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In Daredevil season 3, the protagonist is weak, but the series is stronger than ever

In Daredevil season 3, the protagonist is weak, but the series is stronger than ever

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Photo by of Nicole Rivelli / Netflix

Spoilers ahead for The Defenders and the general plot of Daredevil season 3.

After nearly dying at the end of Netflix’s 2017 crossover miniseries The Defenders, Matt Murdock (aka Daredevil) needed some downtime. As season 3 of the Netflix series Daredevil begins, Matt (Charlie Cox) returns to the church where he was raised and takes some time to heal physically as well as mentally and spiritually. Murdock wasn’t the only one who needed to do some soul-searching after Daredevil’s uneven second season and The Defenders not quite living up to its hype. The Man in the High Castle showrunner Erik Oleson took over Daredevil this season, and he’s brought new life to the series by going back to the concepts that make its first season so excellent.

Daredevil, the first of Netflix’s interlinked Marvel Cinematic Universe shows, set the tone for those series’ street-level conflicts back in 2015. But its grounded feel got lost along the way, as Matt fought armies of ninjas with the survival of New York City on the line. Power creep is a problem as old as comic books and so are creative solutions to bring heroes back down to earth. The beating Daredevil takes in The Defenders provides the perfect excuse, destroying his suit and leaving him in need of rehabilitation to get back to fighting strength. Daredevil’s fights have always been at their most exhilarating when his victories are narrow or even pyrrhic. Both of those aspects come into play in season 3, as he spends the first six episodes donning a simple black mask and effectively leveling up again, starting out against nameless thugs and working his way up to the season’s new supervillain.

Matt Murdock has always been a walking embodiment of Catholic guilt, and he gets even darker this season as he struggles with the loss of his lover Elektra (Élodie Yung), his newly diminished capacity, and questions about what he’s actually accomplished as the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Joanne Whalley joins the show as sassy nun Sister Maggie, helping call Murdock out on his brooding and keeping the show from getting as bleak as a DC superhero movie. But there’s a good reason for Daredevil to feel like his greatest works have amounted to nothing.

Daredevil season 1 ended with the hero defeating criminal mastermind Wilson Fisk (aka the Kingpin, played by Vincent D’Onofrio). In season 3, Matt is appalled to learn that Kingpin has been transferred from prison to a plush penthouse in exchange for cooperating with the FBI to bring down other criminal syndicates. D’Onofrio’s guest appearance was one of the highlights of Daredevil season 2, and he continues to play the character brilliantly now that he’s returned to a starring role. His Kingpin is a study in contradictions, a mix of raw physicality and endless patience. It helps that he’s got a great intrigue-heavy script to work with. He always seems one step ahead of Matt and series regulars Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). It’s remarkably unclear even to the audience how deep his schemes go.

One of those schemes is cultivating new talent in the form of expert marksman Benjamin Poindexter (Wilson Bethel). The formula of the villain flashback episode, first introduced to provide an origin for Kingpin in season 1, takes on an entirely new form in season 3, as it’s used to tell the grim story of how Poindexter goes from troubled child to FBI sniper to the supervillain Bullseye. Rather than being shared as a straight flashback, this version has Kingpin poring over every scrap of information he can get on Poindexter. His story unravels like a play, with Kingpin appearing in the background of Poindexter’s most intimate moments, acting as a conductor who takes in every note of an orchestra and making just a few subtle movements to get it to perform exactly how he wants. It’s the best logic for a secondary villain in a superhero story since The Dark Knight.

Photo by David Giesbrecht / Netflix

Daredevil also brought on a new stunt coordinator for season 3. Gary Stearns was the fight choreographer on Thor, 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, and its 2014 sequel, and he produces some truly spectacular combat sequences in Daredevil. Perhaps even more important than the punches and kicks looking realistic is Oleson’s understanding that fights are only interesting when they have stakes, but that doesn’t mean that the world has to be on the line. Watching Daredevil slug it out with nameless criminals still feels important when it’s part of him trying to get his groove back as a crime-fighter.

But the season still leaves room for epic set pieces. The scene that introduces Poindexter feels more like a war movie than a superhero show, and a claustrophobic homage to season 1’s beloved hallway fight scene takes on the feel of a horror flick as Daredevil is forced to fight his way out of a prison riot. The first fight between Daredevil and Bullseye lives up to the buildup. The two characters tear apart an office building as Bullseye shows off his skills by pelting Daredevil with everything he might reasonably find in a series of cubicles. The sequence is exciting, funny, and surprising — basically everything Marvel audiences want from a superhero fighting one of his signature villains.

Oleson shows a deep respect not just for Daredevil’s storytelling traditions, but its actual story. Viewers who were frustrated with major plots and conflicts that were left hanging in past seasons will be rewarded when those hooks return to haunt the heroes. The effect is particularly striking with Karen, giving the character some well-needed development and also letting Foggy shine as both a friend and lawyer.

Photo by David Giesbrecht / Netflix

It’s also a nice nod to the past when Daredevil reconsiders his moral arguments with Frank Castle (aka the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal) in season 2, while struggling with what to do about Kingpin. But there’s also a missed opportunity: D’Onofrio plays an expression of Matt’s darkest impulses and doubts in one episode, pushing him to answer the question of whether he would kill Kingpin, given the opportunity. It would have been more appropriate for Bernthal to play that role, but it’s hard to fault Oleson for wanting more D’Onofrio. He does a fantastic job of goading Matt, and the effect also provides a nice symmetry to David Tennant as Kilgrave, serving as the devil on Jessica Jones’ shoulder in the Jessica Jones season 2 episode “Three Lives and Counting.”

Every Netflix MCU show has sought to imitate the first season of Daredevil in some way, with decidedly mixed results. Season 3 shows that Daredevil still does Daredevil best. Bringing back the setting’s original villain and reprising some of its narrative and cinematographic techniques could easily have made the season feel derivative, but Oleson has managed to bring new polish and nuance to the formula. Daredevil, the character, is powered down this season, but the show is stronger than ever.

In the US, all 13 episodes of Daredevil season 3 premiere on Netflix on October 19th.