Oh, Defenders. You were off to such a promising start back in 2015. When the first season of Daredevil hit, I felt pretty won over. You had developed one of Marvel’s few great on-screen villains, a solid and likable lead, and despite some qualms (it often looked like it was lit with a flashlight, poor Ben, etc), I came away from that set of episodes with the first superhero television series I can remember actively enjoying. Then Jessica Jones came along and blew the hinges off the place. This Defenders streaming project might actually be considered serious television during a period where the concept of peak TV was becoming the norm.
Then Luke Cage disappointed viewers with a sloppy back-half. Then Iron Fist gave these series their first real blow across the face with universal critical drubbing. Then the Defenders finally came, and no one seemed to like it, and it basically stopped any and all momentum on shows cold. I never finished it (more on that later), and then I never took a look at The Punisher, or the subsequent seasons of Jones or Cage. I just didn’t care anymore.
But whispers of Daredevil’s third season reached my ear, particularly reports that it would be an adaptation of “Born Again” (which despite how I’m sure it’s aged poorly in some respects, remains one of the big comics artistic high-points) and rumors that the villain would be Bullseye. Sure, the second season of Daredevil kinda blew chunks, but with a new showrunner in place and the hero’s other iconic villain coming to the fore, I had to give at least this show one more chance.
I should have listened to my better angels. Not only is Daredevil’s third season a total dog, it might actually pack less of an entertaining punch than Iron Fist. How is that possible? I’ll try to explain, dear reader.
To give you the gist of the current status quo, this third outing for the Man Without Fear opens right after the events of The Defenders, so if you haven’t caught up with that, you’ll be quite lost as to why Matt has awoken – battered and broken, in the care of his local Catholic Church/boys home. Apparently, something happened to cause a building to come down on he and Elektra, so Karen and Foggy both think he’s dead, and the former has been paying off his bills and rent, I guess on the hope that he’s not.
It makes for a blisteringly confusing episode right off the bat, and it’s frankly a little vexing that Jeph Loeb and company presume you’ve watched every moment of these shows just to keep up with Daredevil’s comings and goings. In film, it’s largely fine because it’s not anywhere near the same time commitment to stay caught up. I’ve often bemoaned that it was a huge mistake for Netflix and Marvel to not consistently put out seasons of Daredevil, their most popular show, annually – but to turn Daredevil Season 3 into what is actually Daredevil Season 4 or The Defenders Part 11, depending on your perspective, is a lot to ask.
That gripe aside, the first six episodes that I was allowed to view kick off with the most indescribably misguided decision imaginable: a premiere full of moping and catholic guilt. Yes, just what we all wanted after two and a half years: Matt crying in a basement. And getting guidance from Sister Maggie and Father whateverhisnameis, while trying to gain back his radar sense that has become dulled thanks to the after-effects of the explosion. It’s a strikingly boring way to kick off a run of episodes that desperately need to win back the goodwill of viewers who have basically abandoned the husk of a once enticing enterprise. Making matters worse, Matt isn’t the only one in doldrums, as a returning Wilson Fisk is also oh so sad, so very sad about his wife Vanessa, and begins to concoct a plan for her safety and strike back in retaliation at Matt, because he threatened her last season. But in order to do that, he has to win over FBI Agent Ray Nadeem, who we learn has major debts and is desperate for a promotion – but his pesky bosses just won’t give it to him. Oh and Karen and Foggy miss Matt a bunch.
It drags on like that for four episodes, with no real conflict in place or antagonist to shape things. Fisk becomes an informant, and as he’s removed from prison, Matt, Foggy and Karen all tackle this new development from different angles. Foggy tries to convince the DA and the Police Chief to push back against the Feds (because, yeah, that’ll work), Karen wants to investigate the story at the paper, but her editor just won’t have it, and Matt takes a more direct approach. The sluggish pace of these episodes is just gruesome, and while a slow burn can be okay, the writing has somehow become progressively much worse. I’m not sure if it’s because Erik Oleson is a CW-vet, but the dialogue has all of the polish of an Arrow episode. Heart-felt conversations, of which there are many this season, mostly directed at Matt, are constantly aiming to be monologue-drivel and seem to be directed around their intended target rather than at them…you know, like normal humans converse.
Here are some choice cuts of terrible dialogue that I just had to write down:
“Thank god for you!”
“He didn’t save you, I did.”
“Love is the perfect prison.”
“You could pitch a billion perfect games, it still won’t bring your parents back.”
That last one is a good point to launch into the addition of Bullseye, who goes by the name Benjamin Poindexter – who I will forever be struggling to not call Buster Poindexter – an FBI sharpshooter in the direct employ of Agent Nadeem. Fisk takes a special interest in him, and begin to craft a bit of a relationship of commonality. It’s probably the lone element of the season that justifies a more sluggish roll-out, but it doesn’t make the process of getting there any less painful, and at times nonsensical. You see, Buster…ahh!! Benjamin!…is a bit of a creep, who is also secretly a sociopath, which is all well and good if Wilson Bethel displayed any tangible character dimension beyond “bland pretty bro”, but his acting chops aside, the character simply isn’t there on paper. When we finally get the breakdown of his background, told in cheaply produced, black and white reenactments, it’s an exercise in the show taking the cheapest type of shortcuts; building a serial killer-level psychosis that was never really all that apparent from the preceding episodes.
And in the meantime, Foggy is running for public office, because he needs something to do. But speaking of terrible acting, Elden Henson hasn’t gotten any better in the intervening years, and so many of his scenes where he has to project a sense of anger or concern fall utterly flat because of it. It’s a shame that Henson gets a lot to do (though it’s never really clear why), while Deborah Ann Woll, a terrific performer, is backgrounded into pointless investigative work, shades of the first season, and simmering resentment at Matt. As a matter of fact, the most compelling moments come to bear when one of the mistakes of her recent past have reason to surface. Suddenly, the writers somehow realized that decisions have actual weight and consequences, and it’s one of the few times where things start to click into place. Still, she’s better served here than in the actual Born Again storyline, so thank goodness for small favors.
It’s at the midway point of the season where I finally thought, “okay, now things are happening”, including a very good battle scene, which has always been this series’ strength and tends to display more drama in those compact moments of testosterone and is where its respective directors make the best use of interior space. But the fact that it took 6 episodes to get there is the Marvel-Netflix problem taken to a new extreme. At least Iron Fist had the excitement of the new attached to it, even if it bungled nearly everything in its wake. Daredevil’s third season doesn’t even have that, and its hard to justify sitting through 5 hours of truly awful television just on the hope the backhalf will get it together.
Sorry Daredevil (and the rest), we are officially broken up for good.