Matt Murdock seems tired but wired, and that may be the best part of “Marvel’s Daredevil” Season 3, which represents a recovery — of sorts — for the series that initially launched the Netflix/Marvel universe.
It’s strange to remember the intense anticipation around “Daredevil” Season 1. While at that time there were no shortage of shows featuring superheroes on television, including “Marvel’s Agents of Shield” and Greg Berlanti’s ever-expanding empire of CW/DC adaptations, “Daredevil” promised to be the gritty, grown-up version — then-showrunner Steven S. DeKnight said the inspiration was “to lean more toward ‘The Wire’ than ‘Smallville.'”
After more than three years years and five additional new spinoffs of varying quality, though, the feelings inspired by the launch of a new Netflix/Marvel series might lean more toward exhaustion than excitement. After all, this is the fourth new Marvel launch of the year from this universe, coming just barely a month after the most recent season of “Iron Fist” (rest in peace).
That said, “Daredevil” is the original, and in its third season there’s a cohesion and focus that was sorely lacking in Season 2, with enough plot twists, action, and drama to make the show feel sustainable for years to come.
Season 3 continues the story of blind but psychically and athletically gifted Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), technically presumed dead following the events of 2017’s “The Defenders” — but, of course, not really. Showrunner Erik Oleson (the show’s fourth since its development days) picks up the narrative threads left for him by previous seasons and weaves together a solid, character-driven tale that makes far better use of its supporting characters than we’ve seen in past Marvel series. This is especially true for Matt’s one-time best friend Foggy (Elden Henson), who stretches beyond legal pursuits to political ones, while assistant-turned-reporter Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) risks her life as she digs into the action.
Both are given far more fleshing out than in years past: Foggy’s family takes a prominent place in the season, while Karen gets a whole episode devoted entirely to her journey. In addition, Matt accumulates some new allies, including tough-as-nails nun Sister Maggie (Joanne Whalley, who deserves a great deal more appreciation than she gets for her work in the 1988 fantasy classic “Willow”) and FBI agent Rahul “Ray” Nadeem (Jay Ali) who, like so many in this universe, is all-too-susceptible to compromise.
Cox has always been serviceable when depicting Matt in his many personas, but after three seasons (four, if you count “Defenders”) he’s really settled into the role. By far the most intriguing aspect of his performance is that when in Daredevil mode, he’s scary when he smiles, leaning into the character’s darker modes. And, speaking of scary, Vincent D’Onofrio is back as Wilson Fisk, more involved and more dangerous than ever. D’Onofrio continues to have one of the most naturally intimidating presences on television.
How does it add up? A well-paced season that stays engaging to the end, though doesn’t go quite as far as it could. For more…
[Editor’s note: The rest of this review contains spoilers for “Daredevil” Season 3, through the finale.]
Other than starting soon after the events of “The Defenders,” “Daredevil” Season 3 feels perhaps the least connected to the overall Netflix/Marvel universe of the shows released this year. There’s no notable cameos from other series (beyond a sly crack about how Karen is “way more stable than Jessica Jones,” which is just rude).
Instead, the show plays with the boundaries of reality: Matt Murdock isn’t the first Marvel superhero to talk to ghosts, as we just saw in “Jessica Jones” Season 2, but it happens an awful lot across Season 3, and even an episode largely spotlighting Fisk and Dex bends the nature of reality with its unconventional (yet effective) staging of flashbacks.
The action includes some pretty great stunt work (Cox in particular pulls off a few impressive leaps and flips), including a 10-minute-plus “one take” sequence involving dozens of stunt men, fire effects, and multiple locations. It’s very unlikely it actually was all shot in one take (no shame in that, as plenty of other shows have demonstrated). But choosing to film the sequence in this way doesn’t feel gratuitous; it’s one of the most visceral and gripping action sequences of the year, thanks to the constantly moving camera and Matt’s authentic exhaustion as he stumbles through the violence around him.
On a character level, the biggest twist here relates to Sister Maggie, who’s Matt’s biological mother. As explained in Season 3 Episode 9, “Revelations,” decades ago Maggie abandoned her initial plan to become a nun in the thrall of sexy boxer Jack Murdock, but left both father and infant son shortly after Matt’s birth due to postpartum depression and a desire to return to the church.
Comics fans knew this reveal was coming as soon as “Sister Maggie” was teased at the end of “The Defenders,” but it doesn’t play a huge role in the season’s final episodes. Perhaps that stems from the nature of the reveal, as Matt finds out the truth indirectly and chooses first to confront not Sister Maggie, but the priest who hid the truth. However, since it delays the mother-and-son confrontation, their more important conversation proves unsatisfying as a result.
Meanwhile, the season’s new breakout performer is easily Wilson Bethel as FBI agent Ben Poindexter, introduced with pretty-boy swagger until his inner demons break through the surface. Never compromised is his perfect aim with any weapon, which is a clear set-up for his development into perhaps the most notable villain from Daredevil’s “rogues’ gallery” — Bullseye.
The most iconic supervillains are always best when they reflect the heroes’ opposites. Captain America literally fights a Nazi (albeit a red-skulled one). Professor X is a man of ideals, so his greatest foe is a former friend with a different agenda. And Batman’s a pretty serious guy, so of course his arch-nemesis is a constantly laughing clown.
From that perspective, Bullseye was always a really fun foe for Daredevil: “The man who can’t see… versus the man with perfect aim!” It’s a role that Colin Farrell chewed into delightfully in the 2003 film adaptation (arguably the only good part of that movie). However, in classic “Daredevil” fashion — it took three seasons for this show to commit to calling Wilson Fisk “Kingpin” — Season 3 serves as his origin story, with Dex not truly hitting a transformation point until the very end of the finale.
Instead, he spends much of the season serving a weaker storyline teased heavily by the trailers, but not really introduced until midway through the season: Fisk has Dex impersonate Daredevil for the purposes of turning him into Public Enemy #1. This never really lands, in part because the concept of what Daredevil means to the people of Hell’s Kitchen isn’t defined on the level of what Superman means to the citizens of Metropolis.
It’s just one of the big ideas in play that never gets the level of depth hoped for. Here’s another: Much of the story revolves around powerful white man Wilson Fisk not only evading the law, but manipulating it to suit his own purposes. It’s a fundamentally depressing but relevant streak to the season that feels like nonfiction.
A good chunk of Matt’s storyline pays tribute to one of the more common superhero narrative tropes: When is it necessary for a hero to kill? Can you be a hero with blood on your hands? Much is made of how Matt doesn’t cross that line, but he’s sorely tempted when it comes to Fisk. His choice to pull back, and send Fisk to prison instead of the grave, may represent a strong step forward for Matt Murdock’s soul. But the decision feels just a bit too easy.
Season 3 ends with plenty of reason to be intrigued by a potential Season 4, from the restoration of Matt, Foggy, and Karen’s partnership to the looming threat of Bullseye in full villain form. The show may never have the spark it did in its earliest days, but it did help elevate the way stories of superheroes can be told on television. There’s still progress to be made, but “Daredevil” feels like it’s on the right track.
“Marvel’s Daredevil” Season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.