Daredevil Season 2 Retrospective: Vengeance vs. Justice

“What is it, to be a hero? Look in the mirror and you’ll know.”

[[SPOILERS AHEAD FOR DAREDEVIL SEASON 2]]…and technically Spider-Man: Homecoming a bit, but nothing major, I promise

Check out my earlier write-ups for this season here: Part 1, Part 2, Or the full review of Season One


I hadn’t rewatched the second season of Daredevil since it first aired. I remembered liking it, but not much else. So I was not expecting to want to talk about much, but I was very wrong. The first season of Daredevil is one of those rare seasons of TV that makes you wonder “Is it possible to have a perfect season of a TV show?”. The answer is obviously no, perfection is simply too high of a bar. But the fact that it begs the question says a lot about its quality. Season two, for me, doesn’t quite hit that high of a mark for me, but it’s still fantastic and does a whole lot right. It’s biggest failing is in its villains, which I will discuss further down. But first I want to talk about the show’s titular character.

Daredevil is one of the few characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have a secret identity. Because of that, we really get to explore the two sides of Matt Murdock separately. In season one, we focused much more heavily on the Matt Murdoch side of things, since his main interactions outside of knocking heads was with Karen and Foggy. Season two adds a couple more big personalities, but ones who are much more closely tied to his Daredevil side. Elektra (Élodie Yung) and Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) give us insight into the vigilante world and Daredevil’s place in it.

“If I take a night off, people get hurt.”

I want to talk about all the important characters in Matt’s life and how they are developed as well as what they tell us about Matt. But first, I want to single out Charlie Cox for continuing to deliver a captivating performance. He always brings 100% to every scene he is in, and is even able to emote while wearing dark glasses or his cowl, which is damn impressive. One moment in particular was striking. In an early scene, the stress that Matt is under causes him to temporarily go deaf. And in this moment he is alone in his apartment screaming out in terror trying to hear any sound, and it is positively chilling to watch.

So even though I will be talking a lot about the supporting cast, a major factor in the success of the series is Charlie Cox. He encapsulates everything that his friends and enemies bring out of him and he is the glue that holds this show together. He plays counterpoint to every supporting character and does so flawlessly.

“You don’t get to create danger, and then protect us from that danger. That’s not heroic. That’s insane.”

It would be silly of me not to start with Matt’s friend and law partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson). He was very important in season one as a way to keep Matt grounded. This season he gets to spread his wings a bit more and really come into his own. We see him start to grow independent of Matt, largely due to Matt’s absence and how distracted he’s been.

I like that the drama between Matt and Foggy comes from a place of concern for Matt’s well being with the full knowledge of what he does. So often, superheroes don’t have anyone that knows their secret so the drama comes from “Where are you going at night?” or “Where are these bruises coming from?” And speculating about what’s happening while dancing around the truth. This setup lets Foggy have more agency and makes him feel less like he’s kept in the dark. He knows what Matt is doing and knows the risks and the reward and can argue from a place of knowledge, which means so much more.

“I don’t know about you, but I worked really hard for my law degree. Nights and everything.”

Right from the start, Foggy is shown branching out on his own. In one scene, he visits the hangout of the fearsome biker gang, The Dogs of Hell. He does this armed only with his determination. Even after he barely survived the encounter, he still requests the information that he came for rather than get away while he can. For someone without the super-senses or training that Matt has, that’s a very brave move.

It’s great to watch Foggy overcome these odds. Usually he gets out of tough situations by using his wits, like Matt is known to do on occasion when he’s not using his fists. But I think he handles these situations even better than Matt does. It never ceases to delight me whenever Foggy goes into full-on Columbo-style “you fucked up by underestimating me” sassy attack mode. He does this while stopping a fight between two gang members at the hospital, when dealing with District Attorney Reyes trying to undermine him, and he even lets loose on Matt when Matt continued to let his work as Daredevil get in the way of the case they were working on.

Towards the end of the series, we see Foggy fully separating from Nelson and Murdock, as he’s recruited by Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss from Jessica Jones) after impressing her firm with his handling of Frank Castle’s trial. A trial which I was glad to see on screen. It gave us a wonderful view into how normal people and the law feel about vigilantes.

“Frank Castle never came home. He just traded in one war zone for another.”

