Sunday, March 20, 2016

TV Review: DAREDEVIL: SEASON 2

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SPOILERS after the jump (and in the video):

When the first season of DAREDEVIL hit it kinda blew everybody’s mind. Not because of it’s much touted extra helping of sex and violence to set it apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though that was certainly novel and eyebrow-raising, but because of that plus it turned out to be really, really good.

Granted, at this point it feels like Marvel is either getting to that PIXAR point where they’re so consistently excellent at what they do *or* that STAR WARS/ROCKY/JAMES BOND point where they’ve created so much a permanent cultural niche for themselves that it’s difficult to apply the same kind of conventional criticism to them you apply to everything else; but it was worrisome all the same that they were going to try building a whole new venture around the “dark and gritty superhero” thing – a recurring trend in the medium that always manages to produce one or two clever works shortly before driving the whole genre into a fucking wall.

In other words, when you pair that with the… “mixed” results of  Marvel’s TV division thus far it almost felt like someone had practically gift-wrapped this to be the moment where Marvel actually, finally fucks something up – I mean, Jesus, even their bad movies are still better than some other bad movies I could name…

But then DAREDEVIL came out and, pretty much across the board, the reaction was: Holy shit, this is good! I like this cast, it’s got all kinds of intrigue and drama and crime stuff, and it’s super violent in that nasty Tony Scott 80s cop movie kinda way and the writing really pops and I like all these gangster characters and they’ve obviously put a ton of work into these fight scenes and it clicks together so well you hardly even notice that Charlie Cox doesn’t really seem to have much range… or chemistry with anyone else in the cast… or that they make you wait until the last episode for him to get his costume… and then it sucks… like, really, really sucks… and that it really drags in the middle… and that there’s a shitload of plot but very little story… or that JESSICA JONES came out afterwards doing a lot of the same kind of schtick but somehow felt like it was made by and for actual adults and not an angry 10 year-old dressed up in his dad’s clothes… wait, why do I remembered Season 1 being so good again?

Oh! Right: Vincen’t D’Onofrio’s Kingpin was such a perfect fucking character – seriously, hands down the best Marvel villain and probably the acting MVP of the entire Marvel Universe at this point – that the sheer magnitude of his presence didn’t just overshadow and overwhelm Season 1’s myriad flaws; it literally filled-in the cracks and spackled over them. For example: That whole thing where Daredevil solves the big mystery of the season in the first couple episodes but then we have to watch Karen, Foggy and Ben Urich try to also solve it again on their own? Yeah, you barely even notice the first time because all the stuff they’re investigating leads back to more Kingpin! Hell, he’s so damn compelling that when he finally turns up for a two-episode guest spot in this season it’s hard not to want him to him to stick around and swallow everything up all over again – even though he’s right in the middle of all the Punisher stuff and everything about The Punisher fucking rules.

DAREDEVIL Season 2… has pretty-much the exact opposite problem: Overall, it’s *probably* better all around than the first season: There’s an actual fully-realized storyline with sensible character-arcs for everyone involved, there’s several genuine mysteries that are legitimately intriguing with (mostly) agreeable payoffs, it doesn’t sag as much in the middle-episodes which is an improvement over most Netflix shows and it feels like there’s a lot of pretty interesting worldbuilding being laid out for (one has to assume) THE DEFENDERS… hell, even Daredevil’s costume looks kind of less than terrible when there’s enough light to be able to see it which is basically never.

So yeah, good stuff but not without flaws – unfortunately, whereas last time said flaws were papered-over by one great element, this time they’re all highlighted and exacerbated by one terrible element, and that terrible element (shockingly) is… ELEKTRA, who is easily the worst-adapted character the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet attempted and might even belong somewhere near the semi-tolerable end of a roster of its worst characters, period

And the tragedy is, you can really tell because she doesn’t show up for about 4 or 5 episodes, before which the Season is straight-up awesome because everything is all about THE PUNISHER – and The Punisher stuff, again, fucking rules. Fortunately, his story keeps going and kind of extends across the whole rest of the season… but yeah, every time we cut away to deal with the Elektra storyline it just feels like such a huge, deflating distraction.

