he’s in this. He’s the most self-aware character in the show and more deceptive than he seems. When the plot does fail to keep your attention, the side characters do a lot of heavy lifting in large part because of how well they were each cast.
And I do want to bring attention to execution here; Fisk as a villain is known as Kingpin in the comics. You may recall him trying to build a ludicrous science fiction machine to merge realities together in Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse (2018), so it’s safe to say he’s generally a goofy, moustache twirling type. Not suited for this type of “realistic” show. And yet he’s also Daredevil’s archnemesis, so he’s also the go-to guy to be the villain in it. And I think they did a good enough job grounding him. The goofiness of this character has all been pushed into over-the-top violence. Like, when he decapitated someone with a car door for interrupting a date he was on. And all the moustache twirling has been adapted into complete self-interest. Fisk becomes “Kingpin” by undermining his criminal allies, betraying them and absorbing their operations. What’s new is the vulnerability they’ve added to him. More often than not, Denofrio doesn’t look frightening in the role, but actually frightened. He’s insecure, but few know it. And it is this part of the character that the writers lean into to bring out the depth needed for a show of this length. It’s not perfect, and some of their attempts to ground him do come off as a bit too edgy, but they still did a decent job.
Alas, that can’t save this season from the fact that the final episode is, well, by far the worst one. A lot of emphesis is put on teaching Matt that he has to bring down Fisk legitimately if he wants him to stay behind bars, and that doing it as Daredevil will only get him so far. So they do get to Fisk legitimately and then Fisk miraculously escapes the FBI while in their custody, which justifies Matt dressing up as Daredevil to stop him once and for all, completely undermining the whole point of his arc. Not undoing it, granted, but certainly undermining.
And the fight between him and Fisk is… Is really, really bad. I don’t know why because, as I said, some of the early fights in this season look like movie action scenes. But here the choreography is way over-the-top, there are vast amounts of shots where you can tell punches simply aren’t landing, moments where neither character seems as though they’ve exerted themselves despite a big portion of this show’s action emphasising how tiring prolonged combat is. Also, Daredevil finally gets his iconic suit for this fight and it just looks ugly. But worse than all of this is Vincent Denofrio’s acting. He was fine for the entire show – good even – but in this last scene of the episode he has numerous monologues and they’re all delivered awfully. But I don’t know how much I can blame the guy, when all the monologues feel as though they were written by edgy, self-indulgent 14 year olds trying to be deep and meaningful rather than let the actor do his job at conveying those ideas himself… But he was still abnormally bad in the finale.
But worse than all of that – yes, worse than all of that combined – is the music in the final fight scene. They were trying to use Daredevil’s theme when he was winning the fight, and Fisk’s theme when he was winning the fight… But neither theme sounds at all alike and so switching between them so frequently is rather jarring and painful to the ol’ ears. Also, it’s way too loud and over dramatic for a fistfight that takes place in an alley with a puddle in it, where the actors can only move at half the speed of the music because of how restrictive their costumes are.
I think it’s safe to call this one a mixed bag. It’s got a lot of good in it, and a lot of memorable and unique characters who are all well performed, but blimey is the second half a drag. And that last episode, I’d rather forget. More good than bad, yes. But the bad is just as memorable as the good, unfortunately. Nevertheless, Season 1 was popular enough to warrant a season 2 and…
Season 2 is also a mixed bag. But it’s a mixed bag that starts on a higher note than season 1. We begin with multiple gangs vying over power of Fisk’s lost territory after his arrest, only for them to all get hit and wiped out in an extremely short time span. After some investigation, the worrying conclusion is drawn that one man is responsible for these massacres, not an organisation. That man turns out to be Frank Castle, the Punisher.
The Punisher is a Marvel character who is basically the opposite of what most heroes stand for. Sure he fights crime, but he doesn’t believe in rehabilitation or second chances and so he uses military-grade equipment to violently and efficiently murder anyone he finds breaking the law. In the comics he has a 50/50 chance at being a well-written dude who challenges the morality of other traditional heroes around him, and simply being an edgy 14 year old’s wet dream of a hyper-violent character. And for what it’s worth, I think Daredevil does a surprisingly good job adapting him. It attempts to explain his lack of empathy with a brain injury he sustained while serving in the army, but doesn’t force it down your throat and routinely shows Castle to be capable of the things many accuse him unable to be. There is an ambiguity to why he thinks the way he does, that allows the audience to draw their own conclusions about him, which is not the sort of depth a lot of shows like this afford their audience and characters. It’s a much more interesting take on the character than what we got with the two Punisher movies, and it was one I enjoyed.