Speaking of Frank Castle, holy hell is he a tremendous standout this season. So, I have always kinda liked Jon Bernthal. He is the kind of actor who has played basically the same generic charming tough guy character in everything I knew him from, but that said, he always played that character very well. Going into this season, I was expecting a typical Jon Bernthal performance as Punisher, and that would’ve been just fine. Probably not as good as Thomas Jane (from the 2004 Punisher film), but perfectly decent. But he really stepped up to the plate for this role and shocked the hell out of me which was a very welcome surprise. He did everything right in this role.

From his wordless and determined chase the first time we see him, through every brutal fight and heartfelt dialogue scene, he was solid every step of the way. Frank Castle served as an example of what happens when vigilantism is taken to its extreme. His determined quest for vengeance and his willingness to kill those who he felt deserved to die contrasted beautifully with Matt Murdock’s moral code and sense of justice. In season one, Matt wrestled with the “devil inside him”, the deep part of him that craved vengeance over justice. Frank Castle shows what Matt could be if he ever gets pushed that far.

“The whole force is split. Some cops want him off the street, others think he’s making our jobs a whole lot easier. But if you ask me it’s only a matter of time before the wrong person gets caught in the crossfire.”

Later on, I will be complaining about how sometimes the series violates the rule of “show, don’t tell”, but I’d like to preemptively defend two of Frank’s pivotal moments. In both the scene on the rooftop with Daredevil (which I talk about in depth here), and the graveyard scene in episode 4, Frank Castle does a lot of talking about his ideology and his history. The biggest reason why this doesn’t violate that rule, is that even though things are spelled out here in dialogue, they are shown and represented in his character throughout the show. These dialogue moments simply fill in the gaps between other defining character moments. Not to mention, they are so well written that I’d likely give them a pass anyway. Frank’s monologue at the graveyard where he describes his last moments with his family is a heartwrenchingly beautiful scene and is the best material I’ve ever seen given to Jon Bernthal and he delivers it wonderfully.

“People that can hurt you, the ones that can really hurt you, are the ones that are close enough to do it. People that get inside you and tear you apart, and make you feel like you’re never gonna recover. I would chop my arm off right here, in this restaurant, just to feel that one more time for my wife.”

The scene with Frank and Karen in the diner in episode 11 is fantastic. It really shows the human, caring side of Frank as he teaches Karen a valuable lesson on love. This is the first time that Karen has really had a chance to talk about her feelings for Matt out loud, so we get to see her try to make sense of those feelings. It’s also a great moment for Frank. In the past, we’ve either seen him talk about his family in the context of finding vengeance, or in the sense of parental love. But now we see Frank talk about his romantic love for his wife. It’s a touching moment that shows the more human side of Frank that we see haven’t seen much of since his arrest.

“You cross over to my side of the line you don’t get to come back from that. Not ever.”

In their final dialogue scene with each other, Matt tries to convince Frank to join forces in the search for The Blacksmith. Matt is desperate at this point and even suggests that just this once they can solve things Frank’s way when they find him. But Frank stops him. Despite trying to convince Matt on that rooftop that he’s not going far enough, and his constant frustration that Matt won’t let him kill when they fight on the same side (a hilarious moment every time), Frank urges him not to follow in that path. This shows that even though Frank feels his way is right and that Daredevil doesn’t do enough, Frank still feels the weight of his choices, he knows how hard it is and that just like his victims, the results are permanent. These choices stay with him. He knows that Matt couldn’t handle the guilt that would weigh on him, and wants to protect him.

After Frank Castle succeeds in his quest for vengeance against those who caused the death of his family, he makes one more choice. The choice as to what his next step will be. Despite earning the name in the press earlier, this is when he truly becomes The Punisher. He turns away from Karen’s moral grounding and literally and figuratively closes the door to her.

“We’re not talking about something that happened to Frank Castle, we’re talking about something that is happening to him.”

I have to admit, the first time I watched through this season, I missed a crucial character detail about Karen Page. I missed it so hard that I went into this re-watch complaining that it wasn’t there. But it totally was. In season one of Daredevil, Karen is kidnapped by Wilson Fisk’s right hand man, James Wesley. During her escape, she shoots and kills him. Watching through the first time, I was excited to see how taking a life would effect her going forward, but was sad to see that it was never brought up at all in season two.

