Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Daredevil, Season 2

So, I've watched the new season of Daredevil, the original "Marvel comic book show on Netflix."
It's not much of a spoiler to say this season has more ninjas.
I reviewed the first season some time back, so I thought I'd take first crack at Season 2. However, my thoughts have become long and nitpicky, so I've provided some TL;DR versions up front.

Short review: If you liked the first season, you will continue to like Daredevil. There is a lot of awesome in the show.

Slightly longer review: This is a very entertaining second season that, due to not having the novelty of introducing the character, has to work harder to be as awesome, and it doesn't quite make it. It's good, but not mind-blowing.

The long, rambling review you read this blog for:

Season Two opens some months after Season One; the Kingpin is in prison. Blind but blessed with super-sensory powers -- like the ability to know without actually being able to see how much facial stubble he should have before he stops being sexy and starts being a guy clearly too lazy to shave -- Matt Murdoch continues to prowl the streets at night as Daredevil. During the day, at his law firm of Nelson & Murdoch, Murdoch is flirted with by his office manager, Karen Page. She apparently went for the mysterious hot lawyer in the partnership (Murdoch) instead of the funny, dependable husky one with the pageboy haircut (Frederick "Foggy" Nelson) who was clearly trying to make a connection with her all of Season One, and was perfectly charming doing so, but does not have Charlie Cox's biceps or abs.

(An aside: Mike Colter's Luke Cage still has the best-defined chest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

I so want to like the second season of Daredevil more than I do. The acting remains solid, with notable performances by Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle ("The Punisher") and Vincent D'onofrio reprising his role as Wilson Fisk ("The Kingpin").
Jon Bernthal in a scene that does not require a particularly large acting range
Just as everything seems to be going all right -- except for the fact that no one actually pays Nelson & Murdoch except in foodstuffs -- former Marine Frank Castle starts avenging his murdered family by shooting his way through half the organized crime in New York, showing all the restraint of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Murdoch, who (and this is a theme of the season) takes his Catholicism seriously and believes the power to take a life is God's alone (beating them into a brain-damaged concussion is totally within God's plan, though, as I'll mention later), is compelled to intervene.

Simultaneously, there's some business with a ninja-themed magical death cult which brings Matt's super-assassin ex-girlfriend Elektra back into his life. With all the super-tsuris, Murdoch finds it harder and harder to be the Daredevil and be a lawyer, much less a decent boyfriend.

Let me reiterate before I nitpick the hell out of it: I found it decent. It was diverting. Best points:
  • Wilson Fisk's fight choreography is amazing. The Kingpin fights with his weight and strength and it's fascinating to watch. Frankly, the Kingpin episodes in this series were the most interesting to me.
  • There's a scene where the Punisher has to murder his way through a gauntlet of angry men armed only with his fists, and, as grotesque as it is, it demonstrates how Frank Castle's will to survive just keeps him going (unlike some other fight scenes pointed out below).
  • Madam Gao is still (briefly) in the show. She's still amazing as evil tiny grandma. 
The plot moves along at an agreeable pace, and there's lots that's still good, but there are some significant weaknesses:

Last season, we had just the Kingpin. There were some subsidiary baddies, but it was just one plot.

Now, while Matt Murdoch having way too much on his plate is a plot point, there's more more villains than needed for that:
A) The Punisher (an antagonist if not a "villain") is murdering everyone in NYC on his long if ill-defined hit list.
B) The Hand, the aforementioned magical death cult, is doing something apocalyptic in a vaguely Asian way which involves Japanese people and ninja and makes me feel a little bit racist for watching it.
It was a much more sensitive treatment when the Tick and Oedipus faced "The Night of a Million Zillion Ninjas."
C) The Kingpin is rebuilding his empire of crime.
D) There's also a mystery drug dealer who is the proximate cause of the Punisher's family being killed and whose identity is revealed only in the last few episodes at which point you don't care.

You cannot do justice to all of these plots while having four separate antagonists, at least not in 13 episodes (maybe 26, but Agents of Shield continues to show us how to waste a lot of episodes on fanboy references and not enough Clark Gregg). Each villain has associated characters; the Hand brings in Elektra, as well as my least-favorite Daredevil-universe character, Stick (least favorite partly because "blind guy who can hit people accurately with a crossbow" means he isn't "blind" as most people understand the term, but mostly because his plot entwined with the Hand and if you can't tell, I find vaguely-Asian apocalyptic death cults tiresome).

So, remember last time, when I said Daredevil failed the famous "Bechdel test"? 

Still does, and in a crazy blatant manner.

Seriously, there are only a handful of scenes where two women have lines, and in those scenes, the number of times that women speak to each other is even lower. There are only two substantive conversations between women that I counted; both are between Night Nurse and a hospital administrator and, frankly, are irrelevant to the plot.

Let's not get confused and think I'm saying a story must be include the conversations of women to have merit. They don't. It doesn't even mean the stories are sexist, although they often are. 

