*Spoilers ahead for the entirety of Daredevil season 3*
The third season of Marvel’s Daredevil does a lot right, arguably more so than any Netflix MCU series before it. New showrunner Erik Oleson returns the series to its barest basics, putting Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) back in a streamlined street-ninja suit to barrel his way through a street-level crime thriller devoid of dragon bones and Hand-shenanigans. As the returning Vincent D’Onofrio says himself in Wilson Fisk’s imitable cookie-mouthed growl: “So, the Devil is back.” But with a story so laser-focused on the core crew of Matt, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), nary a spare moment or alleyway brawl was available for any Defenders crossover; Luke Cage (Mike Colter) didn’t show up to bend any steel, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) left his baby kicks at the dojo, and Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), as usual, minded her own damn business.
Except, that is, for the briefest of mentions at the tail-end of Daredevil‘s season 3 finale, “A New Napkin”, that comes after the beautifully violent three-way brawl that leaves Fisk in jail and Benjamin “Don’t Call Me Bullseye” Poindexter paralyzed (for now). Foggy, using that titular napkin, suggests New York needs a scrappy new law firm named Nelson, Murdock, & Page:
Karen: Guys, I’m not a lawyer.
Foggy: You’re one hell of an investigator.
Matt: Yeah, and way more stable than Jessica Jones.
That’s it. It’s quick and it’s perfect. One line establishes so much; Jessica Jones not only exists in this world, but Matt Murdock has an intimate enough relationship with his fellow pseudo-vigilante to needle her flaws. (It’s also a bone thrown to any shippers out there, I see you.) To hammer that home with an in-your-face crossover would distract from Oleson’s personal story, but to ignore it altogether would be like the New York Bulletin not covering those aliens that popped out of the sky a few years ago.
Building any shared universe is a tight tightrope to walk on, even for the Man Without Fear. It took Netflix’s big-screen counterpart the better part of a decade to perfect it, and even then we get clunkier, more forced entries like Age of Ultron. Ignore it altogether and you lose the idea entirely; think back to Jessica Jones’ first season, a strong, strong season of television but one in which no one mentions the insane person dressed like the devil beating up muggers two blocks away. I’ve lived in New York, that place runs more on street gossip than it does electricity.
But push the shared universe issue too hard and too often, you’re left with something like The Defenders. Yes, the crossover appeal was the entire point of Netflix’s eight-episode team-up, but that crossover appeal is also the only thing The Defenders had. Remove the banter and the bickering between characters you recognize and you’re left with about 25 minutes of actual plot. The Defenders is all crossover all the time, so much so that it forgot to tell a story; it’s an eight-episode wink, nudge, and a nod upward to the all-encompassing Marvel umbrella.
A shared universe doesn’t have to be crowded; that Marvel mansion is a big house with plenty of rooms for everyone. The beauty of Daredevil season 3—what sets it so apart from the seasons before it—is that it tells its own story on its own terms. A gorgeous story at that, a dark, human story that manages to morph the trajectories of Matt, Foggy, and Karen, not to mention the entirety of New York City’s criminal underground.
But it’s also a story that so subtly understands how to build a world. There’s that age-old question that has come along with pretty much any superhero story since 1939: “Why doesn’t Iron Man just call Thor for help? Why don’t the Avengers assemble *every* time? Surely Batman has Superman’s cell number?” The simple answer—as it is in real life—is that everyone just has their own shit to deal with, their own problems, their own stories to tell. Daredevil season 3, more so than any other Netflix MCU season, has a complete, 13-episode story to tell. But then right at the end, with things wrapped up in a bloody prison-jumpsuit bow, Oleson and Co. manage to make clear the larger sandbox they’ve been playing in the entire time, a subtle reminder of the super friends we made along the way.