The idea of the villain as a dark reflection of the hero is not a new one. Frank Miller did it decades ago; so did Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Comic book adaptations have soared or sunk based on how effectively they’ve pulled off this trope. When done well, it’s “Macbeth.” When fumbled, the results run the gamut from corny to positively insufferable.
The third season of Marvel’s “Daredevil” does occasionally land in somewhere in the middle of that scale. But in the six episodes provided to critics, the overall effect is so engaging that it’s easy to forgive those missteps (or most of them, anyway). That’s due, in no small part, to the return of one of Marvel’s best villains; it’s also the result of the introduction of another. But the bedrock of its success isn’t found in the characters that reflect the darkness in Matt Murdock. It’s in the reflection he sees projected back at him by his closest friends.
There’s another cliché at play here: the whole “Netflix’s Marvel series are too long and too slow” thing, which isn’t so much applicable as wholly reinforced by the first half of season three. Refreshingly, that familiar bloat is front-loaded, and is the result of a commitment to making recovery (physical and emotional) for Matt Murdock a slow process, rather than the need to stuff the back half of the season with narrative contrivance designed to delay the climax. In short, it’s an encouraging kind of flaw, the result of a commitment to character that much of the second season of “Daredevil” lacked. That commitment is reinforced in showrunner Erik Oleson’s approach to exploring the lives of Karen Page, Foggy Nelson, and the rest of the show’s strong supporting characters—some new, some returning. And it’s most keenly felt in the two villains that drive the first half of this season. Wilson Fisk was already great. Bullseye could be every bit his equal.
But before either can really enter the picture, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) has to recover from having a building dropped on his head. (If you missed “The Defenders,” here’s what’s going on there.) He does so under the care of the sharp-tongued Sister Maggie (the terrific Joanne Whalley), and makes for an extremely recalcitrant patient. The physical component of getting dumped on by a skyscraper is nothing to sniff at, and much of the early action of this season concerns Matt’s struggle to navigate the world—well, the basement of a church—without his enhanced senses. (A particularly important scene involves a Neti Pot—not something I would have predicted from this, or any, superhero series). Meanwhile, Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) and Foggy (Elden Henson) struggle to move on with their lives as they process (or refuse to accept) the fact of Matt’s “death.”
Grief is only one item on the menu, and while the borderline glacial pace of the first three episodes can be frustrating, the ideas explored and groundwork laid are invaluable. As Matt Murdock rejects that name, drowning in his own rage and self-loathing (and even in his own blood), Karen and Foggy suffer the consequences of a close connection with a person whose death they can’t even accept as certain, a bona-fide hero with undeniably toxic qualities. We see that darkness play out in real time with Matt, and wee see the havoc he wreaks on those in his life, even from a distance. And when Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) re-enters the picture, that havoc spreads farther. Another classic superhero trope: the villain punishes the hero by targeting those he loves, as the hero makes it worse by pushing them away.
The stumbles in these six episodes mostly center around Murdock and Fisk, and that makes perfect sense—nearly all the big swings that the show’s writers take center on those two, and Cox and D'Onofrio each give the kind of performance that would encourage the creation of big speeches and epic moments. Some of those work, implausible though they may be (Hell’s Kitchen is apparently full of people more than usually accustomed to listening to lengthy monologues, and prison guards and FBI agents are almost equally patient.) Some of them don’t. An early speech about the greatest prison of all, love, is particularly irksome. But the ambition, and the awkward, physical force of D'Onofrio’s performance, make even those sticky moments pardonable, and once the wheels really start turning on the season, nearly all such concerns vanish.
Unsurprisingly, much of that momentum comes when one of the great Daredevil foes enters. Wilson Bethel's Bullseye—here called Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter, a sniper for the FBI—doesn’t begin this story as an out-and-out antagonist, and his gradual transition into that role isn’t something I’d spoil for all the world. It’s obvious that Oleson and company put a great deal of thought into crafting the character’s tragic origins, which relate in no small part to mental illness; the result is considerably less troubling than many such stories, though there’s still some of the jagged camerawork and quick camerawork that too often categorize “crazy.” But Bethel's empathetic performance, and the careful plotting associated with the character, ensure that the good far outweighs the bad.
But much of the appeal of “Daredevil” has always been the fights, and there’s a real gem near the center of this season. There are others that are good, though the impact is somewhat lessened by a tendency of the show to double-down on what worked before (You like hallway fights? You like prison fights? Here’s a prison fight in multiple hallways!) Yet when Dex becomes who he becomes, the leap in interest, intensity, and quality is striking, to say the least.
Where “Daredevil” will go in the back half of its third outing remains to be seen, and it’s totally possible that there’s more of heavy-handed speeches, creaky tropes, and Marvel-Netflix bloat in store. But what’s clear is that Oleson and his staff course-correct after an over-crowded second season, returning the focus to the people who live in this story, their actions and the resulting consequences, and the messy, frustrating contradictions that make them who they are. There’s darkness in everyone, we know (seriously, “Daredevil,” we get it). There’s often love, too. People can elate and disappoint, frustrate and entrance. So can television shows. This one does, and quibbles aside, the risk of disappointment is well worth the possible thrilling rewards.