Warning: this review is long, and full of spoilers.
About a year and a half ago I was browsing through the comments on a random movie website, when suddenly I found myself in the middle of a heated debate. If there was ever going to be another Punisher reboot, who should be cast as the lead? It was a question that appealed to me, as The Punisher might very well be my favorite comic book character of all time, plus I enjoyed all three movies released between 1989 and 2008. So I threw myself into the debate and made sure my suggestion was heard loud and clear. If they do another Punisher, I said, I know of only one actor who’d be the perfect choice to play him. Then I changed my mind and said no, scratch that, David Hasselhoff would be too sexy and distracting, let’s give it to Frank Grillo instead. Or Jon Bernthal, maybe? He was pretty cool in that show with the zombies. He’d probably do a decent job.
And you know what, motherfuckers? I was right!
I’ll be honest, the first season of DAREDEVIL didn’t do much for me. I liked Charlie Cox (who would’ve thought the dorky British guy from STARDUST would be so effective as an American tough guy superhero?) and I enjoyed the gritty tone of the thing. The violence was hard-hitting and made the show feel much more dangerous and edgy than the big family-friendly blockbusters we’d been used to seeing from Marvel. Occasionally they would even throw in a well done action scene, like that single take hallway fight from the second episode. It made you sit up and take notice. Holy shit, we all said to ourselves. This might turn out to be something really special.
Sadly, those expectations were torpedoed soon after. Aside from Matt Murdock himself, all main characters seemed to be doing their utmost to get on my nerves. Foggy just couldn’t stop whining, Karen was always nervous and twitchy and looked like she was forever on the verge of bursting into tears. And Fisk… well… the less said about that giant lovesick man-baby the better. The other major thing wrong with the show was that there only was enough story to fill 7 episodes, yet they stretched it to 13 (a mistake Marvel repeated with JESSICA JONES later that same year). As a result I’d already resolved to skip season 2 unless they’d come out and do something truly spectacular. Well, I guess Marvel really wanted me to watch the new episodes because they gave me exactly what I wanted. Not only did they make this year’s main storyline about Daredevil going up against The Punisher – they also got Jon Bernthal to play him.
So I binge-watched the fucking thing, and I am happy to report that it was worth it. Undeniably this is a huge step up in quality from last season, in large part because it’s never dull and mostly feels like they actually had enough story to fill 13 episodes. The season is nicely divided into chunks of 4-5 episodes that each cover a (somewhat) complete story arc, and the first chunk is a good one. 1-4 is when The Punisher hits the scene, starts killing bad dudes left and right, and Daredevil starts hunting for him. They fight a couple times, have a philosophical conversation or two, then finally have to work together for a bit before a wounded Frank Castle is taken in by the police. All this stuff is great, with the theory at first being that there’s a whole group of heavily armed ex-military types running around murdering mobsters, until Daredevil finds a half-dead criminal hanging from a meat hook. “They?” the guy gurgles. “Him. It’s one man!” Obviously we knew that all along, but it brought a smile to my face anyway.
And then Bernthal enters the picture and he’s just perfect. The best actor who played the role so far, playing the best version of the character that’s been put on screen. Bernthal is menacing, unhinged and absolutely merciless (loved that little moment when he’s just about to walk out the pawn shop when the owner seals his own fate by trying to sell him some kiddie porn). Action-wise this season really ramps it up, giving us two fights that blow last season’s hallway fight out of the water – and that, strangely, also take place in hallways. Guess they just really like hallways on this show. Anyways, Bernthal gets the best of the two fights when he has to take out an entire prison wing full of thugs with nothing but a shiv and whatever they throw at him, and it is glorious. It’s bloody, it’s vicious and it would not have felt out of place in a movie like THE RAID – although obviously there’s a little less martial arts going on in this one. Still, he straight up eviscerates about a dozen guys in what has to be one of the most exhilarating fight scenes ever shown on television. If you like, you can watch it here right now – isn’t the internet great?
