Review: ‘Daredevil’ Returns for a More Spiritual, Less Human Third Season

Daredevil’s third season begins right after the events of the bombastic, Avengers-lite crossover The Defenders. If you (care to) remember, The Defenders brought Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist together to face a resurrected Elektra (she died in Daredevil season two) and The Hand, an ancient community of warriors obsessed with immortality and power. After working through their interpersonal squabbles, The Defenders defeated The Hand, but their victory came at the expense of Matt Murdock’s Daredevil. Convinced a piece of his former partner and lover still existed in the reborn Elektra, Murdock chose to die with her as our other heroes razed The Hand’s lair and concealed their sinister plot.

Following the classic comic book trope, Daredevil season three reveals how its titular protagonist fared during that final stand. Though the whereabouts of Elektra are unknown, a brutalized Murdock ends up in the Catholic church that housed him as an orphan. Under the care of Sister Maggie and his neighborhood priest, Father Lantom, Matt recovers enough to learn his abilities, which allow him to “see” and fight as a blind man, may never work again.

This is already compelling, but more interesting to me was Matt coming to terms with his broken spirit. Past seasons of the show have richly explored Matt’s Catholic faith, and this season doubles down on the exploration, if not exactly Matt’s commitment.. He has lost his lover (twice) and possibly his powers, too. This is his lot after trying to please God by protecting his city. Is God punishing him? How could He, if Matt is His servant? Unconvinced God cares for him or anyone else, Matt chooses to do what Job, the biblical character he studies in the effort to reckon with his loss, could never do: curse God. In doing so, Matt rejects his life as Murdock, and fully embraces the identity of Daredevil.

It’s the wrong time for that sort of crisis, because Matt’s arch nemesis Wilson Fisk (the captivating Vincent D’Onofrio) is on the move to escape prison and reclaim his criminal empire. Once Fisk begins to execute his plan, Daredevil devotes a majority of its runtime to the intricacies of his criminal genius. Unfortunately, Fisk’s struggle to reclaim his empire shadows the deep theological problem that plagues Matt’s spirit.

Matt has experienced a crisis of faith before, but this is unequivocally the most personal and emotional his spiritual angst has ever been. Matt may be a metahuman, but I have never seen him more human-human than when he returns from a night of vigilantism in tearful grief over his loss and unbelief. As previous seasons of Daredevil have established, Matt’s faith is critical to his sense of justice and choice to be Daredevil. You could even argue his faith anchors his identity as Matt Murdock. It’s a story that needs slow, considerate treatment, but every time Daredevil tries to bring us into Matt’s turmoil, we are instead rushed along to the next epic fight scene, or a less interesting supporting character arc.

Daredevil’s entire third season could have been about Matt’s spiritual journey in the face of immense sufferings and the inexplicability of wicked people like Fisk prospering. I would’ve appreciated a few more conversations between Matt and Sister Maggie during the times Matt is at his lowest and most irreverent toward the nun and her faith. Instead, Matt goes back under the mask and tables his theodicy in order to play vigilante; this time to spite the God he once revered. Those action set pieces are fun, but it’s unfortunate the more relatable, human moments are given the least amount of time.

And unfortunate is how I’d use to describe the overall creative trajectory of Netflix’s Marvel series of late. Starting off strong with character-driven, gritty dramas, Jessica Jones, Daredevil and Luke Cage demonstrated Marvel Entertainment could churn out more than just popcorn blockbusters; they can produce something thoughtful, with artistic attention to content and form. Recently though, through Iron Fist and Defenders and a few of the follow-up seasons, there’s been a fixation on immortal ninjas and supers fighting supers. As these shows give more time to those elements, they miss the human side of these metahumans.

Marvel television is at its best when it pays attention to the humanity of its protagonists and antagonists. Sure, our heroes have super strength, unbreakable fists, heightened senses and bulletproof skin, but for a majority of these shows, our heroes deal with real world problems: psychological trauma, a sense of purpose, systemic corruption in the justice system and racial inequalities. These true-to-life challenges have not only created some compelling protagonists, but also compelling antagonists worthy of our empathy. In tandem, these characters provide audiences multiple portrayals of the struggle to be human in relationship with other humans. That’s the gem of meaning baked within something like Daredevil.

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But if any title can steer Marvel TV back on track, it’s Daredevil. This new season explores multiple aspects of human existence: faith, friendship, love and justice. We are offered broken heroes one choice away from the type of person they criminalize, and villains whose emotions will evoke sincere amounts of sympathy. Plus, there are no signs of immortal ninjas or ungrounded supervillains to lead the show astray.

Season three will introduce us to another classic Daredevil nemesis: Bullseye. He’s brought Matt Murdock more grief than all the hero’s other enemies combined in the comics. Perhaps he’ll be the threat that compels Matt to resume his theodicy. If anything, the show’s reveal of the character could take Daredevil to artistic feats we’ve not seen in the show before.

It’s my hope that as Daredevil continues, it dives deeper into its religious themes and the humanity of its characters. So far, the third season has proven both promising and disconcerting. There have been signs the creators have learned from the ill-advised ninja-heavy past, but there are moments when the opposite proves true as well. If the potential is realized, I would argue season three will not only make for another compelling superhero show, but also a chance to engage questions about suffering, identity and Divine goodness. Superhero narratives are at their best, and most loved, when they bring us past escapism to ask important questions about our reality. If Daredevil settles for a quick entertainment fix, that would truly be unfortunate.

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