(This piece contains major spoilers for season one and some thematic spoilers for season two of Daredevil, as well as some thematic discussion of the Captain America: Civil War trailer and of Frank Castle/The Punisher’s role in Marvel Comics. I’ve attempted to avoid any spoilers that deal with the specifics of major plot points, with the exception of a single scene that takes place at the very beginning of episode one.)
Last week, Marvel made ripples across the internet with the release of the most recent trailer for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.
Just a few hours later, a much smaller audience was treated to the first two episodes of the latest season of Marvel’s Daredevil at the Daredevil season two premiere in New York.
For me, the contrast between being part of that very small audience watching the beginning of Daredevil and being part of the global audience responding to more footage from Civil War perfectly parallels the role that Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the other upcoming Marvel/Netflix series play within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. We at once see the massive, large-scale events of the Avengers franchise and each of the Avengers’ solo films, and how they affect the world of the MCU, while being reminded of the fact that, for ordinary people who aren’t playing on the world stage, it’s the stories that take place in their own backyard, that might not be seen by everyone, that have the deepest and most profound effect.
And the stories Daredevil and Jessica Jones tell reflect that in their intimacy, in their focus on close, interpersonal relationships and the many types of love — and hate — that we encounter, the messiness of daily struggles where our decisions may not have consequences for the entire world, but certainly have consequences for our friends, families, and others we hold dear.
Both what we’ve seen of Civil War from the trailers and press and the first two episodes of Daredevil season two deal with similar issues: how, if at all, superheroes work within the confines of the law. But, as with the first season, Daredevil takes what the MCU films attempt to present on the macro level and address it in the micro, in New York City, one of the locations most badly devastated by the events of the first Avengers film
As a former Hell’s Kitchen resident, I’ve heard the jokes about Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen before, and I think, in a sense, season one’s Hell’s Kitchen was more plausible that what I’ve seen in season two so far. In season one, the threat of gentrification has caused a massive exodus from Hell’s Kitchen, as rent prices outpaced any reasonable cost of living and people who lived in rent-controlled apartments were choked out by greedy landlords. Season one’s plot revolved around this harsh reality that is genuinely affecting millions of New Yorkers, not only in Hell’s Kitchen, but in every borough of the city. But season two brings in a criminal underworld element that feels more old-time Gangs of New York than what we saw last season, and doesn’t feel authentic to a native New Yorker — at least, not in recent years. But, so far, that is my only major complaint, and for the most part, I found myself delighted with most of the additions to the show in terms of new supporting cast (as well as returning folks: Mahoney is back and, I was pleased to see, plays a fairly large role in early episodes, though Claire has, to my disappointment, not yet made an appearance).
The early scenes of Daredevil’s season premiere contrast Matt’s own activities, as he stops a band of thieves and protects ordinary civilians, with a horrific and grisly bloodbath in which all of the victims are criminals themselves — criminals who are clearly planning violence of their own at the time of their slaughter.
Jon Bernthal’s Punisher is, like season one’s Kingpin, introduced as an enigma: can all of this violence be the doing of one man? And who is this man: what does he want, what does he stand for?
It’s easy, I think, to get caught up in what we already know of Frank Castle, that over the years, even fans who’ve never picked up a comic have had the opportunity to see his story told in multiple films. We know his story: that his vigilantism and brutality is borne out of his training and military experience combined with the horrific slaughter of his family and subsequent denial of justice. In his introduction to Daredevil, we know none of that: all we see is a brutal, cold-blooded killer; all we know is that he is going after criminals.
In many ways, Castle provides the perfect antagonist to follow Fisk: Fisk, over the course of the first season, is playing a chess game, and while he doesn’t hesitate to get his hands dirty (very dirty, when someone he cares about is harmed), he tends to spend most of his time moving pieces around a board, pitting his various adversaries against each other, or using his power to influence others to do his dirty work. Castle, on the other hand, is a one-man army — while Fisk finds his power in his connections, the Punisher works alone, on the ground, carrying out his bloody agenda with his own hands (and firearms).
He is, in this way, very much like Daredevil: his goal is to eradicate crime and violence that prove a danger to ordinary citizens. But numerous times over the course of the first season, characters ask Matt why he doesn’t kill, why that’s a line he draws, and if he feels it separates him from the criminals themselves; it’s his major point of contention with his mentor, Stick, who prefers killing his targets. And it’s a goal that Matt lives up to even to the end of the show: even when facing death at Fisk’s hands, Matt sees to it that Fisk is apprehended, not killed. Castle has no such moral compunctions.
