Netflix’s Marvel Universe has been in a bit of a decline since, well, pretty much since the beginning. When Daredevil first premiered in 2015 it changed the game for small-screen superhero storytelling. More mature than DC’s Arrow-verse and about fifty shades darker than the big-screen MCU, then-showrunner Steven S. DeKnight‘s grounded tale of Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) taking down the Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) was a jet-black beacon of hope for anyone who wanted a Dark Knight sensibility smartly applied to their Marvel-verse characters. Jessica Jones continued the hype with a perfectly cast lead in Krysten Ritter, an instantly iconic villain in David Tennant‘s Kilgrave, and a noir twist on the comic book proceedings. Ironically, the cracks began to show with the bulletproof Luke Cage, which had an endlessly charismatic lead in Mike Colter but couldn’t regain momentum after its most intriguing character, Mahershala Ali‘s Cottonmouth, was quite literally thrown out the window. And then Iron Fist arrived with all the force of Finn Jones‘ baby rabbit punches; by the time Netflix started pumping out subpar second seasons and reached its Avengers-style team-up, The Defenders, the streaming service’s MCU had morphed into a high schooler’s sex life, where only like 3 out of every 13 times were worth your while and there was definitely an over-reliance on The Hand.
Well, for the true believers still out there, I bring marvelous news: By ditching most of the more fantastical elements and returning to the nitty-gritty of Hell’s Kitchen with the core characters that made this show great, new Daredevil showrunner Erik Oleson (The Man in the High Castle) has created the best Netflix Marvel season to date. The first six episodes I saw aren’t quite a perfect Bullseye—don’t worry, we’ll get to him—but it’s darn near close, which is pretty impressive for a blind man who just had a building dropped on his head.
Daredevil season 3 picks up right where The Defenders left off. Following the collapse of Midland Circle, a barely-alive Matt Murdock is picked up a landfill and deposited by Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie) in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage for medical attention, the same orphanage Matt was raised in as a child under the no-nonsense eye of Sister Maggie Grace (a fantastically dry-witted Joane Whalley). Matt’s in awful shape; the building collapse rattled his senses, doing away with his world-on-fire “sight” and rendered him a much more human level of blind. But his faith is more crushed than his body; the Matt Murdock we meet is pissed at God, and when he finally does return to the streets—far too soon, as you’ll see—its not in his red superhero suit but in a more ragged version of his black season one ninja suit that he fabricates himself using old material found in a church basement. (Make your own “old habits die hard” joke here.)
Meanwhile, an incarcerated Wilson Fisk learns that the love of his life, Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) will be charged as an accessory to his crimes as soon as the FBI can track her down. Fisk decides to cut a deal; the former Kingpin becomes a snitch for the FBI, in exchange for Vanessa’s safety…and a transfer from jail to a cushy penthouse apartment, much to the chagrin of protesters outside the building chanting “Lock Fisk up! Lock Fisk up!” A deeply-in-dept FBI Agent Rahul Nadeem (Jay Ali) is given the role of Fisk’s handler. Ali is quietly excellent as Nadeem, filling the character with enough everyman financial frustration to power a Bruce Springsteen song. He needs this Fisk connection to work, which, of course, makes him the perfect target for Fisk’s mastermind machinations.
It’s incredible how much crackling energy D’Onofrio’s return brings to this show. This man did not have to get so weird with this character. D’Onofrio is such a gifted physical actor that he could have shaved his head and thrown on a white suit and been The Kingpin. But he works absolute magic with Fisk’s small tics, playing the criminal mastermind through barely squinted eyes and slight turns of the head, like an awkward child in a monster’s body. It’s helpful for a role that requires so much scheming that D’Onofrio is so good at showing wheels turning inside his head without actually betraying anything on his face. It makes Fisk’s sudden explosions of violence—like a particularly gnarly prison gym fight here in season 3—that much more jarring.
If season 3 runs into any snags, it’s with Matt Murdock himself. Oleson wants to hit hard on Matt’s crisis of faith here, but in doing so he often transforms the character into a 16-year-old who wants a tattoo so bad while his parents are being huge jerks. When I wrote before that Matt is pissed at God, I mean he is literally, hilariously enraged at literal Christian God in a moody Hot Topic teen way. At one point, Matt Murdock calls God a pussy. Cox does Herculean work trying to make some of Matt’s more mopey dialogue sound natural, but some of these exchanges are impossibly bad. A favorite exchange:
Orphan: “Damn, what happened to you?”
Matt [bleeding in bed]: “Life.”
Or, this gem:
Woman: “Thank God for you.”
Daredevil: “He didn’t help you. I did.”
I could do this all day. Luckily, this show—and particularly this season—has such a rich cast of supporting characters to take over while Matt is feverishly updating his LiveJournal. Deborah Ann Woll has really found a great balance of rock-hard resolve and barely-held-together nerves for playing Karen Page, who dives into Wilson Fisk’s release with her usual blend of investigative journalism and highly questionable ethics. Besides the downright hilarious assertion that Karen is paying for both her and Matt’s rent on a reporter’s salary, Karen’s storyline is the best-defined of season 3. Of all the people to be terrified of Fisk’s return, Karen—who killed Fisk’s right-hand-man in season one—feels that risk most acutely, and Woll plays paranoia perfectly with a quickly-steadied shaking hand or lightning quick bite of the lip. Elden Henson, too, gives entirely new layers to Foggy Nelson, if for no other reason than the multi-thousand dollar suits he gets to wear now make his back just that much straighter.
But the new addition to the cast that I guarantee will spark the most discussion is Wilson Bethel‘s arrival as Agent Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter, a name used often by Daredevil archnemesis Bullseye. The villain got the big-screen treatment before, in the 2003 Daredevil film, played by Colin Farrell in a performance seemingly fueled 1000% by cocaine and Evanescence. Bethel’s take on the character is slightly more subdued, but still bearing delightfully unhinged flashes of insanity. I don’t want to spoil specifics of Agent Poindexter’s descent into darkness, but know that it’s chilling, frighteningly topical, and slightly heartbreaking.
These separate character strands build to an episode six set-piece so effective that, for my money, it instantly becomes the defining action scene of Netflix’s Marvel Universe. All of season 3’s action is great, mind you—there’s a chaotic one-shot scene to rival True Detective season one and a pretty fantastic parking lot fight where Matt uses his senses more for stealth than ass-kicking, like an Assassin’s Creed mission—but this is something special. It’s so character driven; it combines the super serious tone of this universe with some downright silly comic book gimmickry. But most importantly, episode director Stephen Surjik builds to it like a horror film. By the time violence erupts—with every major player involved—your heart is already beating fast enough for Matt Murdock to hear it through the screen.
Again, it’s impossible to predict where the season goes from here; the problem plaguing most of these Marvel Netflix shows is a mid-season bloat that comes on quicker than you can say “protector of K’un-Lun.” But Oleson and Co. have crafted such a dense, dark set-up here that, for the first time since Jessica Jones‘ first season, diving back into the streets of Hell’s Kitchen feels more like a treat than a chore. Thank God.
Sorry! I mean thank Daredevil.
All episodes of Daredevil season 3 premiere on Netflix Friday, October 19.