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Daredevil is officially coming back for a second season next year, but it won’t have showrunner Steven S. DeKnight leading the way. That’s not a bad thing. The two episodes that DeKnight writes solo are two of the show’s weaker chapters, and his direction for the first season finale loses sight of the style and specificity that defined the visuals at the start of the series. Marvel Studios made a wise choice replacing DeKnight if “Daredevil” represents the type of show he would have wanted in the second season, downplaying the crime noir elements to deliver a generic urban superhero story without much personality.

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The back half of this season started to put more emphasis on the superhero aspect of this show as ninjas entered the picture and Matt’s secret identity became a major plot point, but for the most part, the series has stayed rooted in the crime genre. The Karen, Foggy, and Ben subplots weren’t necessarily thrilling, but they were a big part of maintaining a street-level perspective, showing how everyday civilians were impacted by the war for Hell’s Kitchen. Claire’s presence was another way the first half of the season helped keep the story grounded, and her point of view would have been valuable to have as the show got more fantastic.

“Daredevil” begins well enough with an appropriately depressing funeral for Ben and the reconciliation of Matt, Foggy, and Karen, but it starts to fall apart as the focus narrows on Matt and Wilson. Or I should say Daredevil and Kingpin, because these two men have fully assumed their roles as superhero and supervillain by the end of the episode. Matt’s transformation is finished when he embraces his gimmick, donning a dark red devil costume, complete with a horned helmet. He’s had a hero’s heart this entire time, even if his methods push him toward the dark side, and the change in wardrobe aligns him with the costumed crusaders occupying the other corners of the MCU.

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Wilson Fisk has thought himself a hero, but when he’s taken into federal custody, he has to embrace his true villainous nature in order to gain his freedom. This realization occurs in the back of an armored car where Wilson tells his guards the parable of “The Good Samaritan,” discovering at the end that he was never the titular do-gooder, but the “man of ill intent” that sets the story in motion by beating and robbing a traveler on the road. Both of DeKnight’s solo episodes have rushed through major personal moments for Wilson, relying on heavy-handed dialogue and exaggerated characterizations to get the basic ideas across without really exploring the emotional depth underneath. Wilson’s commitment to his dream for a better Hell’s Kitchen made him a sympathetic character even as his actions went against his beliefs, but those extra layers are stripped away when he admits that he’s actually the bad guy that wants to see Hell’s Kitchen drown.

D’Onofrio’s intensity makes Wilson very scary in that moment of clarity, but my investment in the character quickly fades as he becomes overtly evil. Gao told Wilson that he would need to choose between the roles of savior and destroyer, but that doesn’t mean the script has to have him announce it. His choice is clear in his actions, and having Wilson explicitly talk about his desire to hurt the city erases the positive elements of the character that have been built up all season. “The Path Of The Righteous”, co-written by DeKnight and Douglas Petrie, was an episode all about how villains don’t see themselves as villains, and bringing that extra dimension to the antagonists made it a series highlight.

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The nuance is ripped away from Wilson’s character in this episode, and while there’s a definite element of tragedy in Wilson realizing the death of his dream and losing faith in his ability to do good, that tragedy isn’t as valuable to the story as the internal conflict of a man trying to create a more beautiful city by actively supporting the things that make it ugly. The drugs and the human trafficking provide money that Wilson can use to develop a shining new Hell’s Kitchen, but that will be built on demolished property formerly occupied by people that were forced out of their homes. Gao tells Wilson that he needs to choose his future role, but the character is more fascinating when his villainous actions serve noble delusions.

On his way to self-realization, Wilson kills Leland for poisoning Vanessa, which is an especially disappointing development because it eliminates one of the show’s best actors and a major character from the Daredevil mythos. There’s a rich cast of characters that inhabit Matt Murdock’s world in the comics, and this show is steadily killing them off before they have the time to realize their full potential. The killings raise the stakes, but at the cost of future storytelling opportunities, and the murders of Leland Owlsley and Ben Urich are made all the more frustrating because the writers set up intriguing new paths for the characters in the moments before their deaths.

