Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Daredevil: Season 3

Matt Murdoch is missing, presumed dead after the incident at Midland Plaza. His friends, journalist Karen Page and lawyer Foggy Nelson, are trying to get on with their lives but find their grief is hard to forget. But Murdoch is still alive, recuperating and facing the stark realisation that only Matt or Daredevil can survive, not both of them. When Wilson Fisk is unexpectedly released from prison and exerts a new reign of terror over the city, the choice is made for him.

Daredevil was the series that launched the Marvel/Netflix alliance back in 2015. That partnership has proved both successful and prolific in a short period of time, spanning eleven seasons in six distinct series aired in just three and a half years. Its future is in question, however, with Disney launching its own streaming service in 2019 to be spearheaded by multiple Marvel shows and Netflix recently cancelling both Luke Cage and Iron Fist.

There is, then, an excellent chance that this will be Daredevil’s swansong. That would be a shame because the third season of Daredevil, despite not hitting the heights and consistency of his debut (still the best set of episodes the Marvel/Netflix team-up has produced), is definitely a much-needed improvement after a spate of weak seasons.

The strengths of Daredevil as a series are clear: it has the best central cast of characters of the Marvel/Netflix stable, with Charlie Cox, Elden Henson and Deborah Ann Woll playing Matt, Foggy and Karen with heart and vigour. Vincent D’Onofrio continues to give a brutal, monstrous but weirdly charismatic performance as Wilson Fisk (aka Kingpin). This season also brings in new characters, most notably Jay Ali as Ray Nadeem and Wilson Bethel as Benjamin Poindexter (aka Bullseye), FBI agents trying to tap Fisk for intel on other criminals who take radically different paths based on their exposure to the mobster. Both give great performances.

The series also has exceptional fight choreography. One of the biggest disappointments of the Marvel/Netflix collaborations has been the wildly inconsistent quality of the action and fight scenes, particularly Iron Fist’s lacklustre combat. Fortunately, Daredevil is right at the other end of the spectrum, with brutal, bruising and convincingly physical fight scenes that feel real, with the participants having to rest for appreciably realistic periods between fights and every punch causing winces in the viewer.

This peaks in the fourth episode which delivers a staggering 11-minute, continuous cut shot taking in multiple fights in different locations in a prison and an intense dramatic confrontation along the way. It’s a breathtaking technical, action and acting achievement, a masterclass of choreography and acting, and is simply the finest action sequence delivered in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (TV and film) to date. It’s certainly the highwater mark of the season.

In terms of pacing and story structure, which the Marvel Netflix shows have struggled with ever since the first season of Jessica Jones (the second season of the collaboration), Daredevil Season 3 is a mixed bag. It starts very slow, but starts picking up before the end of the second episode, and the wrapping-up of the story (which extends across the last three or so episodes) is excellent. In between there are peaks and troughs, with two flashback-heavy episodes dedicated to exploring character backstories. Neither of these flashbacks are entirely necessary and the exploration of Bullseye’s history is badly-directed, pretentious (the black and white “memory vault” format is in fact unintentionally hilarious) and makes it completely implausible that the he’d ever get a job with the FBI, given their thorough background checks. Karen Page’s flashback episode is well-acted and better-directed, but the revelation of her backstory doesn’t entirely line up with the character as she was presented in Season 1.

The issue of realism and suspension of disbelief recurs throughout the season, particularly in the middle third. Early episodes, in which it appears that Fisk is manipulating situations as they arise, are very well-handled. But the later-season revelation that Fisk in fact set many of the events of the season in motion a year or more earlier (despite being in prison), expertly playing people like puppets and setting up backups within contingencies within plans, is laughably unconvincing. This continues through an awful sequence where Fisk seems to instantaneously and magically know the identities of jurors, the whereabouts of key witnesses and every move our heroes are about to make (including information he couldn’t know without clairvoyance or psychic powers). It’s all very well giving your villain a credible threat level, but this season goes beyond this and makes Fisk lethally knowledgeable and dangerous when needed and incompetent when not. It feels contrived, which is a pity. The later part of the season, where he again has to reach to emerging threats, is better-handled.

More successful is how the season develops Matt Murdoch/Daredevil as a character, presenting him with a crisis of faith and a deeper crisis of morality before convincingly bringing him out the other side into a lighter and brighter place. The theme of the season is fear and how people can overcome it to do the right thing, and, as basic as it is, the season explores the theme through multiple character arcs in a very successful manner.

So, despite some major problems mid-season with plausibility and a couple of ropey flashback episodes, Daredevil Season 3 (****½) emerges as one of the strongest seasons from the Netflix/Marvel collaborative project, and leaves the show in a great place for a fourth season. I only hope it can survive the apparent Netflix/Marvel breakup and give us at least one more season of these characters’ adventures, as they have earned it. The season is available worldwide on Netflix now.

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