The third season of Marvel’s Daredevil finds the series and its hero getting back to basics. New showrunner Erik Oleson (of Arrow and The Man In The High Castle) sends Matt Murdock, a.k.a The Devil Of Hell’s Kitchen (Charlie Cox), back to the streets—and rooftops—of the city he’s sworn to protect, trading the world-ending threats that dominated season two and The Defenders for a familiar, marginally more scaleable foe: Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio, once again a mountain of intimidation and insecurity). Daredevil even reverts to his half-mask, all-black ensemble from the first season, because “darkness only responds to darkness” (but also, the red armor took a beating at the end of Defenders, too).
It’s a welcome reset, but one that initially says more about the underwhelming quality of the show’s second season (the introduction of the Punisher notwithstanding) and the years-in-the-making Defenders showdown, the latter of which started off strong but built to a finale that, while bringing Midland Circle down around Matt and Elektra (Elodie Yung), also razed expectations for future crossovers. As exciting as it is to watch Fisk and Daredevil circle each other again, there’s something almost conciliatory about this arrangement, despite the fact that Oleson and team weren’t involved in previous decisions to spend so much time on such uninspired enemies (though it is in keeping with the overall Catholic guilt theme). It’s as if they’re acknowledging previous missteps, and offering up the tried-and-true dynamic of Daredevil and Kingpin, who both know what it’s like to wear a mask.
That’s not the only familiar element in season three: The fitful pacing and Matt’s moping are also back. But these punches are easier to roll with this round, thanks to expanded roles for the rest of the good guys—Elden Henson and Deborah Ann Woll as Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, respectively—and a promising development at the halfway mark. Things still move slowly in the first two episodes, as Matt recovers from his Defenders injuries in the catacombs of a church while rejecting the counsel of Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie). It’s here that we meet Sister Maggie Grace (Joanne Whalley), a nun who’s as devout as she is deadpan, and knows all about Matt’s dangerous double life. She tries to help Matt get back on his feet, but mending his broken spirit is much trickier than seeing to his physical wounds (hence the moping).
Netflix and Marvel centered the season-three promos on Matt’s decision to become Daredevil full-time, casting aside his personal relationships along with legal means of obtaining justice. This too is a familiar tale, in the small-screen MCU and elsewhere in the comics world, but pairing Matt’s self-imposed exile with Kingpin’s more literal one gives it new luster. As Daredevil lets go of any pretense of civilian life, Fisk finds a way to hold onto his loved one while still making life hell for his longtime adversary. We’ve been down this “villain as a distorted version of the hero” path before, on this show and others (most recently, Iron Fist’s second season), but just as the viewer thinks they know which way the road turns, Daredevil throws a curveball in the form of Agent Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter (Wilson Bethel). The marketing campaign has already revealed Poindexter’s alter ego, but the show still takes its time getting there. The origin story episode, which is imaginatively rendered, is more a chapter than the full book, creating all kinds of storytelling possibilities. Doubling up on villains has been a dicey strategy for Daredevil, but D’Onofrio’s reliably excellent performance and Bethel’s smoldering yet twitchy energy (he could go clenched jaw to clenched jaw with Bill Hader) demand equal attention.
As formidable as Matt’s enemies might be, Daredevil’s third season also builds up his allies. Although Foggy and Karen spend the early episodes coming to terms with Matt’s supposed death, they fight on in his memory—and out of necessity. They’re both on Fisk’s shit list, after all, and also just good people who want to make sure no one else gets hurt. Karen’s and Foggy’s methods find them mostly working within the system, one that Matt’s written off as broken (and which Fisk bends to his will), so they might all be for naught. But it’s great to see Henson and Woll take on more active roles in the series while staying true to their characters.
Daredevil’s fight choreography also continues to pack a helluva punch in its third season, delivering two superb, extended scenes that seem to take place in different genres but still feel of a piece with each other. Cox and his stunt double, Chris Brewster (who’s also kicked ass as Captain America), are both given a chance to shine in shots so long they almost strain the nerves. This corner of Hell’s Kitchen has provided thrills on a reliable basis, even when legions of faceless fighters cluttered up the screen, but thanks to a new creative team, they’re more than a welcome distraction. Matt’s body and will may have been broken by Defenders, but Daredevil’s third season is a return to form.
Recaps by Caroline Siede will run through the weekend.