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Characters become more interesting through change, and the show gets rid of Ben and Leland just as they are about to enter uncertain new stages in their lives. Ben is giving up the print newspaper business to enter the world of news blogging, and Leland is striking out on his own with half of Wilson’s assets in tow. These developments could have given the writers a lot of material to work with in the second season, but instead the two men are killed off to show how terrifying Wilson Fisk can truly be. But we already know. We saw Wilson decapitate a guy with a car door. We saw him hammer his father to death. We saw him throw Matt around like a ragdoll after orchestrating a plan that ended with one of his partners burning to death. Wilson Fisk is an evil guy, and killing off Ben and Leland doesn’t make him that much more evil. It does wipe out characters that had a lot more stories in them, but Wilson Fisk needs to be a physical threat, and the easiest way to do that is by having him kill people.

The final battle between Wilson and Daredevil should be one of the big action moments of the season, but DeKnight’s direction makes it a dull affair that lacks the tension and energy of previous fight sequences. DeKnight has directed a few episodes of TV in the past, but he lacks the expertise of someone like Phil Abraham, whose work on the first two episodes established that this series would feature ambitious action, thoughtfully filmed to heighten the visceral impact of the violence. That single-take fight in the second episode set the bar incredibly high, and DeKnight’s direction for the final showdown doesn’t even come close to reaching it.

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DeKnight delivers standard quick-cut action direction, showing each moment but not taking any extra steps to make the viewer really feel each hit. There’s also little attention given to Matt’s senses and how they benefit him in a fight, which would have broken up the action so it’s more than just two guys pounding on each other until one falls over. That can be interesting if the two men are equally matched, but we haven’t seen Wilson as a fighter. Wilson’s threat comes from his imposing physical presence and ferocious temper, and the only reason he previously beat up Matt is because Nobu had already weakened him.

The odds are stacked against Wilson when he fights a fully healed, armored Matt, and Wilson’s lack of fighting prowess poses a challenge for DeKnight’s direction, which struggles to make Wilson a dynamic figure in combat. The fight ends with a flashy finishing move pulled straight from DeKnight’s time on Spartacus, and it would have been nice to see more of that style throughout the scene. When it comes to this show’s action, I prefer a Chan-wook Park influence over a Zack Snyder influence, but at least the Snyder influence brings some flavor at the end of a bland battle.

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“Daredevil” is the episode that gives Matt Murdock his superhero name, but hopefully it’s not the episode that sets the tone for the rest of the series. Removing nuance from characters, killing off the valuable ones, and taking the style out of the fight scenes dramatically drags down the quality of the story, making Daredevil the superhero series far less captivating than Daredevil the crime series. With new showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez in place for Daredevil season 2, there’s an opportunity for the series to course correct and find that right balance of fantasy and realism moving forward. Daredevil doesn’t end as well as it begins, but if the new showrunners double down on the show’s strengths and address its weaknesses, it could evolve into something even better than this impressive, but flawed first season.

Stray observations:

  • While I appreciate creative ways of depicting violence, I would have preferred to see Matt beat up all those crooked cops instead of hearing it while the camera stays locked on Hoffman’s face. Especially because it’s the last time he wears the black suit in action.
  • You want to use opera to give gravitas to a big moment in the story? Go ahead, but try to have a little more imagination that Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” Both of DeKnight’s solo episodes have featured very uninspired classical music cues, and hopefully the music supervisor gets a little more creative in season 2.
  • The thing that sends Daredevil into action at the end of the episode is a woman’s scream. Surprise surprise.
  • The newspaper article that spawns the name “Daredevil” features an image by artist Alex Maleev, whose Daredevil run with writer Brian Michael Bendis is one of the best. I highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t done so yet.
  • I have the feeling that Leland’s son will be showing up at some point in the future, likely bringing The Owl persona with him. Maybe he’ll be really into surveillance and discover that Matt Murdock is Daredevil.
  • “You ever see Serpico? Honest cops are usually the ones get shot in the face.”

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