What I failed to realize was that even though they didn’t explicitly talk about that moment, it served as a core reason why Karen was so sympathetic towards Frank Castle this entire season. She knows that killing is wrong, but can’t concede that it’s never necessary, and that sometimes it’s completely justified. She has to take this stance. She has to rationalize it or the guilt would eat her up. Even Frank Castle knows that once you’ve killed it changes you. But by seeing that there is a vigilante who goes to those extremes, unlike her savior Daredevil, it helps her cope with her own conscience.

“Ever since we took on Frank’s case, I keep asking myself if there’s really a difference between between someone who saves lives and someone who prevents lives from needing to be saved at all.”

All of that comes to a head when Karen and Matt have an argument about the ethics of Frank Castle’s methods. This personal history is why the argument between her and Matt was so intense and heartbreaking for both of them. It wasn’t just the sense that the other person has a different moral stance, but each thought that it meant that they themselves wouldn’t be accepted by the other person if they knew about what they’ve done. Matt fears that Karen thinks that Daredevil doesn’t go far enough and would see his moral code as a weakness just like Frank did. And Karen worries that Matt wouldn’t understand or forgive her if he knew that she had taken a life, even to save herself.

It was such an effective way to build upon both of these characters, and I totally missed it the first time through.

“Well, sweetheart, you don’t break into my house and then talk to me about trust”

Like Frank Castle, Elektra is another character that could easily have been half-assed. A mysterious and sexy character from Matt’s past whose reappearance complicates his budding relationship with Karen. Not a new idea by a long shot. And again, under certain circumstances wouldn’t have even been bad. But Daredevil once again goes above and beyond. From her first set of flashbacks where we see an organic and passionate relationship bud between the two of them, and then suddenly come to a grinding halt when Elektra offers Matt the chance to kill the man responsible for his father’s death.

This was such a great moment showing how Matt was starting to let his morals slide under Elektra’s influence (breaking into a house, vandalizing for fun), and also demonstrating how far Elektra was willing to go. This had the same jarring impact as when real world relationships have a fiery beginning only to be suddenly derailed by a fundamental difference. Whether it’s wanting kids or not, or in what kind of environment each person wants to live in. Those kind of relationship enders hurt far worse since both parties still feel the same strong emotional bond. But like any good fiction, Daredevil takes this to an extreme not often found in the real world. At least, I’ve never had an argument with a significant other about their stance on murder, but your mileage may vary.

Anyway, once she reenters his life and he finds out that she’s been trained by Stick as well, Elektra gives Matt someone to truly connect with on the side of his Daredevil persona (after some initial hesitance and friction). He is even willing to leave with her in the end because she’s the only one that understands both sides of him, who sees him wholly. Especially after his argument with Karen that  made him not want to reveal to her his  identity as a vigilante. He’s been divided for so long, and Elektra makes him feel complete. And this makes him feel more alive than he’s ever felt. Making her death carry with it even more weight, as Matt loses a piece of himself. This is likely what prompts him to reveal his identity to Karen in the end. It’s his attempt to reconnect with someone fully the way he did with Elektra. 

“It doesn’t mean we have to fight Stick’s way. He kills his enemies, and we don’t have to. It’s not easy. It’s impossible. But it’s a choice and it’s a choice that I remake every single day. Every second, sometimes.”

Matt spends a lot of time trying to convince Elektra to understand his morality rather than Stick’s. She’s Born to kill, and Stick encouraged that, making her into a warrior that will stop at nothing.

Stick is a fascinating character and a great mentor figure. By great I don’t mean morally good, I mean dramatically interesting. Unlike most “old wise mentors” he is unreliable, manipulative, and kind of an asshole. His motives are also largely unclear, which makes every scene he is in filled with tension and mystery. Which actor Scott Glenn steers into beautifully.

“He thinks you’re worth saving. Earn that.”

What I find really curious is that Stick is the only character this season to actually praise Matt’s decision making and morality. Foggy, Karen, Claire, Frank, Elektra, and oftentimes even Stick himself, all argue with Matt’s decisions at one point or another. Matt is always trying to convince people that he’s doing the right thing. Ironically, Stick was the only person Matt never really tried to convince, already certain he’d stubbornly disagree. Yet Stick relented, not in front of Matt of course, and tried to make Elektra see things from Matt’s point of view. It speaks to the respect that Stick has for Matt, despite acting somewhat antagonistic most of the time.

“You know the problem with martyrs? The good ones end up dead.”