Which, to be fair, is kind of the point of the story this time, so… kudos for doing the job perhaps too well, I guess. Our arc this time is that it’s a year later and Matt Mudock has settled into his comfy routine of lawyering to the indigent by day and punching his crime-ridden neighborhood into behaving itself by night; but now suddenly he has to deal not only with gangsters but with a rival vigilante who’d rather just straight-up murder everyone in Manhattan who’s so much as nodded approvingly in the direction of organized crime.

Daredevil can’t abide that but as Matt Murdock he also ends up defending The Punisher aka Frank Castle in his murder trial because he’s pretty sure the city is trying to cover something up about the gangland shooting incident that figures Big Pun’s standard family-killed-in-crossfire origin story… but then Murdock keeps fucking up the case because he’s distracted every other night by the reappearance of his crazy-hot-but-also-just-plain-crazy ex-girlfriend who needs his help taking down the cult of magic ninjas that apparently never went away from last season.

Now that right there is a really good outline for a season of a TV show about DAREDEVIL, not just plotwise but thematically: If they really are going to insist on sticking with the premise of Matt Murdock as a walking avatar of a uniquely Irish Catholic masochistic martyr complex, you’re not going to find a better literalization of that theme than making the pretext for the superhero stuff he keeps shirking his grownup job and potential emotionally-healthy love interest for than an “exotic temptress” he just can’t say no to. I mean, that’s pretty goddamn basic stuff and the male psyche hasn’t changed THAT MUCH since Frank Miller thought Elektra up in the first place.

Problem #1, though, is that Elektra – as in the specific Marvel character, Elektra - is NOWHERE to be found anywhere in Season 2’s baker’s dozen of episodes. Oh, she’s called “Elektra” and to her credit Elodie Yung has a lot of raw charisma and struggles mightily to do something with the unbelievably stupid character they’ve given her to play… but along with being stupid said character is completely unrecognizable as Elektra; and no, I’m not just saying that because she never wears the costume, although the one she does wear manages to somehow be worse than Daredevil’s which is kind of an impressive bar to not clear.

It’d be one thing if this radical reimagining of Elektra was at least interesting in her own right, but instead she’s the absolute worst kind of female character: The kind who has no interior life, exterior existence or even function in the plot apart from the needs, wants and projections of the male cast. The original Elektra may have been conceived, top to bottom, as a concentrated collection of Frank Miller’s hang-ups and fetishes but she at least had agency and an agenda – indeed, an identity – of her own, informed and driven by own (however poor) decisions.

This version of Elektra, on the other hand, has no such thing: In her new origin story, everything important about her from her martial-arts training to her attitude to her initial relationship with Daredevil to her re-emergence in the present turns out to have ALL been manipulated and managed by Scott Glenn’s Stick - and not only that, he supposedly did so in order to stop her from instead being manipulated and managed by… ugh, yup… her "destiny;" which here involves a really dumb payoff to the leftover “Black Sky” mystery involving The Hand from Season 1. And yes, it’s as dumb as it sounds.

And it’s a shame, because the stupidity of everything surrounding Elektra really does creep up and ultimately overwhelm the Punisher storyline, which is awesome and really should’ve remained the whole focus. Jon Bernthal is, quite simply, *extraordinary* as the best version of Frank Castle ever. Let me be clear about that: Ray Stevenson in Lexi Alexander’s PUNISHER: WARZONE remains the most faithful adaptation of the original Punisher comics and I love it as much I love those comics; but what Bernthal and the makers of DAREDEVIL have done is something next level – actually attempting to make Castle a three-dimensional character beyond the one-note Paul Kersey/Mac Bolan/Bryan Mills righteous murder-machine fantasy that birthed him.

