Binge viewing becomes the second season of “Daredevil.” After a mostly top-notch debut on Netflix, Marvel’s Man Without Fear begins season two on an uneven note, occasionally feeling as if he’s taken a detour from dark and gritty into the realm of Sam Peckinpah movies, complete with slow-motion bullets and blood sprays. Stick with it, though, and the show blossoms, featuring a few terrific action sequences while introducing into this grim world seminal characters the Punisher and Elektra – both mostly victimized by earlier feature adaptations. So far, the Marvel/Netflix collaboration has brought a nifty dimension to both parties.
Even with the label of street-level hero, Daredevil, the blind superhero/attorney ably played by Charlie Cox, endures plenty of punishment in his quest to rid Hell’s Kitchen of bad guys. Indeed, at times a better nickname for him would seem to be the Man Who Spits Up His Own Blood, usually while depicted in dramatic silhouette.
Having survived his first-season run-in with the Kingpin, Daredevil/Matt Murdock now faces threats new and old. First, there’s the vigilante the police have christened the Punisher (“The Walking Dead’s” Jon Bernthal), who ruthlessly mows down criminals, triggering the age-old question of the extent of the horrors a costumed crime-fighter can unwittingly unleash. In one of their brutal encounters, the Punisher (a.k.a. Frank Castle) dubs Daredevil “a half-measure,” a pansy who won’t do what’s necessary to wipe out the criminal element.
After several episodes (seven were previewed), Murdoch also encounters a blast from his past, Elektra (Elodie Yung), who is not only a wealthy heiress but a trained martial artist with her own free-wheeling, sociopathic tendencies. The show flashes back to their prior relationship, where trading punches and kicks becomes an odd form of foreplay.
Having experienced behind-the-scenes changes (and returned with a staggering roster of 14 credited executive producers), the show looks a bit unsteady and feels inordinately talky in the early going. While it’s established that the milieu is essentially R-rated territory, the beginning is so dark and brooding as to border on self-parody, with the Punisher portrayed almost as a Terminator, maiming and inflicting enough torture to feel like a Tarantino homage.
Starting with the third and fourth episodes, though, the characters come into focus (and Bernthal, happily, finally gets some dialogue). Moreover, there’s an extended fight sequence in a stairwell that’s one of the more impressive action pieces this relatively modestly budgeted endeavor has produced. Yung is also a breath of fresh air, while the slow-building relationship between Matt and his office mate Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) begins to heat up.
Admittedly, some of the stock gang-style villains – from Irish hoods to the Yakuza – have a certain rote quality to them, and the program’s penchant for courtroom drama seems as much a means of tamping down the cost as does the dim lighting of the action scenes. The title character might be blind, but after a while, viewers might begin to question their own eyesight as well.
For the most part, though, like the Netflix/Marvel team-up “Jessica Jones,” “Daredevil” very credibly meshes superhero elements with noir-ish crime, conveying the atmosphere of Frank Miller’s memorable run overseeing the comics. And if that means operating without a lot of laughs, that’s infinitely preferable to camping up the characters, which has frequently been a groan-inducer for fans.
By that measure, these Netflix programs have already leapfrogged ABC’s forays into the Marvel universe in terms of their appeal, in part by tapping into the avid fan base that supports pay models and doesn’t need to be spoon-fed plot points. In the process, they have demonstrated that it’s possible to deliver a credible superhero show without a lot of pyrotechnics – a “Daredevil” with enough sure-footed elements to survive the occasional season-two stumble.