Here, failing the Bechdel test makes the story weird. Let me give you an example: watching the scenes with Karen Page in them, it feels like Karen Page exists in a world where there are strangely almost no women. 
Typical number of non-Deborah Ann Woll actresses in the same scene with her.
Karen works at a law firm where both lawyers and all the clients who have anything of importance to say are men. All but one of the law enforcement officers she speaks to are men; all of the police officers assigned to protect her in various scenes are men. The journalist she has regular conversations with is a man. When she digs up a source to speak to, that person is always a man. 

Furthermore, there are two other major female characters in this season. Karen Page doesn't speak to either of them. She's in one scene with Elektra where Karen speaks four lines directly to Matt Murdoch, then leaves. Foggy gets to have a long conversation with Claire ("the Night Nurse"), but Karen doesn't even meet her. 

Claire and Elektra are never in the same scene together. 

Remember: this story takes place in modern New York City. Not a North Dakota oil field or on an Alaskan fishing boat. Statistically, there are women in nearly equal proportion to men in NYC.

Now, we get back to Jessica Jones. Even in a show where there weren't that many male characters, it was clear that men existed in New York. Just because Jessica's boss, BFF, craziest next-door-neighbor, doomed client, etc. were women, that didn't mean that she didn't also have conversations with men who were cops, bar owners, drug addicts, crazy mind-controlling sociopaths, etc. It was a New York that seemed, well, not a weird alternate universe version of itself.


I am not kidding when I say that basically all of the Punisher's facial bruising in this scene can be attributed to Daredevil or someone else punching him in the face repeatedly to try to knock him unconscious.
Daredevil's fights are brutal. In small doses, this is "realism." In large doses, it's tiresome. 

Culture blog The Mary Sue loves a five minute fight scene that takes place down a flight of stairs, calling it an iteration of the "hallway fight" from Season One. I hate it and think it's all that's self-indulgent about the violence and fight choreography of Season Two.

If you don't remember Season One, early on in the season Daredevil has to rescue a child from some criminals. He breaks into their place and fights three rooms full of them in a scene that takes place mostly in the confines of a claustrophobic hallway. It was pretty badass.

It also was early in the show, establishing Daredevil's facility with hand-to-hand combat. Also, in that scene, he's basically wearing black exercise clothes as his superhero outfit, which you can see is torn in places from violence. And even in that scene, there are times where Daredevil pops into a room with a bad guy and the exact method of his dispatch is left to your and the foley artist's imagination.

So, in this new fight scene, Daredevil has, for reasons too spoilery to explain, to fight his way through an entire biker gang down about twelve flights of stairs with an object duct-taped into one hand and holding a chain in the other. No surprise: he does so.

Unlike the scene in Season One, it's now been pretty well established that Daredevil, even injured, can mop the floor with anyone who isn't a Navy SEAL or trained by ninja or something similar. Remember at the end of Season One, where a dirty cop who was about to get shot in the head closed his eyes and then, without the camera leaving his face, there were a bunch of punching noises so that when he opened his eyes Daredevil was standing there and all the people who wanted to kill him were beat down? I don't know how else to say it -- it is not a surprise that Daredevil can beat up a building full of "mere mortal" criminals. There's really no tension to this scene; you know he's going to plow through all of these guys because it's been done on- and off-camera for a season and a half. 

Furthermore, as of the end of Season One, Daredevil wears bullet- and knife-resistant armor, so the risk he takes in fighting an entire biker gang is significantly diminished. Not only do we know that he's going to go like a weed-whacker through these guys, we know that, unless one of them is super-lucky, they can't really even hurt him much. 

And on top of the lack of dramatic tension, there are no rooms where Daredevil can fall in with a guy and you not have to watch him "realistically" beat a person into unconsciousness. Look, I appreciate that Daredevil is a show where, often, it's clear that you usually can't knock a person unconscious with a single blow to the head, but watching a fight where Daredevil delivers "I know your concussed, but now stay down" blows to people's heads is just not that much fun. I sat through it saying to myself, "okay, so when do we get to the bottom of the stairs?"

The excruciatingly long stairway fight is only the apex of watching Daredevil cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy to nearly every baddie he encounters. We see lots of fight scenes that go on for a long time because they have to literally beat the bad guys into submission. It gets old and I just don't enjoy it. 

Separately, I counted at least three separate stabbings in the eye with a sharp object, one of which was waaaaay more drawn out than it had to be. If your fight choreography go to is "stab him in the eye," you need to work on your creativity. 

If you're going to have Daredevil fight a weird supervillain, the Spot is way more interesting than a mystical Asian death cult.
  • New York criminal procedure doesn't work that way.
  • Small law office finances, especially dealing with New York City rents, don't work that way. 
  • That thing with the sorta-zombies was never adequately explained.
  • I'm still not sure how the ninjas are so silent that they mask all the things that Daredevil might be able to hear, but still need to breathe audibly. In the quiet places where Daredevil more than occasionally fights them, shouldn't Daredevil be able to hear the synovial fluid squirting back and forth in their joints? If they can silence that, why's breathing a problem? 
  • Daredevil's mask is really unattractive and distracting. It's like a mutant Captain America mask.

Daredevil's fine. It's diverting and well-acted. You won't regret watching it. It's just doesn't rise to hoped-for greatness. 

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