It is difficult in 2016 to express just how limp both Marvel and DC’s cinematic offerings have become. Our entire culture has been mesmerized by the constant assault of super hero emblems and visages emblazoned on everything from billboards to soda cans, and the idea that there are irredeemable flaws in even a single comic book film, much less the entire genre, is a seemingly untenable argument. Even when the recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was met with abysmal reviews, it still turned a record profit. The idea that a huge portion of the American and international moviegoing public will go see the latest comic book adaptation is a matter of certainty. When box office returns are the sole purpose of making a movie, and those returns are all but guaranteed by the film’s very name, what motivates moviemakers to create anything that goes above the lowest possible common denominator of creative expression?
In this environment, the first season of Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil series was a huge step in the right direction for comic book properties. Daredevil eschewed the glossy PG-13 pseudo-violence of the Marvel films for the blood, (light) cursing, and more adult subject matter that the increasingly “dark” comic book narrative has been trending towards since The Dark Knight. Punches felt like they had consequences; being in a fistfight exhausted the combatants, who needed extensive medical treatment after the fact. It was almost as if these super heroes lived in a real world of flesh and blood human beings who were frightened and awed by their godlike abilities.
The real star of Daredevil’s first season was Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, the brutish, calculating developer who takes advantage of the destruction wrought by the Avengers’ battle against aliens or whatever to buy up huge swaths of real estate for cheap. D’Onofrio’s brooding Fisk was paired with similarly amoral art dealer Venessa Marianna in what turned out to be the most complex and compelling relationship of the season: the slow development of trust between the two accompanied Fisk’s increasing ruthlessness to such a degree that the two were inseparable by the time the inevitable punching began. Their separation at the hands of Matt Murdoch removed the best relationship the show had around, and the second season proved to be sorely lacking a replacement.
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Between the release of the first and second seasons of Daredevil, Netflix and Marvel upped the ante again with the first season of what is to this date the crowning jewel of DC and Marvel comic book adaptations: the first season of Jessica Jones. Starring Kristen Ritter of Breaking Bad infamy as the titular heroine, Jessica Jones topped Daredevil by continuing to explore of what it means for super-powered beings to live among mortals. And while David Tennant’s Kilgrave, a smarmy Englishman with the power to control people’s actions by vocal command, was at least as good an antagonist as D’Onofrio’s Fisk, Jessica was doubtless the star of her own show. Unlike Matt Murdoch’s cyclical Catholic guilt trips, Jones experienced actual growth during the first season, ending more or less where she began plot-wise (running her own detective agency) but with a renewed sense of purpose and freedom.
I could extoll the virtues of Jessica Jones for the next five hundred words, so suffice it to say that the only missteps in the entire first season occurred when the show got caught up in standard-issue comic book plots. Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones was good to the proportion that is shed the constraints placed on the Marvel cinematic properties: the protagonist drank to palliate her depression, had passionate sex with future Netflix series star Luke Cage, was realistically affected by the pain and deaths of those around her, and ultimately finished off the season’s main villain with a well-earned neck snap that made the one at the end of Man of Steel feel downright pedestrian. The deeper into the real-world consequences that resulted from the actions of super-powered beings the show got, the more interesting it became.
But the largest single commonality between what made the first seasons of both of these shows good and great, respectively, was the presence of a strong villain. This is something that every single Marvel cinematic property has lacked, and to find two of the best-developed and most compelling villains in the modern television landscape being given large chunks of time in each series was a breath of fresh air. The lack of a good antagonist is the single greatest flaw in the second season of Daredevil. Without a Fiskian villain to prop up the narrative, Matt Murdoch becomes a stale dispenser of ninja-bound punches and empty phrases about guilt and love. Even the presence of The Punisher, who is handled as well if not better here than in any other incarnation, is not enough to stop the sinking ship. His scenes often feel as if they are out of a better show into which Daredevil occasionally drops in order to muck up the awesomeness.
The Punisher is the only new character who works. Elektra, Murdoch’s murderous old flame played the gorgeous Elodie Young, embodies the worst of Matt’s traits, except that she cuts enough people’s throats that she actually has something to be guilty about. The inevitable series of reveals about her involvement with the larger plot elicits yawns. By the time a scar-faced Nobu shows up from the dead with an army of increasingly-disposable ninjas threatening to bring about the end of the world yet again, this reviewer found it very difficult to care whatsoever.
The one redeeming factor of the season is, yes, The Punisher, and right now the best possible thing that could come out of Daredevil would be an order for a Netflix series with him as the star. At one point The Punisher, duct taped to a chair and being tortured for information by an Irish mob boss implicated in the death of his family, opens up a wound in his arm, extracts a razor blade, cuts himself free, and proceeds to exact bloody revenge on the whole gang. If this scene doesn’t function as proof of concept for a whole season of Punisher shenanigans, then the Marvel and Netflix partnership is deeply flawed.