By Doctor Comrade
Minor spoilers ahead.
Season 2 of Marvel’s Daredevil was released on Netflix on March 18. Following a successful first season, Daredevil returned with the addition to two new antagonists: Frank Castle, also known as “The Punisher,” played by Jon Bernthal, and Elektra Natchios, Murdock’s assassin college ex-girlfriend, played by Elodie Yung. Season 2’s new characters, and primarily the Punisher, force Matt Murdock/Daredevil (played by Charlie Cox) to confront the ugly possibility that his mission is not only futile but also inherently misguided. The Punisher arrives in Hell’s Kitchen to exact revenge for the death of his family, and he does so by brutally torturing and massacring the gangs of Hell’s Kitchen. Daredevil confronts the Punisher and attempts to stop him from worsening the chaotic gang system that remained after season 1.
In the conversations between the Punisher and Daredevil, the audience learns that both men seek out the violent elements of Hell’s Kitchen to prevent them from harming society. The conflict between them is over methods: the Punisher maims and kills his enemies, but Daredevil is committed to incapacitating them so the police can imprison them. More importantly, Daredevil leaves his victims alive so that they have the possibility of achieving redemption (part of his Catholic guilt that is made obvious during several scenes in his local church).
Because both men are intent on eradicating evil, each in their own way, they seem to inhabit two sides of the same heroic figure. In essence, they are the hero and the anti-hero inhabiting the same psyche: the psyche of the aspirational audience that views superhero shows as vicarious incarnations of justice. I’ve written twice before about how the strictures of modern society prevent people from experiencing justice in their lived experience, so they seek it out in accessible forms like entertainment. For instance, the audience enjoys Hannibal Lecter because he is an anti-hero who lives out the audience’s darkest fantasies of revenge and justice. Similarly, people engage in escapist games to amass wealth and enjoy unfettered freedom. In the same way, the audience is drawn into the conflict between the Punisher and Daredevil by this same mechanic: each hero appeals to a different part of our need for justice.
The Punisher represents polite society's vengeful id, the paradoxically law-and-order executor of retributive justice. When we are outraged about criminals who are sentenced too lightly or who escape through legal loopholes, there is the Punisher to reassure us that justice is possible so long as we do not concern ourselves with bureaucratic nonsense, political expediency, or legal constraints. He is the heroic anti-hero, the protector, the soldier, our basest and most brutal instincts manifested in a man who delivers what we desire. He gives us the justice the police can’t and other superheroes won’t.
Daredevil is the Punisher’s converse. He is the moralistic super-ego, the principled and determined regulator. In episode 2, when the outfitter who crafts Daredevil’s armor says that he promised not to do anything illegal anymore, Daredevil declares un-ironically, “I’m not a criminal,” despite being a vigilante. Daredevil should know: he’s the highly educated lawyer. He runs the altruistically ramshackle law practice perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy because he defends clients who pay him with chickens and pies. He sacrifices himself for the good of the whole, making himself the quintessential good guy. And even though the Punisher’s actions have ostensibly good outcomes for Hell’s Kitchen, Daredevil pursues him in order to quell the violence.
It’s easy to overlook how the Punisher protects and defends bourgeois society. When the police fail to act (or in this case, the corrupt District Attorney is covering up a conspiracy), the Punisher patrols the borders of chaos, repelling evil through violence. His challenge to Daredevil is not that he is lawless, but that his interpretation of society’s rules is so strict that he rationalizes killing alleged criminals. Daredevil, on the other hand, believes in the law’s power to regulate society, and his role is to bring criminals to the law.
The Punisher is pure instinct: thoughtless action ruthlessly carried out against perceived enemies. Daredevil is considerate and thoughtful, and he even fights other heroes who are too violent (Stick, Elektra, and the Punisher). Both see the preservation of society as their ultimate goal, so they punish criminals: the Punisher uses the death penalty, and Daredevil uses the possibility of redemption and rehabilitation. They are two sides of the same coin.
During their rooftop debate in episode 3, the Punisher makes this point explicitly. He tells Daredevil, “You’re one bad day away from being me.” Essentially, Daredevil is an incidental coin flip away from being the Punisher, and the Punisher chastises Daredevil for his naiveté and idealism. But the Punisher doesn’t kill Daredevil, he tries to win him over (a constant theme is murderous characters trying to convince Daredevil that killing is justifiable, including his mentor Stick and Elektra. And yet Daredevil/Matt Murdock remains committed to redemption). The Punisher makes a compelling case for violence, arguing that he is the chaos that allows order to remain. And during this scene, he delivers the line that encapsulates the conflict with Daredevil and his essential function to the story: “I do the one thing you can’t: you hit ‘em and they get back up; I hit ‘em and they stay down.”
This also contrasts the characters of the Punisher and Daredevil in another way. During the Punisher’s trial, it is revealed that he’s a decorated war hero from the war in Afghanistan. Again, he comes to represent the patriotic duty of the soldier, someone whose mission is necessarily violent and disgusting but makes the world a safer place. The criminals of Hell’s Kitchen are nothing but terrorists, the targets of our justified violent impulses. But he is frustrated by the legal system, embodied by lawyer Matt Murdock/Daredevil. Murdock’s role in the legal system is to provide aide to those who can’t afford it in order to ensure that justice is served for the downtrodden. He represents society’s supposedly civilized and altruistic impulses, the morality of civilization and the rejection of archaic forms of justice. If the Punisher plays vengeful, Old Testament God, then Matt Murdock/Daredevil is the redemptive savior of the New Testament. They are the dualism of contradictory beliefs contained in the same mind.
If you enjoyed season 1, prepare for more of the same: a compelling and complex antagonist, brutal hand-to-hand combat in confined spaces, witty banter, Batman voice, fight scenes that go on too long, bad-guys-have-guns-but-never-shoot-them fights, and unrealistic courtroom sequences. The fear for many good shows is that their second seasons will fall short of expectations established by their first seasons. But Daredevil exactly lives up to expectations: it is another example of Marvel’s ability to continue producing C+/B- content. It definitely earns a third season and I plan to continue watching. However, Jessica Jones was a much better show, and it’s impossible not to compare Marvel’s first two forays into Netflix’s streaming model.
But this season also has a degree of self-indulgence, from either lazy writing or bad editing. Netflix has allowed episodes to be whatever length the creators choose, rather than having to fit within the 44-minute model for TV advertising. In Daredevil, some scenes stretch on far too long, and episodes that are 55 minutes long could have easily been sleeker and more succinct.
And get ready for another installment of the “will they-won’t they” romantic dynamic as well. Karen Page, played by Deborah Ann Woll, is a compelling character in her own right. Well-written and independent, she controls most of the legal storylines that develop in the later episodes. More importantly, her initiative in the Punisher case gives her credibility as a legitimate part of the law firm despite having no legal training, and it gives her character a significant role in the story. But the romantic tension between Page and Murdock is a preposterous reversal of season 1’s romantic tension between her and Murdock’s lovable oaf of a partner, Foggy Nelson (played by Elden Henson). And there were moments when I had to stop the show and walk away because they made me cringe so hard. It’s as if every writers’ room has the one guy saying, “We really need to shoehorn in a love interest or everyone will stop watching.” He’s wrong. Again. For the billionth time. Why can’t she just be her own awesome character?!
Overall, Daredevil re-establishes itself as one of Marvel’s finest properties. It’s far better than DC’s comparable shows like The Flash or Arrow, and I prefer the 13-episode release over another Hulk or Iron Man movie. As a standalone show, Daredevil is second only to Jessica Jones in today’s slate of superheroes.