Sunday, April 3, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Daredevil, season 2

I'm starting to worry a bit about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not panicked - just worried a bit.

I really liked the first season of Daredevil. It had its issues, to be sure, but on the whole I found it to be a fascinating, skilled, and creative break from the ranks of the previous MCU movies and shows. The first season had the time and inclination to delve deeper into the darker recesses of characters' minds, and it used effective dialogue as much as engaging action to comprise a compelling tale. This sophomore season is, while not bad, a bit of a letdown for me.

This 13-episode season carries out two primary stories. The first is a new wave of massacres taking place in Hell's Kitchen, seemingly by someone who has a deadly serious ax to grind with several organized crime gangs. We come to find out that it is a lone vigilante, Frank Castle (who is soon nicknamed "The Punisher"), who has an insatiable bloodlust for criminals. The other plot line involves a larger scale, more ancient menace which has a mysterious interest in Hell's Kitchen and which was alluded to in the first season. This latter threat brings Matt Murdoch back in touch with an old, dangerous flame from his college days at Colombia - the wealthy and beautiful Elektra Natchios.

The Punisher's story is mostly great, though there is a lull in the middle episodes. While he's out on his killing spree, the tension is palpable. His initial meetings with Daredevil and other characters are packed with energy, either kinetic or emotional. Jon Bernthal is outstanding as the tortured, murderous Frank Castle, who required an impressive range to play convincingly. Once Castle goes on trial, though, the story drags over roughly four of the middle episodes, with minimal progress. Around episode nine, though, things pick back up and remain strong until a somewhat flat ending in the final episode. The Punisher arc in this season was, to me, the very best thing about it. By the second episode, I was itching for Bernthal to get as much screen time as he could, and this desire only strengthened as the series continued.

Bernthal's Punisher was by far the best turn
that any of the three actors who have played
the tortured character has provided.
Outside of Frank Castle's impressive storyline, I found a disappointing number of weak elements and distractions. I had serious problems with Elektra, both in the way she was written and in the way she was portrayed. While I like the notion of having a past lover be a woman who was in touch with Matt's wild, destructive side, I felt that the execution was clumsy. Through all of the flashbacks and the reunion of Matt and Elektra, I never felt that their passion was fully organic. The most natural scenes between them were Matt's very cold reception of her when she first returns (very understandable, considering how they had parted). However, for unclear reasons, Matt's cold and decade-long disgust of Elektra melts with confounding speed. Even though it's rather obvious that she's manipulating him from the beginning, he very quickly becomes a rather dopey, love-struck boy again. I felt that there was potential for him to fall back in love with her, but the writers did a rather ham-fisted job with it that simply made Matt come off as, at best, a bit dumb or, at worst, poorly written.

The overall story arc was compelling. However, there were often little details that nagged at me. Why does Castle need to buy a black market police scanner from a pawn shop when he's obviously skilled enough to steal one from a police cruiser? Why does Matt sometimes not hear or smell common thugs until they're ten feet away from him? (He could smell bad cologne from two flights of stairs down in season 1). It seemed like nearly every episode had one of these little oversights, and they would take me out of the show just a little bit.

One of the great merits of the first season were the fight scenes. Season two provides plenty more, with a few very memorable sequences which stack up well with the very best of the first season. However, it seemed that the creators overdid things just a bit this time around. There are simply more fights, longer fights, and many fights which offer nothing particularly interesting. None are terrible, but I did find myself zoning out during several of the sequences, especially towards the later episodes. I also didn't completely buy actress Elodie Yung as a world-class assassin and combatant. She moves more like a dancer than a hand-to-hand fighter, which is painfully obvious in a show like Daredevil, where nearly every other fighter comes off as fairly authentic.

Karen Page's humanity, and Woll's performance, go a long
way to keeping a lot of otherwise loose aspects of the show
together and moving along a bit more organically.
I found Deborah Ann Woll's performance as Karen Page to be, along with Jon Bernthal's, the best of the entire cast. Paige's storyline is probably the most authentic feeling of the group, and Woll brings it off expertly. I do feel that a major opportunity was missed, though, in that we never see Page bring up her murder of the Kingpin's assistant, Wesley, the previous year. It seemed completely logical that this could serve as a rationale for her otherwise strange connection to Frank Castle, but the writers either didn't realize it, or they were overly subtle with how they incorporated it. So subtle that it wasn't even there.

The second season of Daredevil was by no means "bad". Still, I do find it to fall victim to a slight sophomore slump. This makes the last two MCU shows - the second seasons of both Agent Carter and Daredevil - a lull for the franchise. I'm still fully on board with the MCU, and I'm excited for Civil War and the upcoming Luke Cage  series. However, I am still wondering if we are now seeing the beginning of the end of meeting the consistent high quality of the ongoing chapters.