The key? They don’t try to make The Punisher “cool.” Oh, he’s a bad-ass and people are going to love him and Marvel would nuts not to have already agreed to give Bernthal his own series and/or movie, but there’s a deliberate lack of self-conscious style to his mannerisms and his actions that demonstrate a deliberate choice to avoid making him an “action-hero.” He doesn’t have catchphrases, he doesn’t strike poses, there’s no sense of irony or gimmickry to how he takes out his targets and on the few occasions that we get a glimpse of who he might’ve been before the general impression is mostly an exceptional but not “legendary” soldier and a normal, probably even sort of boring suburban family man – what makes him interesting is contrasting that with what he’s become; and Bernthal does amazing work making it feel like everyone is constant immediate danger every time Castle is onscreen.

Hell, he even has the one thing virtually no one else in the cast does: Actual chemistry with Charlie Cox’s Daredevil. Don’t get me wrong, Cox was fine in the first season and he’s fine here, but they still haven’t solved the problem of Daredevil being the least interesting character in his own show thematically and in terms of presentation: The fight scenes are just as brutal and less obviously-choreographed this time around, but it’s mostly the same brawls in the same underlit hallways from Season 1 (seriously, DAREDEVIL loves underlit hallways like the POWER RANGERS love rock quarries) and don’t really change-up until he (finally) gets his adjustable billy club from the comics in the finale.

More amusingly, the producers are so clearly in love with him as the bleeding, gasping, brutalized suffering-savior that there’s almost zero logic at play concerning the training and strength-level of the fighters: Daredevil gets his ass kicked in almost every fight even though he usually walks away the default winner, and it seems to be just as brutal and physically taxing for him to defeat a handful of pissed-off bikers as it does to fend off fifty or sixty highly-trained ninja assassins. Cox is doing what he can, but it feels like both Season’s worth of showrunners just aren’t interested in developing Matt Murdock beyond a costumed embodiment of working-class Catholic self-penance: He wants to mete out vigilante justice but he needs to do it in a way that almost kills him to pay off the guilt. We get it, we got it the first time, please find something additional for him to be “about” between now and THE DEFENDERS.

I mean, what else is a shared universe for if not to be able to say: “Okay, sure, here’s a one-dimensional character; but maybe if we bounce him and 30 or 40 other one-dimensional characters off one another they’ll all eventually get more interesting!”?

It probably sounds like I’m ragging on this season and the series in a general and, I should stress, I’m not. Apart from the existing issues with the costuming and the pacing and the lighting (or rather lack thereof) and the huge Elektra-shaped dead weight dragging down the back half I actually really dig and have a lot of fun with DAREDEVIL – including some of the stuff that doesn’t totally work.

DAREDEVIL is the most “serious” Marvel production so far, which, paradoxically, often makes it the silliest Marvel production: I mean, we’re supposed to laugh during ANT-MAN, but as much I enjoyed ANT-MAN none of the *intentionally* funny parts in it were anywhere near as funny as watch Cox’s Daredevil seethe and glower and clench his fists and grit his bloody teeth with all the turgid solemnity of an angst-ridden middle schooler determinedly etching Pantera lyrics into his Alegbra textbook while the soundtrack thunders and rages with funereal self-importance while up onscreen he’s… doing rhythmic Cirque Du Soliel kick-flips with a bunch of ninjas straight out of a Godfrey Ho movie against the backdrop of a cartoon anachronism of Hell’s Kitchen circa-1982.

Intentional or note, that kind of mismatched tonal whiplash is right the hell up my alley. The great thing about the Marvel productions in general is that they afford so many different entertainment experiences: JESSICA JONES made me think, AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. is a nice mellow distraction, the AVENGERS movies are (at their best) inspiring and I fully expect CIVIL WAR to be a fucking emotional rollercoaster. DAREDEVIL, two seasons in, feels mostly like a weird, nasty, lurid footnote of a thing, but a generally well made one that occasionally (as in the case of The Punisher this season) manages genuine greatness. I really wish they hadn’t tried to force Elektra in this time around – or, rather,

I wish they hadn’t decided to name this completely unrelated boring new character “Elektra” – but there’s more than enough to recommend making Season 2 worth your time. So even you’re completely burnt out on superheroes at this point (which is understandable at this point) I’d say definitely check it out.