The second season of Daredevil feels… familiar. To preserve the title character’s status quo, while also giving him some pathos and emotional traction, the show relies on complications and plot devices drawn from comic books that viewers with even the most casual interest in the show, or even comics, will likely recognize.
Recycled tropes, scenes and plot devices are inevitable in superhero adaptations; there are only so many interesting powers for heroes to wield, and so many motivations to flavor the raw power fantasies they offer. Like any genre fiction — horror, sci-fi, noir — creators preserve their series’ freshness by mixing and matching their references. Even by these standards, however, Daredevil is unusually obvious. After watching half of the season, not an episode went by without triggering at least a moment of déjà vu, and a recurring question: Wasn’t that a Batman thing?
With Daredevil season two, Marvel deviates from its now-famous extended production strategy. Originally, Netflix’s New York-centric Marvel sub-universe was supposed to follow an extended rollout plan similar to Marvel’s big-screen schedule: Netflix would release one season of four “street-level hero” series — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, September’s Luke Cage, and Iron Fist — who would team in a four-way cross-over called The Defenders.
In cutting the line, Daredevil seems to get stuck trying to outgrow the shell its hero was supposed to inhabit as a one-season character. At the end of season one, blind defense attorney/secret crime fighter Matt Murdoch dismantled the city’s organized crime conglomerate and put the biggest crook in the city, The “Kingpin” Wilson Fisk, in prison. The new season opens with Daredevil still cleaning up the neighborhood, with the impression that this is what it’s been like since we last checked in. If Netflix hadn’t made a second season, if they’d stuck to the plan, he would still be doing this until The Defenders. He was supposed to stay in this sort of narrative stasis — active, but not moving forward — for much longer.
So without Fisk as a driving force, Daredevil turns to other heroes for inspiration. As with Christopher Nolan’s take on the Caped Crusader, the new season plays with the idea that superheroes, who operate outside the law, cannot simply operate without consequences. Played by The Walking Dead’s Jon Bertha, Daredevil’s central foil, The Punisher, shakes him out of his crime-fighting rhythm by actually fighting crime, rather than chasing it. A one-man army brutally excising the remnants of the city’s organized crime families, the Punisher’s tactics trigger a familiar response: “Did we allow this to happen?” This concern, that letting a hero clean up the streets instead of the police could spin out of control and break the law, was raised by Batman’s allies in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Where Commissioner Gordon presciently predicts the rise of “super villains,” Matt Murdoch’s assistant Karen Page (Deborah Ann Wall) openly ponders whether propping up a hero inspired his new nemesis.
Like Nolan’s take on Batman and The Joker, Daredevil and The Punisher are meant to be equals and opposites. Daredevil never kills. The Punisher kills everyone. Daredevil represents justice. The Punisher represents vengeance. Other than the criminals he fights, people generally love Daredevil. The Punisher instills fear in everyone. Yet despite all their differences, they both fight criminals in the hopes of “cleaning up the city.” While the duo doesn’t quite have the yin-and-yang symmetry of Batman and Joker, the show makes it clear that, even on opposite sides, the two have more in common than Daredevil would like to admit.
To be fair, the battle to distinguish Daredevil from Batman was always going to be an uphill one. DC Comics inadvertently cornered the procedural television market when they nicknamed Batman “the world’s greatest detective.” Daredevil managed to avoid falling into an obvious procedural rhythm in season one with a clever structure; much of the season bounced between Daredevil and The Kingpin trying to find each other. Season two, however, plays out as a twisting and turning, but ultimately linear chase for the truth: Daredevil working his sources in classic Batman form, chatting up cops (then ghosting when their backs are turned) and putting the hurt on criminals to get information.
Daredevil finds his own footing once he actually finds his bad guys, but still doesn’t manage to escape his predecessor’s shadow. While his flip-intensive fighting style is far more intricate and entertaining to watch than any Batman fight scene made for the screen — and remains one of the series’ strongest selling points — Daredevil strategically attacks more than one set of frightened, bewildered goons from the shadows, which is a tactic so quintessentially Batman they built a series of video games around it.
None of this really has any bearing on whether Daredevil can entertain. If you don’t notice the similarities, or simply don’t care, Daredevil is a serviceable action series fueled by an engaging, if predictable, mystery. Other than Netflix’s own Jessica Jones, it’s still the best superhero show on TV. Still, Netflix and Marvel’s inability to make the show stand out serves as a sign that the comic-book story well may be running low. Or maybe Netflix and Marvel just do their best work when they stick to a plan.