Again, solving the mystery of who Castle is, why he is that way and what has motivated him is where Daredevil is at it’s strongest. But, just like the previous season, the moment we find all that out at the halfway point is where the show drops off. But what’s worse than the drop-off is that the bulk of Castle’s arc is completed within the first 4 episodes of this 13 episode season, and while he does continue to be in the show afterwards to pursue the goal of killing anyone involved with the murder of his family, he is relegated to the backseat in favour of…
Immortal ninjas. Yes. Immortal ninjas are actually this show’s main antagonist. They die, go in a big coffin, come back to life and try to kill Daredevil. Daredevil meets up with his ex-girlfriend, who is a good-guy ninja and also, unbeknownst to her, a superweapon the baddie ninja’s want to use to do… something? Everyone says they’re going to ruin the city, and there’s like massive underground holes that they’ve dug into the Earth’s crust. But it all goes nowhere. We never know what these baddie ninjas want, only that by turning Daredevil’s ex-girlfriend into a superweapon something very bad will happen. It’s complete shlock. Worse than that, it’s complete shlock that comes off the back of the best 4 episodes of Daredevil to that point.
Yeah, screw all that nonsense with Frank Castle which not only had a lot of intrigue and interesting characters, but a unique relationship wherein Daredevil and Frank both stood for the same thing, but were at odds with each other because of how they decided to deal with criminals they encountered. Screw all that depth and the interesting conflict of their ideologies. Immortal ninjas. That’s what we’re going with. The question remains… Why?
Well season 2 was released after the shows Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. These shows were also part of the Netflix universe leading into some big team-up show. And because Daredevil had already been established in season 1 of his show, I guess they decided season 2 would be nothing but set up for that eventual team-up one. At the time we didn’t know this. But now we do, because when the team-up show, called The Defenders, did eventually release it involved immortal ninjas in massive underground tunnels doing some weird sci-fi stuff.
The result is a season where Daredevil (excluding during the first 4 episodes) is at his worst, by far, out of the entirety of all three seasons. He’s doing boring things with uninteresting characters, while all the fun stuff is being done by Foggy and Karen at work, as the Punisher tries to get revenge on a bunch of folks who wronged him in prison. Clearly the Punisher story line is what the writers wanted to focus on, but the immortal ninja crap took the spotlight because the extended universe needed to happen.
The season isn’t a total disaster. Like in the first one, the casting is excellent and holds up the show even in it’s weakest areas. Even the most boring characters, like Daredevil’s ex-girlfriend/ninja superweapon is played and performed well enough that it doesn’t become a total borefest (she’s played by Elodie Yung). Her role in the story is to tempt Matt into giving up his life as a lawyer and fully to embrace being Daredevil. It’s an interesting dynamic until she is revealed to be a ninja superweapon, at which point the focus of their relationship focuses on that entirely.
But by far, the best casting is Jon Bernthal as the Punisher. He fits into the violent action-orientated role well, but is also more than capable of getting across hints of who his character was before he became a killer. He brings a certain innocence out occasionally that, weirdly enough, fits right in and doesn’t feel out of place at all.
The action overall is better than season 1. There’s more memorable fight scenes that, while not as grounded and gritty as before, do stick with you. It still has a few moments where the choreography just looks off, when you can tell actors are pulling punches or when the camera is trying to hide them setting up for the next stunt. But for the most part, as I said, it is an improvement.
That said, of the three seasons, this is the worst. It throws out an excellent premise in favour of setting up a future show that wasn’t even that good anyway. So yeah, that was Season 2…
So, between Season 2 and 3 of Daredevil a lot happened. We got Iron Fist season 1, the final lead up to the Defenders, and then the Defenders itself, in which Daredevil was a main character. I can’t go too in depth because reviewing the Defenders would be another thing entirely, but it is necessary to understand what happens to Matt in the show to understand where Daredevil season 3 picks up.
More or less, Matt’s ex-girlfriend becomes a brainwashed, mind-wiped superweapon for the immortal ninjas. We get the tried and true dynamic of his ex now being evil and Matt eventually convincing her to come into the light. The show ends with the Defenders dropping a building down this hole, but Daredevil stays behind to be with his ex and the two are buried by the building. Presumed dead. Matt is confirmed to have survived in a post-credits scene, but his ex is well and truly gone. Also well and truly gone, thankfully, are any traces of immortal ninjas.
The show wasn’t that great and although everyone in it got some more seasons of their singular adventure shows, nothing more came of the Defenders. To be honest it also left the characters in places that didn’t make much sense. Daredevil season 2 ended with Matt embracing his life as a vigilante, only for him to reveal he’s given it up out of nowhere in the Defenders, before he quickly jumps back into the fight like two episodes in. Then it ends with him in the exact same place as at the end of season 2, so all of his development here was for nothing. It also frames side characters like Karen as being opposed to him being Daredevil, when she spends half of season 2 vouching for guys like the Punisher and sympathising with his cause. It also means everyone in season 3 starts off thinking that Matt is dead, so there’s that.