Despite all my rampant nerding out, I will be the first to admit that this season does have its problems. Some it fixes, some it makes up for, and a couple are just frustrating.

First off, right away, the Daredevil outfit takes some getting used to. Something is just off about the silhouette and/or the way the cowl sits on Charlie Cox’s head. For me anyway, it was pretty distracting. Fortunately, this is fixed a ways into the season when he gets a new cowl. It works so much better, but it would’ve been nice to have had him look that good the whole time.

As much as I raved about how a lot of the conflict helped inform Matt’s character, the drama between Matt, Foggy, and Karen that started out great and well motivated, eventually went a little too far. Especially since it was dealing with very similar arguments that had already happened in season one. On the plus side, Karen and Foggy did plenty of growing on their own and weren’t simply reduced to these arguments. That would’ve been way worse.

One of the most glaring problems with Daredevil season two, is that it suffers from the MCU’s long-standing villain problem. Few can deny that the MCU in all its forms tells great, layered stories about its heroes. In the movies, however, the villains tend to lack the same depth that the heroes have and come off as one-dimensional characters simply there to have someone for the hero to fight (the big exceptions to that are Loki, and more recently Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes in Spider-Man: Homecoming). Season one of both Daredevil and Jessica Jones gave us amazingly layered villains in Wilson Fisk and Kilgrave. But season 2 of Daredevil opted to give that focus to its new anti-heroes Elektra and Frank Castle. This leaves the overarching villains in this season, The Blacksmith and Nobu/The Hand, somewhat lacking. Both of them are introduced late and their threat doesn’t have that same lingering omnipresence that Fisk or Kilgrave had. And with the Hand, even though they show up frequently with waves of ninjas, they are all very indistinct and feel like reasons to have fight scenes rather than furthering the plot or the intrigue.

The most damning piece of evidence is that I just don’t care about Nobu or The Blacksmith (and this is me we are talking about. I cared about the villain in Ant-Man, for crying out loud. That’s how forgiving I am). While they aren’t really the focus of the story, it’s more about Elektra and Punisher, the characters still treat these threats like a big deal but it’s just hard to care as much as it seems like we should. They both seem tacked on and not fully fleshed out. Unlike virtually every other major character, Nobu and the Blacksmith fall into the trap of telling instead of showing. Their entire motivations and character development is done through simple expository dialogue. We get more interesting scenes with Kingpin in just one of his season 2 episodes than we get with Nobu or The Blacksmith all season. (Which is a little unfair since Fisk is already established, but still.)

Fortunately, for the same reason the MCU films often get a pass, the characters that they do develop are so good that it makes up for having some less deep characters. But it’d be nice to see that level of care given to all the major characters.

One nitpick I want to bring up isn’t actually my own, but it’s worth mentioning. I’ve read several posts about the way that Frank’s trial is portrayed on screen. (Such as this one hereAnd while I absolutely agree that all of their points are quite valid and that the shows portrayal of the way court works is borderline laughable…I don’t care. Should I? Probably a bit. There are several glaring issues that even someone with no experience in law could probably come up with. But I can’t bring myself to actually let it diminish the show in my eyes. These scenes weren’t really intended to show a court drama. It was to further the plot and the characters, which I think it succeeded at. So, it’s one of those complaints that I would not argue with someone if they took issue with it, but for me it just wasn’t that big of a deal.

However, there is one misstep that I find it much harder to excuse. In the final scene, Matt reveals to Karen that he’s Daredevil and then the scene just ends. It’s a crime that they didn’t show us Karen’s reaction to finding out Matt was Daredevil. And since his next appearance is in The Defenders and not Daredevil season 3, it seems unlikely that we’d pick up right at that moment. It just feels like a cop out to make a big moment to end on. Interestingly, I don’t feel that way about Aunt May in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but that’s probably because we, as the audience, are far more invested in Karen Page than in Aunt May. We’ve seen Karen develop and change over time and to rob us of such a huge moment is a damn shame.

But on the whole, I had a great time re-watching this season. Jon Bernthal was the big stand out for me, but all of the performances were great, and the tone and setting were just as on point as they were last season. I’m looking forward to seeing Matt again in The Defenders, but first, it’s on to Luke Cage! Expect some posts for that show coming up soon. Thanks for reading, and be sure to follow the blog to make sure you don’t miss a post, and let me know what you thought of this season down in the comments!

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