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Review: Jon Bernthal’s Punisher Can’t Elevate Netflix’s Middling ‘Daredevil’ Season 2

Review: Jon Bernthal's Punisher Can't Elevate Netflix's Middling 'Daredevil' Season 2

Powered by a visceral display of bone-crunching violence, including spurting blood, ferociously bruising blows, and broken limbs, “Marvel’s Daredevil” season two is, without question, a physically punishing experience. “Daredevil” pulls no punches and ups the ante of brutality, further earning the title of a kind of rougher, “Marvel after dark” TV show. Unfortunately, the “adult”-themed content mostly ends there; the Hell’s Kitchen-set show may be smaller-scale than its blockbuster superhero counterparts, but that doesn’t make it any more soulful or human.

READ MORE: War Is Coming In Final Trailer For ‘Daredevil’ Season 2

However, the sound of cracking bones and torn ligaments aren’t the only on-screen violence you’ll see and hear while watching the sophomore season. That timbre is also echoed in the show’s writers room, where beating you over the head with clunky dialogue and heavy-handed diatribes on guilt, morality, motives, and good vs. evil, is just as common as Daredevil’s billy club bonking one of the show’s many nameless goons into unconsciousness.

Part of the issue is rooted in the appearance of fellow Netflix series “Jessica Jones” during the show’s hiatus. When “Daredevil” premiered last year, it felt like a step-up for Marvel’s TV ventures— their ABC series “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” and “Agent Carter” lacked compelling villains and secondary characters, and its broad writing belonged quite comfortably in the shiny environs of MOR broadcast TV. “Daredevil” ventured into much darker corners of the Marvel universe, boasting sex and sometimes-brutal violence that befit its home on Netflix. While lacking true depth, “Daredevil” season one at least flirted with the ideas of vigilantism, sacrifice, and conflicted villains full of angst.

But the far-improved “Jessica Jones” let us know how much better Marvel Studios could do when let off the leash. Led by Melissa Rosenberg, “Jessica Jones” brought a previously unseen psychological depth to TV’s MCU and even one-upped “Daredevil” on the villain front with David Tennant’s terrifying Kilgrave. It also gave us a more nuanced, fully realized hero in Jessica (Krysten Ritter). Her eponymous show raised the bar for the connected Netflix MCU, but this season of “Daredevil” stumbles in its attempts to say something meaningful about what it means to be a hero.

The faults aren’t just found in comparison to its sister show. After the departure of season one showrunner Steven S. DeKnight (he’ll next be directing “Pacific Rim: Maelstrom“), writers Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez stepped up to lead the show. Their combined experience of working on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Sons of Anarchy” should have bolstered the comic-book origins and its gritty tendencies, with some of the dark comedy of ‘Buffy’ lightening the mood. Instead, it dwells in the gutter superficially, with bloody violence and primal emotions, but its characterizations are often shallow and banal. “Daredevil” wears its aesthetic shroud of dark and gritty like a badge that it flaunts at all times, but it often fails to add any poignant emotional, moral, or psychological underpinnings.

We hear repeatedly that guilt (particularly of the Catholic kind) is a driver for Matt Murdock’s Daredevil (Charlie Cox), but the series never dives beyond this one-dimensional note already established in season one. And there’s great opportunity here for moral complexity given the introduction of an even more merciless anti-hero. The show’s most engaging set-up teases the dangerously thin line between heroism and vigilantism through a vengeful ex-soldier called Punisher, aka Frank Castle (a terrific Jon Bernthal). But once more, beyond a few tête-à-tête conversations with Frank and Daredevil where the anti-hero tries to convince the hero he’s “one bad day away” from the wrong side of valor, the show fails to leverage this dynamic in any profound or powerful manner.

The show’s first season concluded with Daredevil catching and turning its central villain, Wilson Fisk (a truly fantastic Vincent D’Onofrio), over to the police, which leaves a vacancy for the big bad in season two. Enter Punisher, who begins this season by taking out members of various local gangs — the Mexican cartel, Kitchen Irish, and bikers Dogs of Hell — whom he deems deserving of death for their crimes. He dominates much of the first half of the season, with the show wasting no time introducing him to the audience or pitting him against Daredevil in a one-on-one fight. The character’s merciless, R-rated handiwork is witnessed early in the first episode “Bang,” but he’s only seen in silhouette or from behind for most of the running time. Bernthal is easily the highlight of the season and arguably a far more compelling character than both Matt Murdock or Daredevil. The actor brings a physicality to the toughness the role requires, and he plays his more vulnerable moments with equal ease. He elevates the writing, but there’s only so much that he can do with clunky, even corny material.

