This Daredevil Season 3 review contains no spoilers…unless you consider stuff revealed in trailers to be spoilers, in which case, we can’t help you. It is based on the first six episodes.
Daredevil has always been the flagship of the Marvel Netflix Universe. By far the most recognizable Marvel superhero on the streaming service, with the longest legacy and most impressive creative pedigree, there’s a reason that they chose Daredevil to set the tone for what now amounts to six different shows and 10 seasons and counting of TV. The first season told the dual origin stories of Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk and laid out the rules of the Marvel Hell’s Kitchen. Season two was good fun, but found itself diverted by the need to introduce not just Punisher and Elektra, but expand on the mythology of the Hand to a sufficient degree to set the stage for The Defenders, and it suffered a little (but only a little) for it.
So here we are with Daredevil season 3, the fourth season of Marvel TV to feature Matt Murdock, and welcoming the third showrunner in the show’s history (this time it’s Man in the High Castle’s Erik Oleson). Under Oleson, Daredevil is back to the street level roots of season one, with fewer mystical ninjas, precisely zero guest heroes or antiheroes, and an apparent desire to rebuild its key characters from the ground up. Easy enough considering that Daredevil Season 3 begins with its title character presumed dead and its headline villain still doing hard time.
The bad news is that Danny Rand is no longer the least likable hero in Marvel’s Netflix roster. I mean, I guess that’s good news if you’re Danny Rand, and really, it’s a tribute to how much of an improvement Iron Fist season 2 was. But holy moley, Matt Murdock is just this side of insufferable this season. The difference here is that Matt achieving Miserable Bastard Level: Expert is by design. He earned it. You wouldn’t be a lot of fun if you lost the love of your life as a building fell on you, either. Matt is having a dual crisis of faith, both in his own abilities and mission, and in the man upstairs. As Daredevil is one of the few superheroes whose faith is an important part of his identity, it was only a matter of time before we got here with him, but perhaps setting him up in the basement of a church (and literally opening the first episode with ol’ hornhead in a crucifixion pose) might be a little too obvious for some.
Look, I gave you the bad news first. I never do that in these reviews. But don’t worry, because there is plenty of good news about Daredevil season 3. Some of which should be obvious (the return of Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, the arrival of the villain everyone has been waiting for, the fact that this show operates on a baseline of at least “pretty good” at all times anyway), but there are some really pleasant surprises, notably the addition of two new characters.
The first is the mysterious Sister Maggie (who may be less mysterious to comic book fans, but that doesn’t mean this season is a straight adaptation of the big story you’re thinking of), played by Joanne Whalley. Sister Maggie is here to both nurse Matt back to health and be the audience’s stand-in for when we all get annoyed with him, as she is absolutely not here for any of his shit. Whaley is a lot of fun, with a biting, dry wit that plays beautifully with Cox’s more damaged than usual Matt Murdock, and the pair have a warm, genuine chemistry on screen. Honestly, I could do with having someone like Sister Maggie talk some sense into me, and maybe give me some grief about not voluntarily attending Mass in something like 20 years.
The other is Jay Ali as Ray Nadeem, the FBI agent who ends up as Wilson Fisk’s handler. Nadeem is an original creation of the show, and spends most of his screen time interacting with other non-Marvel characters. This is a huge hill to climb in a Marvel production, one where every character tic and line of dialogue is dissected in the hope that some tenuous comic book connection can be made (ahem…guilty as charged…and remember to check out my complete guide to the Marvel Easter eggs from this season come premiere weekend!). Ray is, perhaps even more than Karen Page and Foggy Nelson (who both have plenty of their own burdens to carry this season), the ultimate everyman in this world. And because we have no preconceived notions about where he is fated to end up, it’s even easier to get attached to him. Ali delivers a wounded, sympathetic performance, and Ray seems like a character who would be just as compelling had he been created for some non-Marvel crime show.
Daredevil season 3 is, shall we say, deliberately paced. While I say that about just about every Marvel Netflix season, the difference is that, at least in these first six episodes, there’s nothing I can point specifically at and say “they’re filling time again.” Instead, there are a lot of pieces that have to be put in place, from Matt Murdock’s return and how it affects Karen and Foggy to the plans within plans that Wilson Fisk is developing. It’s a lot, even without the additional villain origin story that gets teased out. This is a big step forward.
And just in case you start to get impatient, let me assure you, when the show does decide to break the tension with a major action sequence, it does it in spectacular fashion. Remember how the stairwell fight in season two tried to up the ante on that brilliant hallway fight from season one? And remember how it felt kind of self-conscious in its gimmicky desire to one-up the previous season? Well, when the equivalent happens here a few episodes in, it’s nothing short of spectacular, something more akin to the tracking shot from the first season of True Detective than anything we’ve seen in superhero TV or movies. It doesn’t announce its presence or telegraph its intention, and it takes a couple of minutes before you realize just how hard they’re going for it. It’s a tremendous accomplishment, and worth whatever value you place on the countless hours you spend binge-watching Marvel TV shows on Netflix.
And that’s not the only one. You’ve seen hints and teases about the other big villain coming to the show, and that’s another slow burn. It’s no spoiler to say (sorry, folks, once it’s in trailers and marketing materials, it’s not really a spoiler anymore) that Wilson Bethel’s Benjamin Poindexter is the other Daredevil villain fans have been clamoring for since season one. The first six episodes of this season essentially function as his origin story, and his first confrontation with Matt is everything fans could have hoped for. Bethel manages to walk the line between sympathetic and creepy with his performance, even in the occasional moment when the writing falls back on the obvious. But like Alice Eve’s Typhoid Mary over on Iron Fist, he makes a strong first impression, and (assuming he survives the season), there’s a lot of promise for the future.
But at the center of it all, there is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin. Desperately missed from season two, the show once again feels at home telling the parallel stories of Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. Like Matt, Fisk is once again starting from the bottom, imprisoned in a luxury hotel at the whim of a team of FBI agents. To tell you more would be to spoil the fun, but rest assured D’Onofrio is still perhaps the single most inspired piece of casting in Marvel’s Netflix stable, and it’s almost impossible to imagine another actor inhabiting the role. D’Onofrio is currently Marvel’s best villain on the big or small screen, and it’s not even close. Just as he was in season one, he is the most compelling character on the show, even when he isn’t actually on screen.
After the dramatic turn for the better Iron Fist season 2 took in its final few episodes, I’m now hesitant to make a sweeping pronouncement about any of these shows before I’ve seen the full batch. But all signs point to Daredevil season 3 as a standout. While it’s a slow starter, it feels like it has purpose, and the impression from about the middle of the third episode onwards is that it’s gathering momentum with virtually every scene. The end of episode six is the closest thing to “fan service” we’re likely to get from this season, and it’s not only a genuine thrill, it feels like the show (and the audience) really earned it. Even without his red costume, Daredevil is still the center of the Marvel Netflix Universe, and this season seems like it should be a fine reminder of why.
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