Daredevil season 3 goes back to the roots of its first season — so where does that leave the newest installment?
After two seasons and three showrunners, Marvel’s Daredevil has begun to obey a critical commandment: Know thyself.
Under the guiding hand of showrunner Erik Oleson, the Netflix series comes to an admirable understanding its own strengths and weaknesses in season 3, and plays to these accordingly. Not accidentally, Daredevil season 3 mirrors many of the elements that made its first season so gripping.
The show’s power lies in its ambiguous men, in hours spent simmering with villains we come to know more intimately than our heroes. Its strength is coiled in fights staged with equal parts brutality and beauty, moments of ballet arcing through bone-jarring brawl. (The season’s version of the hallway fight — you knew there must be one — is astonishing in its audacity and execution.) Daredevil shines most brightly in an illusionless darkness, horrors and joys, loves and hates alike laid bare.
In other words, the OG Marvel/Netflix concoction is best when it cuts the bullshit. Daredevil season 3 is deliciously short on patience for bullshit.
For the most part, the six episodes provided for critics shuttle by with an absorbing smoothness, rattling subway-like just often enough to keep things interesting. The frame of the season mercifully cuts down on the need for gangs of low-level nemeses (the menacing gangs of unspecified Asian killers are nowhere to be found.) Instead, the goons have been replaced by Wilson Fisk himself, and his new friend Benjamin Poindexter, otherwise known as Bullseye.
As in season one, Fisk’s impact on the story is directly correlated to the intensity and watchability of the season. It almost seems redundant to praise Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance here, but his edges have somehow unfurled, his range of potential and feeling widened even further. Fisk is a greater presence than he has ever been.
By all appearances, the Kingpin is on the back foot in Daredevil season 3 — imprisoned and alone, with only his fellow inmates to manipulate and terrify. But Oleson taps into a keen realization here; it turns out that a Fisk on the back foot is even more terrifying than a Fisk at the height of his powers. Utterly unpredictable, dizzyingly manipulative, Fisk moves like a minor god through Daredevil season 3. He is ruthless purpose and perfect understanding combined; if you wanted the apex predator of Marvel’s Netflix shows returned, you have absolutely gotten your wish.
And Fisk is not alone. In a stroke of horrific genius, Wilson Bethel joins Daredevil season 3 as the soul-deep killer Bullseye, and it is this addition that transforms the first six episodes from enjoyably tense to painfully magnetic. As the show did with Fisk in season 1, Daredevil season 3 very carefully marinates the viewer in Poindexter. We are treated to not only his brutality and skill, but to long stretches inside his utter wreck of a mind that leave the character flayed before us like a carcass.
Bethel is riveting in the role, by turns opaque and nearly translucent with emotion. Here, there are no caricatures; here, there are no softened edges of mental illness. All Poindexter has are the agonies of a lifelong sickness with no real cure, and in that light, it is almost possible to identify the sorry soul crushed beneath years of struggle.
Other, less emotionally strangling elements of Daredevil season 3 also echo its first season. Foggy and Karen struggle on in the wake of Matt Murdock’s apparent death at the end of the Defenders; to no one’s surprise, Foggy does a much better job at this than Karen, who is rarely more than a few steps ahead of the darkness in her past. (Foggy, seemingly, has no such darkness anywhere in his life.) Meanwhile a new face, Federal Agent Ray Nadeem struggles with issues that seem quaint by Daredevil standards, at least until his path crosses with Wilson Fisk.
The major point at which Daredevil season 3 diverges from season 1 is the heart of the devil himself. Matt Murdock has never been Mr. Sunshine; he has always been plagued by a propensity to mope, to wallow and isolate himself amongst his own demons. But this most recent iteration isn’t just internal conflict, Catholic guilt, or depression, it’s a pungent nihilism. This new, post-Defenders Matt is broken and defeated… but he has just enough life left in him to relish the depths of his own collapse.
Yes, Daredevil has made himself quite comfortable in hell, but the audience may find the experience less enjoyable. While Matt’s losses are acute and his pain profoundly evident, it’s also wearing to watch him spiral through hopelessness, brutality, and patented martyrdom. Charlie Cox is as intense and powerful as ever as New York’s own conscience/demon, but it’s hard not to wonder if we’re ever going to find the lower limit of his determinably miserable vigilantism.
Matt’s unbearably grim aesthetic aside however, Daredevil season 3 is a canny and intelligent return to this un-comic tale of crime, justice, and faith. Never light but mostly digestible, Daredevil season 3 exercises its strengths with care, and will remind viewers of the series’ highs, while testing them along the way.
Marvel’s Daredevil season 3 hits Netflix on Oct. 19.