In the fourth episode, “Penny and Dime,” a monologue that should be an emotional showcase for the actor goes on for an interminable six minutes. In the best of situations, Netflix’s lack of restrictions on episode times (vs. network TV) can allow writers time to let their dialogue breathe rather than be bound strictly by the time between commercials. Unfortunately, this scene, as well as others in the series, are in desperate need of an edit or a director that understands how to shape potentially moving material.

Comic book fans may see similarities in this hero-villain relationship and the one between the Christopher Nolan versions of Batman and Joker, but Marvel’s take is far less psychologically gripping. Here both Daredevil and Punisher have the same basic goal — rid Hell’s Kitchen of its worst elements — but they approach it with different methods and a different final result. Punisher sees them both as vigilantes, but thinks that Daredevil’s no-kill approach is a toothless one that does little for the community. Daredevil sees his counterpart as going too far and taking the law into his own hands. Whether it’s Bernthal’s greater talent as an actor or the better characterization of Punisher and his motives, his arguments go down far more persuasively. Though Cox’s Daredevil can face his enemies in a fight, the true test for future seasons will be if he can prove more compelling than any foe he faces.

READ MORE: Street Justice Takes A Dark Turn In New Trailer For Marvel’s ‘Daredevil’ Season 2

Similarly in the villain-but-not-a-villain vein is comic-book favorite and Matt’s ex-girlfriend Elektra (Elodie Yung). Fans of the character will have to wait a few episodes for her to appear, and when she does, she serves as a distraction for both Matt and the audience. Yung does a capable enough job, but it’s a self-absorbed and grating character possibly never meant to be this off-putting when first conceived. This Elektra is a spoiled sorority sister with martial arts training; a truly terrible combination.

In addition to challenges from Punisher and Elektra, Murdock struggles this season in his relationship with both legal assistant Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and best friend/partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson). A single glance between Karen and Matt in the first season is supposed to lead us to believe in a developing romantic relationship between them in the show’s second year, with plenty of will-they-or-won’t-they moments of tension that rarely feel earned or convincing. Beyond her relationship with Matt, she takes on additional duties at Nelson & Murdock, where she proves herself capable of being more than just a damsel in distress. However, any suggestions of her character’s dark history in the first season are largely forgotten this time around. Henson’s Foggy also gets a bit more to work with this time around and isn’t just comic relief (and your mileage on that front may vary as he’s clearly the show’s most divisive character). He’s one of the few who knows of Daredevil’s identity, and he isn’t happy about the danger he sees his friend barreling toward. As some of Murdock’s duties take him away from the day-to-day tasks of being a lawyer, Foggy is also forced to step up his game, and he answers the challenge.

While season one featured some well-choreographed and shot fight scenes, this season falls short in that respect as well. There’s a supposed one-take fight scene here in episode three, “New York’s Finest,” that calls back to the first season favorite by beginning in a hallway, but as a scene that is a largely animated artifice that feels like watching a first person video game; it’s an inferior battle royale. The season one equivalent, the epic hallway fight, was clearly done with an emphasis on the players involved doing the grunt work. This more hollow and VFX designed fight mostly merits a shrug. Meanwhile, a fight sequence in the sixth episode, “Regrets Only,” featuring Elektra is reminiscent of the gorgeous, blue-tinted battle in “Skyfall,” but it’s brief and far less impressive. Throughout the season, each time the “Daredevil” team teases the audience with an impressive shot, they quickly follow it up with a dull one, breaking any spell they briefly cast on the viewer.

One of the season’s other issues is the inconsistent use of Daredevil’s senses, both in its presentation to the viewer and in how his powers affect the plot. In “Bang,” the audience joins Murdock in hearing the heartbeat of a potential suspect, but that approach rarely shows up as prominently throughout the rest of the season. Relatedly, Daredevil’s hearing tells him when someone is approaching or leaving, except when it’s narratively convenient for him to miss these details.

Fans looking for Marvel Easter eggs references won’t be entirely disappointed in this regard. District Attorney Samantha Reyes (Michelle Hurd) made a brief appearance in “Jessica Jones,” but her role here is more central to the season’s story. Foggy’s former flame, Marci Stahl (Amy Rutberg), appears and mentions that she no longer works at corporate giant law firm Landman & Zack; instead she’s at Hogarth, Chao & Benowitz and name-drops her coworker Jessica Jones. In her lesser role in this season, Rosario Dawson’s Claire does find time to allude to her brief interaction with Luke Cage (Mike Colter) in “Jessica Jones.” There’s also a fun nod to the iconic logo of Punisher.

Like the titular hero himself, “Daredevil” has good intentions, but the end results don’t amount to much nor fulfill the promise of a dark antagonist who’s perhaps more of a mirror image of the hero than he’d like to admit. With six more episodes in the second season (half the season was provided up front for press), the show may have plenty more fearsome fight in it, but it may not prove worth the battle for all but the character’s biggest fans. [C]

“Daredevil” is now streaming on Netflix.

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