You know what would have made the second season of Daredevil more compelling? Less (super)heroics and more lawyering.
As we’ve already discussed, the “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” relies on the well-trodden path of the detective/superhero in Season 2, resulting in a set of entertaining-but-uninventive adventures tied together by great action sequences. If the season, which really feels more like three mini-series than a single story arc, has an overarching story, it’s the tale of how Murdock chose being a costumed crime-fighter over being an attorney.
Warning: the rest of this article relies heavily on spoilers for the second season of Daredevil.
After an intense four-episode chase, Matt Murdock apprehends Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher, and hands him over to the police. After realizing that a villain like Castle will have a hard time getting a fair trial, he convinces his law partner Foggy Nelson they should represent him in court. From there, the narrative pivots, hard, to a larger, world-threatening menace — an evil, magically powered ninja syndicate called The Hand. Castle’s trial or, rather, the fact that Murdock prioritizes fighting The Hand over showing up for it, takes a back seat to the violent twists and turns of this story, which weaves magic and ninjas into a world full of superheroes. It’s wild and crazy and comic-booky… and, honestly, kind of old hat at this point.
While pushing the show towards more action makes sense on paper — this is a superhero show, after all — it tragically overlooks a crucial fact about its central character: that Matt Murdock’s double life is the most interesting thing about him. Though there are no fight sequences in a courtroom, there’s a deeper, more emotionally resonant show that opens with Murdock tracking down bad guys as Daredevil, then putting away his costume to make sure his enemies get justice, including a fair trial.
Meanwhile, the show only glosses over the Murdock’s constantly strained morality, initially equated with Catholic guilt. He wrestles with forming a moral code around his crime-fighting, and, to hear Murdock tell it, his understanding of the law, and his commitment to it, helps structure that code. He distinguishes his vigilante crime fighting from that of The Punisher, who murders criminals rather than turning them over to the police, because his way leaves room for bad people to redeem themselves. It’s a high-minded distinction, but coming from a lawyer and crime-fighter, someone who literally spends every waking moment thinking about the notion of “justice,” it fails to resolve the contradiction at the heart of the character. As a defense attorney, Murdock would have to find a way to reconcile his obligation to the law, which asks him to fight for Castle’s freedom, and his purpose as a hero, to get him off the streets. (Side note: After decades as a defense attorney, comic author Mark Waid resolved the conflict in 2014 by making Murdock a district attorney, which makes sense, but is, frankly, a bit boring.)
Without showing Murdock in court with Castle, Daredevil never depicts how his penchant for taking the law into his own hands might affect his ability to counsel his client. As Daredevil and Punisher, Murdock and Castle have a complicated relationship. By the time Murdock turns Castle in, he’s gone from hunting him down to saving his life, and the two develop an almost comrade-like relationship. It’s not unreasonable to think that such a bond, combined with the process of softening Castle’s story for a jury, could genuinely affect how Murdock approaches both of his jobs.
Plus, as this season showed, lawyers can do harm and impede the justice system as much as criminals. In a season full of murderers and bad men in black, the morally bankrupt district attorney Samantha Reyes (a chronically scowling Michelle Hurd) may be the most compelling villain. Considering that she’s unafraid of using extralegal tactics to get her way, pitting her and Matt against each other could have been used to goad him into breaking his own rules.
Murdock’s defense for Castle is ruined when crime-fighting ex-girlfriend Elektra coerces an expert to testify on Castle’s behalf, causing him to break down in court and tainting his testimony. Unfortunately, it’s simply used to trigger a fight between Murdock and his partner, Foggy Nelson, giving Murdock an excuse to ignore the rest of the case. It’s more difficult to show, but when real people fight — particularly close friends and colleagues like Nelson and Murdock — they work out their problems. The strain between them, bending but not necessarily breaking, relies on a level of nuance that a big-screen Marvel adaptation doesn’t have time to explore, but a serialized take could, and should.
Instead of mining the complex relationships Murdock’s double life provides for pathos, the show (mostly) falls back on the comic-classic day job/night job balancing act — it’s more Spider-Man than Batman, but if the shoe fits, right? Showing up late (or not showing up at all) to personal events might be a problem, but it isn’t a particularly rich vein for drama, particularly for the sophisticated audience Netflix seemed interested in cultivating with Jessica Jones. When you have 13 hours instead of three to tell your story, violence is not always the answer.