So, now, following the lead of the first season, we’re thrust into a Hell’s Kitchen with a very different dynamic. The second season picks up on the heels of Wilson Fisk’s downfall: the power that Fisk exerted over the criminal underworld of Hell’s Kitchen has collapsed, and the criminal elements that remain are in the midst of what amounts to a land grab. The exacting terror of Fisk’s control is replaced with the terror of chaos and uncertainty.
But for Matt, acting as Daredevil, his own role should seem more certain. Since the collapse of Fisk’s empire, we’re told that locals now consider him a hero, that people cheer for the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. But “copycats” — like the Punisher — are now taking after him, and not all of them play by a strict personal code. And, so, Matt is asking questions that we’ve seen addressed in superhero stories for decades: where does an individual draw the line between what acts are acceptable and unacceptable, when one is necessarily operating outside of the law? Does a vigilante have the right to define what criminal acts are morally right? And is a vigilante with a moral code responsible for others who act in the name of justice but defy that code?
Matt’s own personal questions and soul-searching, the responsibility he feels for inspiring this new breed of vigilante, take up a good portion of the early episodes of the new season, and it’s impossible not to connect Matt’s moral quandary to the very similar questions being posed by the Civil War marketing: regardless of how a viewer feels about government oversight and personal responsibility as it pertains to the Avengers, would the same sentiments apply to any superpowered — or even merely super-trained — individual who decides to take the protection of ordinary people into their own hands? Would Steve Rogers (who does canonically kill his enemies in the MCU) extend his belief that the Avengers oughtn’t be beholden to government oversight to someone like Frank Castle? And if not, where does one draw the line? It seems as if Matt Murdock is starting to question whether any crossing of the line is justified, even as he sets out to keep Castle in check.
There are hints, of course, that there may be more to Castle than sheer brutality, that he, too, operates within the confines of his own rules. They’re dropped like well-timed breadcrumbs that left me both eager to see how his story is told this season, but that also made me a little bit jealous that I already know enough about him that I won’t be watching in suspense, trying to guess.
Elektra, the other eagerly-anticipated addition to this season’s cast, doesn’t make an appearance in these early episodes, but I’m deeply looking forward to seeing her role in the series.
Of course, the Punisher’s activities don’t draw Daredevil in alone: the still-floundering law partnership of Nelson & Murdock quickly get caught up in the trail of blood this new antagonist leaves behind. The plot gives both Foggy and Karen plenty of chances to shine, as they take on yet another client who can’t pay his legal fees and has the potential to be more trouble than he’s worth.
Foggy’s and Matt’s friendship has changed significantly since Foggy discovered Matt’s identity as Daredevil in season one. While the dynamics have certainly shifted because of that realization, their relationship has in many ways become stronger now that there are no real secrets between them, and their importance to each other is heavily vocalized in the first episode, from the beginning, in a way that is extremely poignant and also rare to see in a presumably platonic male friendship. Karen, who played a pivotal role in helping them to repair their friendship in the previous season, is now established an indispensable equal partner in their trio.
As in the first season, Karen and Foggy are both heroes in their own right and we can see the way their trial by fire versus Fisk and his cronies have changed them. Karen has stepped beyond protecting herself and actively fights to protect others, putting herself in the way of other people’s endangerment, which seems like a natural progression after seeing Elena Cardenas and Ben Urich killed in season one. Karen’s bravery here becomes something stunning and proactive in a way that is very much in line with the direction her development previously took.
But Foggy — Foggy is perhaps the highlight of these early episodes, and the way his character emerges from the events of season one seems to show a great deal of personal growth. He’s traded in his anger at Matt for keeping secrets for the realization that he can’t be hovering over Matt’s shoulder, and furthermore, that it’s okay that he can’t worry about Matt all the time (not that it keeps him from trying). It seems to give the character a newfound sense of freedom and more confidence in himself. Foggy, as Elden Henson portrays him, has always had a noble attitude, but he’s growing into someone genuinely heroic, someone willing to move outside his comfort zone, and it’s this shift in his character that gives him a couple of the very best cheer-worthy scenes in the opening episodes. And, of course, seeing the direction the character is taking this early in the season leaves me very eager to see where his story arc goes.
Certainly, two episodes in on a thirteen-episode season, there’s still a lot of room to make or break the rest of the story, but I can confidently say that this season of Daredevil delivers on everything I loved about last season while definitely bringing the potential to explore new issues, new character development, and a story arc that diverges significantly from last season. I’m going to be marathoning the next eleven episodes the minute I can plop myself down in front of a television set!