Daredevil Season 3 is Marvel’s The Dark Knight
I don’t watch much TV. Other than the second season of American Vandal, this new season of Daredevil is the only 2018 TV I’ve seen. This isn’t bragging or anything, but attempting to put some context around this. I haven’t kept up with any superhero shows, even the Netflix Marvel shows, since the Defenders series over a year ago. So when I heard that the third season of Daredevil was better than just “watchable,” I decided to jump back in and see how it felt.
And I was shocked. This season is one of the all-time best superhero comic adaptations, and the only television season that has managed to tell a single long-form story that remains engaging over the course of thirteen episodes. There’s no padding, no narrative cul-de-sacs that typically plague the Netflix Marvel output and make it feel redundant, or worse, boring. This is a step well above the first two seasons of this show or even the first season of Jessica Jones.
The best comparison I can make is to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Like that film, this season of Daredevil draws on several stories from the comic book source material to tell an original story that combines superheroic action with a thoughtful look at power, corruption, and psychology. It manages to leverage the strongest aspects of the show while doing it, paying off multiple storylines while jettisoning things from the previous season that didn’t work (sorry Elektra).
One of the strongest parts of the first season of the show was Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, and he returns as the big bad again. D’Onofrio’s performance is fantastic, but that isn’t the only reason he makes such a compelling villain. Fisk starts the season in prison from the events of Season 1, but orchestrates a hit on his own life, using that to manipulate the FBI into relocating him into house arrest in a hotel (we later learn that he has purchased the hotel). He finds a few key agents and exploits their personal weaknesses so that they will do his bidding. Over the course of the season, his tentacles reach further and further, pushing and manipulating everyone he can, all from the comfort of a suite cell.
And by doing this, Fisk poses an existential threat to Daredevil (Charlie Cox). While his alter ego Matt Murdock doesn’t actually practice law in this season, his ethics and morals are pushed to the extreme by a foe using lawful institutions to do his dirty work. While Fisk corrupts numerous FBI agents to his cause, Daredevil wrestles with how to stop him, and in spite of his belief in the law, is pushed to consider killing Fisk as a viable option. In the midst of this, Murdock also faces a crisis of faith early in the season, and discovers secrets that push it even further.
Fisk–nicknamed the Kingpin–started as a Spider-Man villain in the 1960s (and will be in Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse in a couple weeks), but in the 1980s, writer/penciller Frank Miller developed the current characterization as a man who exists above the law. While it may seem to be an obvious pairing, taking a superhero lawyer and putting him against someone too slippery to be nailed in court for his criminal actions, it remains a unique dynamic in the genre. Season 3 showrunner Erik Oleson starts Daredevil at his lowest place and builds him back up over the course of the season in parallel to Fisk’s plans escalating.
Also introduced is Dex (Wilson Bethel), who is this show’s version of the comic villain Bullseye, an assassin who can turn any object into a weapon with precise aim. At this point in mainstream superhero media, changing an iconic character this much (he never appears in anything resembling his comic book costume) seems even more bold than it did in 2003. However, the show earns the changes as it places him in this cast representing someone with absolutely no moral compass. He is the most easily manipulated by Fisk, and by far the most dangerous. His story is both terrifying and tragic.
The other two members of the main recurring cast, Foggy Nelson (Eldon Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) also get a lot to do this season, and it all ties into the main story, as well as challenging the characters’ morals and ethics. For Foggy, it is running for district attorney, which is a big perspective change–going after bad guys instead of protecting the innocent. Karen’s is much bigger, reckoning with her past decisions as well as keeping secrets while trying to be a journalist.
Each of the characters has their point of view on power and the ethical use of it challenged over the course of the season. Everyone is corruptible, with some people very easily compromised, and even Daredevil pushed to the limits of his moral compass. Others do immoral acts in the name of doing the right thing, and still others are just accepting a paycheck. None of us are innocent, but each of us must be vigilant, especially when it comes to checking power. FBI Agent Nadeem (Jay Ali) is one of the most compelling characters of the season because he is so vulnerable, yet pushes for redemption as well. Because each character's motive is so clearly communicated to us, seeing them ricochet off each other is even more satisfying.
This is exactly what Christopher Nolan does with the middle chapter of his Batman trilogy. Each of the characters in The Dark Knight’s crime opera are explorations of power, with Batman being the incorruptible avatar for order in a world sieged by chaos. Like Daredevil in, Batman is pushed to the edge and beyond it when he creates a citywide surveillance system in order to stop the Joker (surveillance being the endgame of perfect order). However, Matt Murdock is far more human that Bruce Wayne. He isn’t fighting someone like the Joker, a man who wants to “watch the world burn,” but someone redirecting institutional power for his own ends. This makes him more powerful and less subject to the whims of the public (Fisk wants to be accepted, and will happily manipulate the media to do so).
Like Harvey Dent, Foggy is the white knight crusading for justice while his masked hero counterpart works in the shadows. Both of these characters seek to use the power of the law to counter men like Wilson Fisk, willing to paint a target on their back in the name of justice. The other characters aren’t one to one analogues, and by having more time to develop each character arc, Daredevil’s cast is much more nuanced and morally gray than Nolan’s morality play. Not that one approach is better than the other, but in my mind this is a favorable comparison that never feels like retread of the same ground, but another view of it. Both of these are excellent superhero stories, employing the conventions genre to maximize the thematic resonance.
What makes this season of Daredevil so uniquely excellent is that it shrewdly marries the thematics with strong character work in a way that benefits from being a 13-hour slow burn. While in the middle of writing this, the news broke that this would be the show’s final season. And though I am saddened by the idea of not getting to spend more time with these characters, I am glad this iteration of Daredevil, one of my favorite Marvel heroes, got to go out on the highest of notes. Nelson and Murdock forever.