Daredevil season three is equal parts tired of and fascinated by the idea of the rugged individualism of superhero stories. Now that term refers to a character trope that English majors probably heard ad nauseum if they took a class on early 20th century American Literature. It’s a whole by the bootstraps, a “go at it alone” sort of mentality.
For superheroes, it usually means when they try to protect the people around them by going solo, forsaking all relationships, focusing solely on the mission. The thing is, however, no one can entirely go at it alone. The people around Matt (Charlie Cox) are more than happy to point out to him that he can’t do it alone. Yet, the exploration of the concept remains and, more to the point, how it affects the four main subjects of the season: Matt, Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter (Wilson Bethel), and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll).
It’s interesting to see how “going at it alone” affects them all. Matt wants to shed his humanity and his faith, give himself over to his own inner darkness as a mechanism to protect his own heart. Fisk reclaims an empire that he built with his own two hands, but longs for Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) to return. Dex wants to be able to do all that vigilantes are able to without the confines of the law. Karen wants several things: the men in her life to stop babying her, to put Fisk behind bars herself, and to deal with her own darkness.
The latest showrunner in charge of Daredevil, Erik Olsen, handles it all with a fairly deft sort of hand. This whole push pull between the need to go at it alone in this world against the reality of needing others, it goes back to a previous show that he worked on: Arrow. It’s definitely a past that makes a logical sort of sense as Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) and Matt Murdock both struggle with this dichotomy.
Under Olsen’s watch, Daredevil starts to feel more like Daredevil again. What he seems to realize is that the show functions better on a smaller scale with personal villains and inner demons, then it ever does on larger ground (such as in season two or The Defenders). What all Marvel Netflix shows share (even the departed Luke Cage and Iron Fist) is a greater need for intimate storytelling over the grandiose nature the rest of the MCU. These people that populate the stories just want to keep their own little corner of the world safe and that is a motivation that is universal.
In it, Olsen’s writers room takes a long look at how people are pushed to go through their problems alone. Fisk, Matt, Dex, and Karen feel the need to solve their problems on their own, to reforge themselves into something stronger for doing so. Yet, it doesn’t work. It’s only through being with others or working with them that they can be their best selves. Most of them, at least, know or realize this. All except Fisk, who remains single-focused on making things safe enough for his love to come home, end up or make the attempt to distance themselves anyway.
They suffer for it in a variety of ways. When they reach out to others, then things get better for them. Despite their own pain, maybe because in spite of it, they work toward the better things that they deserve (or don’t) because those are them refuse to stand idly by. As Sister Maggie (Joanne Whalley) tells Karen, “When someone in need tries to push you away, you have to find the strength to hold on tighter.” This whole idea of rugged individualism, the dichotomy between wanting to go at it alone and needing others around, permeates the season in different parallels between the characters, which makes for some fascinating television.
The season does not quite reach the heights of season one, although it certainly tries to. It does easily surpass the less than amazing storytelling of season two and The Defenders. It’s dark and twisting, a conspiracy around every corner, but also a possibility for redemption, for a happy ending. (Given how these shows are getting axed lately, I don’t mind the kind of schmaltzy ending for the season. It’s well-earned schmaltz after all the suffering in my opinion.) If this does end up being the final entry for the series, then it feels like a good place to button things.
The season is also full of amazing performances. Olsen, wisely, gives both Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and Karen Page juicier stories, which makes them all the stronger. Deborah Ann Woll does some of her best work in season three: a phone between her and her father along with a face to face with her and Fisk are the stand outs. Henson, meanwhile, tries to work things out within the confines of the law. Plus Foggy proves that he is possibly THE most well-adjusted person in the Marvel-Netflix shows. Possibly the entire MCU. You go, Foggy-Bear.
The best scenes, however, are those in which we see Foggy, Karen, and Matt together. After three seasons and a miniseries, Henson, Woll, and Cox have just such an amazing, live-in chemistry with each other. If we get a season four, then this is something we would love to see more of.
As for the newer members, Bethel gives a standout performance at being very creepily intense as the future Bullseye. It’s a much more subdued performance than Colin Farrell’s take on the character from the 2003 movie. (Which, for the record, I thought was hilarious.) There’s an interesting look at him trying to be a “good” person, but not needing much to fall under Fisk’s sway. Though, I could have done without the show literally fridging a woman related to his story.
Jay Akil is serviceable as FBI Agent Ray Nadeem, whose story comes across more of a tale about how easily someone could fall under Fisk’s sway. His last couple of episodes were very solid work from Akil. It does show the evil that can happen if good men sit idly by and do nothing.
The best one of the newcomers, however, is Joanne Whalley as Sister Maggie, Matt’s mother. Equal parts stubborn, no nonsense, and kind, she makes a good emotional and verbal sparring partner to Matt. Even if you didn’t see the twist coming, the two of them are quite similar in a lot of ways. Whalley gives such complexity to the role. Honestly, my favorite scenes of the season come from her and Cox talking.
The best performances of the season, however, go to Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk and Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock. D’Onofrio remains quietly menacing as Fisk. Honestly, he deserves awards for how he feels the role with such presence. I will admit his planning acumen does seem a bit silly in some aspects of the show, even though it is true to his comic counterpart. Still I do believe that he did plan out how to take his revenge and restore his reputation, it’s almost Shakespearean to watch him do it. I just wish that he didn’t have that little lair with control over the CCTV of New York and watching his watchers. That’s when it got a bit silly for me. Even so, Fisk remains the best villain in Marvel’s stable and masterclass in how to set up your bad guys. (Take note other superhero shows.)
I will admit to not seeing Cox in other properties. Matt Murdock, however, remains a role that he was born to play. You can never really fault Marvel’s casting department. In a lesser actor’s hands, I would have been saying how sick I was at Matt’s “go at it alone” attitude, yet Cox gives so many layers. He just has a really earnest quality to his Matt, even when he’s at his lowest that I really like. He does also seem to relish Matt’s growth over the course of the season that yes, he needs others. Cox inhabits the role like Krysten Ritter inhabits Jessica Jones and Mike Colter inhabits Luke Cage. (Finn Jones eventually got there with Danny Rand, but it took a long while.) I hope that we will continue to see him play this part because he’s so damn good at it.
If not, if this is the last Daredevil season, it’s a good one at least. It takes some of the more interesting ideas of the classic Born Again storyline and brings it to the television in interesting ways. At the end of the season, it does feel like a conclusion though there is some tease for future storylines. Still, at least it’s a conclusion, more than we can say for other series.
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