In the opening scene of Netflix’s second season of Marvel’s Daredevil, our titular hero takes on a gang of jewelry thieves as they rush away from the scene of the crime. While this show’s first season got a lot of adoring critical chatter for its meticulously choreographed fight sequences, this scene leaves the fights to the imagination. The villains drop one at a time, picked off from the darkness. Daredevil is like the monster in a horror movie here, dragging criminals off to swift and violent justice. In the ensuing months since last season’s finale, Daredevil’s become an elemental force in Hell’s Kitchen. His brand of vigilantism is a natural law: you do the crime, you do the time (in the hospital.)
This quietly thrilling methodology is only slightly undercut by one foe (a familiar face from the first season) who smugly reminds Daredevil that if he goes to jail, he’ll be out in a month’s time. “I’ll see you then,” Daredevil replies, knocking him unconscious. Badass, sure, but it masks an uncomfortable truth: Daredevil isn’t working. He throws people into a hopelessly broken legal system, where they’ll either be chewed up or spit out.
Indeed, season two of Daredevil dives deep into the various flaws of the legal system. Daredevil’s sightless alter ego, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), works at a small, struggling law firm with his partner Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and will-they-won’t-they secretary Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). This gives Matt (and the viewers) ample opportunity to see how the law works, or doesn’t. Criminals Matt Murdock put behind bars in season one are finding ways to manipulate the legal system in season two. The ones Daredevil beat senseless are coming back for more. True, he’s saved people’s lives, but he’s ultimately not much more than a band-aid. Daredevil knows this, and it’s frustrating.
Into this mix blasts Frank Castle, known to Marvel-heads everywhere as The Punisher. He’s played with barely suppressed volcanic rage by The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal, and he takes the whole idea of vigilante justice to its natural, bullet-ridden conclusion. To Castle, Daredevil is a decent start that doesn’t go far enough. “You hit people, they get back up,” he spits at Daredevil. “I hit them, they stay down.” “Hit” is a bit of a misnomer, since Castle’s preferred method of justice has a trigger on it. He’s a former war hero who saw his family get cut down in the crossfire of a drug deal gone to hell, and has since dedicated his life to putting bullets through the scum who endanger innocent lives. For Daredevil, this makes Castle as bad as the rest of the criminals in Hell’s Kitchen, and he sets about attempting to shut down the whole operation.
I recently read Bryan Stevenson’s excellent Just Mercy, a powerful treatise on the systemic flaws in the American legal system, and the death penalty in particular. Stevenson is a lawyer who’s dedicated his life to abolishing the death penalty, having seen too many times how it can be used against the reformed, the innocent or—mostly vexingly—people who are guilty of terrible crimes, but for deeply complicated reasons. Stevenson’s section on the number of women on death row who were sentenced for killing their abusive husbands is full of shocking statistics. Even more harrowing are his many accounts of the mentally ill who are sentenced to die for committing crimes they do not entirely understand. As Stevenson writes:
We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.
Watching this season of Daredevil, I saw more than a little Stevenson in Matt Murdock and a little Frank Castle in our legal system. In one key scene, Castle has Daredevil incapacitated, and the two engage in a debate about the merits of killing the guilty that’s as thrilling as any of the show’s fisticuffs. “I think you’re a half measure,” Castle spits. “What about hope?” asks Daredevil. “If there’s even a small flicker of good, you snuff it out.” Daredevil’s case is pretty compelling, if you ignore the fact that his faith in criminals puts lives on the line.
(Side note: One major theme of Just Mercy is the ludicrous ways the American legal system disproportionately affects the non-white population. It’d be easier to forgive Daredevil for deigning to sidestep that unpleasant horror if there was a bit more nuance in its own treatment of people of color, specifically people of Asian descent. Without fail, every last one of Daredevil’s Asian characters is a ninja, a purveyor of woozy Eastern mysticism or both. It does not inspire confidence in their upcoming Iron Fist show, which is already mired in some waters which are, as the bloggers have it, problematic.)
About Bernthal’s performance, not enough good can be said. He simply steals every scene he’s in, giving real believability and vulnerability to what could have easily been a machine gun with a mouth. Hopes were immediately high when he was cast, given his promising work on The Walking Dead and almost improbable resemblance to the comic book character, but he defies all expectations, coming through with a stupendous performance that endears you to his decidedly unsympathetic modus operandi. His performance is so good, in fact, that you start forgetting how horrific his actions are. But the show’s writers generally have the wherewithal to drop another teeth-clenchingly violent act of “justice” whenever Castle’s character starts to get too cuddly. One scene, in which a betrayed Castle faces an entire cellblock of angry convicts, thunders with queasy intensity. Castle’s brand of justice can start to make sense, so long as you don’t think about the grisly details. Daredevil doesn’t allow for that luxury. You’ve got to look justice right in its blood-smeared face. A face that, to Frank Castle, is a stark white, leering death skull.
In fact, much of Daredevil season two is about tearing down the edifice built by that first scene: the idea that justice can be clean, quick and easy. We like to think of our justice system as a bloodless force of nature that gushes through our streets like a gale, condemning the guilty and vindicating the victims. It’s a pleasing fiction, and Daredevil deserves credit for refusing to entertain it. The show does not pretend that the choice facing our quote-heroes-end quote is a simple one, and it’s certainly not one they’ve necessarily gotten right. We as a society haven’t gotten it right either, and Daredevil and the Punisher fight as symbols of pragmatism and idealism, justice and retribution, taking a bite out of crime and swallowing it whole.
In an early scene, Matt pulls aside his craggy-eyed priest (the excellent Peter McRobbie) for one of the theological jawings about the nature of good and evil that were such a philosophical treat in season one. “Who do I still feel guilty?” Matt asks, his face a dazzle of color under the church’s stained glass. “Guilt can be a good thing,” the priest replies. Indeed, maybe we could all use a little more guilt in our own musings on the American brand of justice and the innocence it has robbed from us all.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Daredevil season two also introduced Elektra (Elonie Yung), a beloved, longstanding character from the Daredevil comic books. Her character will be discussed in this week’s episode of It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast.)