Second season introduces disappointing new villains and fruitless moral quandaries
Originally I had high hopes for Netflix’s Daredevil. Its first season pioneered a neo-noir take on the superhero genre, more gritty and investigative than its ass-kicking predecessors. Its fight scenes had emotional consequences, and were used as a last-resort method of gathering intel from underground gangs or corrupt officials. It’s not as good as Jessica Jones’s first season, but it got the ball rolling. However, Daredevil’s second instalment regrettably signals a transition to a full-blown superhero feature, and abandons any sort of political cohesion it may have initially promised.
Part of the problem is the show’s new anti-hero, the Punisher. Portrayed by Jon Bernthal, the Punisher is a one-man army who deploys military-grade weaponry to cut a murderous swath in the search for his family’s killer. He is a troubled and reactionary war veteran who, in his own words, makes criminals “stay down,” and he criticizes Daredevil for dealing solely in “half-measures.”
The Punisher’s over-the-top militarism and clichéd you-killed-my-family conviction makes him hard to take seriously, especially compared to the first season’s primary antagonist, Wilson Fisk. Fisk represented a systemic and pervasive evil which couldn’t be eliminated in a single stroke. He was terrifying because he controlled the military, law enforcement, lawyers, the criminal underground and numerous other layers of New York City. Even in prison, he’s a Leviathan whom Daredevil can barely approach, let alone destroy. The Punisher, by contrast, chains Daredevil to a post, duct-tapes a revolver to his hand and dares the protagonist to take him out then and there—all within the first few episodes.
What with his rhetoric of “cleaning up the city,” the Punisher seems to symbolize the death penalty or American militaristic culture, and his traumatic history and brain damage briefly generate discussions of mental illness. However, the show fails to comment on any of these things, and instead invites us to seriously consider that lawlessly gunning down suspicious people might be an acceptable crime reduction strategy in times of crisis.
The show also endorses a silly moralistic debate between Daredevil and the Punisher, in which both positions ultimately come off as naïve and superficial ways of addressing much larger social problems. Daredevil’s refusal to take lives feels noble; however, his unyielding faith in the city’s corrupt legal system is flawed, especially once we see that Fisk is just as dangerous and influential behind bars. On the other hand, the Punisher indiscriminately kills every goon in his path, often in ways that prevent him from bringing justice to masterminds like Fisk—or to the people behind his family’s murder. It’s hard to feel invested in either character when both of their methods go against any sort of conflict resolution.
Beyond the Punisher, the season introduces the supernatural plots of the ninja organization The Hand and their newly resurrected leader, Nobu. However, this won’t be fully fleshed out until next season, and I think it speaks volumes about the show’s racial politics that its new evil and mysterious antagonists are all east Asian (but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised considering Marvel’s track record).
Karen, at least, has proven to be one of the most consistently interesting characters on the show. While her budding romance with Daredevil feels clumsy and forced – and is clearly intended to create conflict with Matt’s superhero ex-girlfriend Elektra – Karen’s dedication to journalistic investigation and getting to the root of the city’s social issues is what made Daredevil engaging in the first place. Maybe when Daredevil is done punching ninjas and bickering with people about capital punishment, he can rejoin the show’s more interesting storyline.