Now that the obligatory extended universe context is out of the way, let’s move on.
Daredevil season 3 is actually a blast. It’s by far and wide the high point of the show, which is odd because it doesn’t linger in the mystery that made the best parts of previous seasons work. No, instead it upright says that Wilson Fisk is coming back but this time he’s worse, and it’s up to our characters to put him back behind bars.
The plot revolves around Wilson Fisk manipulating the FBI into letting him out of prison in exchange for information on other crime syndicates in New York – Problem is that all the syndicates he gives up are his competition and it’s not long before he has a couple FBI agents dirty and under his belt. But that’s not all that’s on his agenda; he also wants Matt Murdock, Foggy Nelson and Karen Page to pay for putting him away. And so the battle is on.
Contrary to my comments on the previous series, this season thrives in the lack of mystery. So many of the season’s cards are on the table within the first few episodes and what sets it apart from the tiring trial and error, that the characters go through to overcome threats in previous seasons, is the dramatic irony. A lot of the time we know information other characters don’t, or that only a few of them do, where previously we were, more often than not, finding out fresh information when the main cast did which made their problem solving feel more convenient than it did natural. Here there’s a lot more set-up and payoff for that kind of stuff, which makes it work better.
As normal the characters are also the highlight, despite the plot being better here than what we’ve seen before. In particular FBI Agent Nadeem (Jay Ali) stands out, who was in charge of Fisk’s detail and gradually learns that his agents aren’t his anymore, but in Fisk’s pocket. Eventually Nadeem is forced to work for Fisk as well. There’s a lot of grey morality around Nadeem as he is clearly a good, honest man but also one who enables a lot of Fisk’s actions unknowingly prior to being forced to work for him, and then knowingly once he’s in Fisk’s pocket too. The redemption arc for his character is what makes him my favourite of the season, as he channels all his guilt and remorse into helping Matt, Foggy and Karen get Fisk put away. As far as I’ve been able to find, Nadeem is not a character from the comics and is entirely an original creation for this show, and it’s telling that I found him to be one of the most complex and interesting characters accross all three seasons.
Then there’s Bullseye. No, not Collin Ferrell’s Bullseye from 2003, I mean an actually good version of character. Another FBI agent named Dex (Wilson Bethel) is a mentally unstable agent with no empathy or remorse. The help of a therapist has given him a way to understand right from wrong, but Fisk is able to twist it and manipulate Dex into becoming his personal assassin. All the action scenes with Bullseye are extremely well done – he doesn’t just throw knives, but he ricochets bullets into people and tosses ordinary household objects like pens and scissors into people’s throats. His fights with Daredevil are interesting as Daredevil kicks his ass in hand-to-hand combat, but is always beat when Dex manages to distance himself and use literally anything to injure him from afar. Bullseye is such a corny character, but here they somehow made him into a genuinely threatening assassin and that’s an achievement in of itself.
The show ends with Matt being convinced there’s no way to stop Fisk without killing him, but is able to leverage the love he has for the woman in his life against him so that his criminal activities will cease entirely, lest she be punished as an accomplice to his crimes. It’s fitting. Season 1 and various interpretations of Batman have played with the idea of heroes breaking their no kill rule, but season 3 of Daredevil is the only superhero property that made me think there was a possibility the hero would actually break it becauee if how untouchable Fisk became as a villain by the time of the finale.
All in all, season 3 is great. And despite taking place after the Defenders, which was a disaster, you don’t need to have seen it to understand a lot of what happens here. Sure, you might be lost as to why the show starts off with Matt at death’s door, but it quickly distances itself from that to focus on its own story.
Season 4 was pitched to Netflix. But it appears either Marvel or their owners, Disney, were the ones who didn’t have it go forward. Disney+ was just around the corner and it was becoming evident that they wanted a more family friendly tone for their Marvel products which is why you previously couldn’t find these shows on there.
However, since then Charlie Cox has cameoed as Matt Murdock in Spiderman Far From Home, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Fisk in the Hawkeye TV show. Thereafter, Netflix announced the Marvel shows would be leaving their platform and Disney announced a new category for adult shows would appear on theirs.
Who knows l, ridiculous as it is, we may even get a season 4. Recently the Marvel shows were reported to be taken off Netflix and moved over to Disney+. And though this show was rather rocky throughout it’s first two seasons, and the character was unable to progress in the team-up show, season 3 felt like the writers found their ground and succeeded in demonstrating they have figured out what they need to do to make Daredevil really interesting. So if season 4 were to happen, I’d be interested.
So yes, I would recommend Daredevil.