“Daredevil” shows marked improvement in its sophomore year

In television, just as in college, the sophomore slump is all too real. You have years to develop, write and create the first go-round without any pressure or worry. Your second (especially when it’s following up a successful first) is produced with a great deal more expectations and a great deal of less time.

This pressure leads to second seasons that change and escalate and add elements in an effort to strike the same lightning twice. There are successful improvements as often as there are are unsuccessful collapses. For every “Parks and Recreation”, there’s a “Heroes.”

Fortunately, “Daredevil” season 2 is a Parks and Recreation, on the whole creating a marked improvement from its first season by adding more wonderfully performed and nuanced characters and actually structuring the hell out of it, even as it’s still having problems with sticking the landing.

Season 2 of “Daredevil” picks up about a year after season 1. Hell’s Kitchen is still a shithole part of New York (defying the actual modern Hell’s Kitchen but, whatever, there’s a talking raccoon in this universe) protected by the vigilante Daredevil (Charlie Cox) by night, who by day protects the poorest clientele as Matt Murdock. He runs the firm “Murdock and Nelson “with his best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Hanson) and his budding love interest secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll).

This equilibrium of the city is disturbed when gangs begin to turn up brutally slaughtered. This turns out to be the work of one man, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal). Daredevil must stop Castle’s one man crusade of vicious vigilante justice while wrestling with questions of his own moral complicity in the savagery. Of course, this is not an easy feat, especially when he’s also dealing with the return of his college ex, Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), an international assassin who brings him into conflict with a cult of magical ninjas. No shit, magical ninjas.

There’s a lot of plot going on here, which is actually to the benefit of “Daredevil”  The first season often felt repetitive or stagnant at times, as though it was stretching out 10 episodes of plot over 13 episodes.

This season plays out in a series of A-plot mini-arcs, allowing it to explore different areas and never find itself bored with any particular one while also avoiding repetition. This doesn’t mean all of season 1’s worst tendencies are shoved away; half the scenes still seem to take 2 minutes too long, but it’s a marked improvement structurally over the first season.

Of course, that’s likely thanks to the lessons of “Jessica Jones,” another Marvel Netflix show that seemingly solidified the centrality or the powerful performances from their supporting characters.

This isn’t a slight against Charlie Cox’s Daredevil, who’s actually quite wonderful in this season. Freed from the burden of set-up, he’s able to really dive into the depths of this character. He’s given the ability to be a swashbuckling lover in addition to the very real and interesting Catholic guilt-fueled vigilante. Cox knows the lines Daredevil has to dance, sympathetic and brutal, tortured and loving his job, and he plays along them perfectly.

Rather it’s a huge compliment to the scene-stealing characters who make up the focuses of the arcs of this season: Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle and Elodie Yung’s Elektra.

This is the third try at a live-action Punisher, a Marvel Comics character designed to test the limits of the superhero premise by murdering the villains that come his way, and it’s by and away the absolute best. Not just because of Bernthal’s performance, but holy shit is that a heavy factor.

Bernthal turns in award-worthy work, an amazing and nuanced take on a character who needs it. He feels incredibly at home in the brutal violence the character visits on his victims, having his greatest moment come in a late season fight in which he slaughters 12 prison inmates armed with a shiv and his wits.

Yet he counterbalances that violence with a deep and legitimate sympathy. It makes just as much sense for Castle giving Karen Page advice about her love life as every moment of murder. It’s a dream performance, a chance to do a world of range in a variety of situations and Bernthal nails it.

But the performance is also the best because it finally gets how the Punisher should work. The Punisher is a reaction, dealing with the fundamental question of whether or not heroes should kill. Setting him up as a supporting character alongside Daredevil allows for him to poke and prod at ideas and have a larger and far more interesting dynamic with the world than any lead role in which he must remain fully sympathetic. The Punisher is a force, and that’s immensely compelling.

Elodie Yung’s Elektra is also a third attempt at live-action Elektra, and is again by and away the absolute best version. She represents an entirely different kind of antihero from Punisher, one more subtly sinister, but one who challenges Daredevil in an entirely different way, because she gets in under his skin.

Yung and Cox have immense chemistry from the get-go. It’s an intense, violent sexual chemistry that informs the duality of this season. As Daredevil, no one gets that risk-taking part of him like Elektra does. As he’s giving in more and more to that side of himself, he becomes more and more attracted to Elektra, leading to some truly fantastic banter and team-up battling.

And it’s not hard to see why Daredevil has such a fondness for Ms. Natchios. Yung gives her an amazing playfulness and wit amidst her near-psychotic desire to take human life and to turn Daredevil into someone just like her.

It’s a season of dualities, of Matt having to make the decisions of who Daredevil will be and getting closer and closer to the final answer. Much more than the previous simplicity of “He’s going to be a superhero,” this season asks what kind of hero he’s going to be. One of principles, or one making decisive solutions at the cost of his humanity.

I’ve talked a lot about character here, and that’s just because these characters give me so much to discuss. They’re fascinating, informative of the conflicts and drive the plots. They’re a wonderful bunch who I could analyze all day.

And moreover, it’s because that’s just what the Marvel approach has been about. I’m writing this and the next paragraph long after I initially wrote this review, and in the light of the recent release of Captain America: Civil War. No matter how disconnected this series ultimately ended up being from that movie, we interestingly see the two treading very similar ground. Both ended up dealing with the notions of asking how heroes operate in their world, “Daredevil” on a very small scale and Civil War on a very large one.

But no matter the scale, both of them have taken the brilliant move of couching that conflict in character. First and foremost, Marvel knows that you can earn so much if you care about the characters.

There’s amazing fight sequences and some impressive bits of cinematographic storytelling (those one-take fight sequences though). But more than anything else, Daredevil season 2 gets the endearing and fascinating character-based storytelling that makes comic books great.

Grade: A-

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