Underneath all the violence though, Frank Castle still has a heart. One of Bernthal’s best scenes comes at the end of the fourth episode, when Daredevil has rescued him from a bit of friendly torture by an Irish mobster (played by Tony Curran, one of a number of interesting actors showing up for just an episode*). That was kind of strange by the way. It seemed to me that Castle let himself get captured on purpose (after all, he hid that knife in a wound in his arm just before it happened) so he could get close to Curran’s character and find out more about who caused the death of his family. But while captive, he was inviting them to torture him, having no idea what they would do to him. He’s lucky they just beat him up a little and drilled a hole in his foot – what if they’d immediately taken out his eye, or shattered his kneecaps or whatever? It would’ve put a stop to his quest for vengeance right then and there. But then maybe he would’ve been fine with dying too, I don’t know. He doesn’t seem to have a death wish, but it would be a way to end the pain I guess.
Anyways, the scene I was talking about comes after, when a wounded Castle is lying back against a tombstone, telling an emotional story about seeing his daughter again after coming back from a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan, which ends with him holding her shredded body in his arms. He brings the emotion, man. This guy is the real deal. And the scene is perfectly executed, with Daredevil just sitting there, listening to this affecting story while both of them wait for the police to arrive and take Castle into custody. It’s riveting stuff, just as I hoped and expected it would be when I heard Bernthal was cast. No disappointment there.
The second block of episodes is all about the trial of Frank Castle. Nelson and Murdock end up defending him during the trial of the century. Yeah, Foggy is still in this and so is Karen, who is the one person able to get close to Castle and develop an understanding of the type of man he is, seeing he’s not just a crazy psycho. She ends up spending most of the season trying to uncover what happened to his family, who was responsible for the shootout that killed them, and why the incident was covered up by the supposed good guys.
So, Foggy and Karen… they’re still the worst thing about the entire show. Foggy is annoying as ever, constantly whining about his buddy endangering himself by going out to fight crime, and otherwise moaning that Murdock is not putting enough time and effort into their little law firm. For a long time it’s like they’re a married couple, and Foggy plays the nagging wife, trying to hold back her man from doing what he knows is right. The writers do try to paint Foggy in a positive light by constantly putting him in situations where he saves the day with an amazing speech, but it only comes across as ridiculous and contrived. At one point he’s able to talk down two gang members trying to kill each other in a hospital by actively insulting both of them, and in another scene he manages to convince a cold-hearted biker to not only let him live, but also to divulge the information he was looking for. Both of these things should have gotten him killed in about three seconds, but somehow he gets away with it. It gets to a point where it’s just blatantly obvious how desperate the writers were to try and force us to like a character that is hated by all. It doesn’t work.
Meanwhile Karen is still as nervous and twitchy as ever, making you want to punch her whenever she’s allowed to speak more than three sentences in a row. I cannot stress enough how irritating I find the way Deborah Ann Woll plays the character, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why Matt would want to be with someone like that. Because yes, they fall in love, go on awkward dates and all that. It’s pretty useless.
While the trial is going on, Matt also has to deal with his manipulative ex-girlfriend from college, Elektra, who suddenly shows up in his apartment. I guess they were trying to set up a little love triangle here, putting Matt in a position where he has to choose between giving in to his dark side (Elektra) or staying in the light (with Karen), but not a lot comes of it. The thing with Karen basically just fizzles out slowly over time, they just put less and less focus on it while Matt grows closer to Elektra, bounces away again, then suddenly confesses his undying love to her – signaling to the viewer in bright, shiny neon letters that she’s probably gonna die in a couple minutes.
I’m not sure about Elektra’s character, she didn’t really appeal to me. On paper she sounds interesting and fun, but that doesn’t really manifest on screen. I think it’s the actress, honestly. There’s something about Elodie Young’s accent and behavior that ensures you never get too close to her character. She’s too unlikeable. This could’ve been a problem with The Punisher as well, but Bernthal makes you root for him. Young tries to make you do the same for Elektra, but just can’t manage it.
Disappointingly, there’s very little Punisher in the final stretch of episodes. Bernthal is off on his own, hunting down “the blacksmith,” a mysterious crime boss that apparently arranged the shootout that got his family killed. The way the story kept extending his investigation by constantly revealing new layers of intrigue, coupled with new villains, reminded me a bit of 24. Whenever they killed off a bad guy on that show, there always turned out to be another one that had been pulling the other dude’s strings all along. Usually when this happened it was quite obvious that it wasn’t some masterful twist that was the culmination of carefully laid groundwork in many previous episodes, but just a case of the writers making shit up as they went along. The blacksmith feels like that too, especially when his true identity is eventually revealed. It’s kind of cheap and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It makes for quite an underwhelming ending to an otherwise engaging storyline.
Meanwhile, Daredevil and Elektra are fighting resurrecting ninjas or some shit. Honestly, it’s not that interesting and I was sad to see the focus move away from The Punisher. Sure, it’s DD’s show and Frank Castle is just a guest star, but it felt wrong to suddenly rush through his story at the end, giving us just the necessary beats of Frank deciding to go on killing forever while wearing a skull shirt, and nothing more. I was expecting him to play a big part during the climax, to really get in on the action while finally wearing his iconinc outfit. But no, he ends up doing nothing but shoot two guys Murdock could’ve easily handled himself, and then disappearing into the night. For me it really drove home the realisation that I was not here for Daredevil and that I likely wouldn’t have bothered at all if they hadn’t put Frank Castle in play.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about the overall theme of the season, which I thought was pretty interesting. Basically the main question is whether there’s any point to being a vigilante at all, especially when you’re not willing to go all the way. Obviously Daredevil makes it a point to never kill anyone, which rubs Castle the wrong way. He thinks our boy DD is a coward, a half-measure. You don’t kill a guy, he’s just gonna come back and rape/steal/murder again. Murdock struggles with this, and throughout the season pretty much every character gets a say on the matter, giving you a nice list of pros and cons by the end of it. Myself, I’m pretty much on The Punisher’s side of the debate, but what I wasn’t expecting, was that Matt Murdock eventually seems to be swayed as well. After all, he confesses his love to Elektra, so I guess he’s cool after all with her habit of killing people for shits ‘n giggles. And when Castle shoots two ninjas in the head during the climax so DD can make it across a rooftop about four seconds faster than he otherwise would have, he gives him an appreciative nod and seemingly accepts that the guy is out there, doing things his way. Maybe Murdock himself still doesn’t want to do any killing, but he sure seems fine with other people taking a different approach. And then at the end he throws a guy off a roof. The guy survives (until somebody else chops his head off at least), but DD couldn’t have known that. Normally when you throw guys off a roof, they don’t get up again. That’s the first thing they teach you in Bible class. Oh well.
Overall I’m happy I gave this season a shot. Other than not having enough to do during the final episodes, The Punisher didn’t disappoint and I can’t wait for Bernthal to get his own series further down the line. I even enjoyed most of the stuff with Daredevil, at least until all that weird shit with the ninjas started going down. And the action is pretty great. I mentioned the hallway fight in prison, but DD gets one as well, in which he takes down a whole biker gang while making his way through a building and down a stairwell. It’s shot to look like a single take, but they cheat a bit here and there. Doesn’t matter – it’s still a fantastically entertaining scene and one of the highlights of the show.
Even so, I can’t promise I’ll want to watch the third season as well. The Punisher is what made this one work, without him there’s not a whole lot left. But who knows… Maybe they’ll bring in Bullseye next season and get the perfect actor to play him, just like they did with Punisher. I’m calling it now: can’t go wrong with The Hoff…
* Also William Forsythe, Clancy Brown, Rosario Dawson (yep, Claire’s back) and Vincent D’Onofrio (having more fun as Fisk in one episode than he did all season long last year).