One of the biggest critiques of Marvel's Netflix shows is they aren't as successful at world-building as their movie counterparts. Overall, later seasons of each superhero series haven't surpassed the imagination of their first seasons. There's a lot of individual complaints that get us there: pacing issues, removing the most interesting character, introducing a villain that's not captivating, and losing the sense of groundedness that's supposed to remind us that the Defenders are fighting for the little guy. The list goes on, but what it amounts to is that watching a Marvel Netflix series can often feel like a completionist's slog with a few hidden gems, rather than an intriguing look into the minds of people who struggle with fulfilling a thankless higher calling.
Daredevil's third season happily smashes that pattern; the six episodes I've watched in advance of the season's Friday debut are a compelling set which capitalized on what made the first season great while simultaneously expanding the show into a proper ensemble drama.
Daredevil Season 2 lost its way with the mystic ninjas and villains that spanned the ethereal planes Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) found himself fighting in, as it became unmoored from Hell's Kitchen and the day-to-day tragedies that come with regular life rather than a super-powered one. A big part of that had to do with losing one of Marvel's most compelling villains; Season 1's Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio) wasn't powered at all and yet somehow managed to be twice as insidious and lethal as any other series villain (with the obvious exception of David Tennant's Killgrave in Jessica Jones). His weapons of choice were influence, connection, and patience, characteristics that are horrifying when filtered through Fisk because it renders him an everyman. Any human being can become him; there's no need for anything to be special or chosen about a person to weaponize another person's misplaced need. That's certainly more terrifying than super strength or a monastic warrior.
Season 3 brings Fisk back with nearly perfect results. His presence and the way he slowly manipulates the people around him — the good, the bad, the ones who are trying to make a difference — immediately re-centers the show around what made it great in the first place: highlighting the impact the regular people have when they step up. Fisk nearly manages to dismantle Hell's Kitchen from a gilded prison, simply with a few well-timed conversations. In six episodes, we never see him break a sweat, while Matt is drenched in blood, sweat and tears in nearly every scene.
Audiences have Wilson Bethel, playing the infamous Marvel villain Bullseye, to thank for Matt's state this season. Starting out the season as FBI Special Agent Poindexter, Dex (for short) becomes one of Fisk's favorite tools. As they set out on a campaign to ruin Daredevil's good name, Matt Murdock, presumed dead by his friends, struggles with questions he can't really answer: Can he leave Matt Murdock behind to protect the people he cares about? Is he really a non-believer or will he find his faith again? What good would finding his way back to the fold even do? And even if he recovers — physically and emotionally — from a building collapsing on him and surviving Elektra for the second time, what difference can he really make when Fisk, the man who nearly cost him everything in Season 1, is out of jail if not out of custody?
Here's where the season gets really good. For me personally, Matt Murdock's Catholic guilt has never really worked to shed light on his character motivations. That might just be because the other Marvel Netflix heroes also wrestle with questions of life, death and if they really have the right to play judge, jury and executioner, but they manage to do it out from underneath the shadow of God.
Without that added layer, characters like Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) manage to come a lot closer to self-reflection and real growth than Matt's managed over two seasons of Daredevil and one season of The Defenders. Jessica learns to let people into her life again despite the betrayals of her mother and best friend. Matt spends yet another season pushing away the people who can truly help him. The unfortunate crux of Daredevil is that he's somehow taken religion and used it not as a guiding light, but as a justification for his actions: He damns himself over and over again. But unlike the previous two seasons, Season 3 minimizes Matt and his moral dilemmas (mainly thanks to the delightfully scathing Sister Maggie, played by Joanna Whalley) to make more room for what is truly one of Marvel's best supporting casts.
Now sharing nearly equal screentime with Matt, Foggy (Elden Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) shine as Season 3 standouts. Both figure out who they are after Matt's death and resurrection, and the boundaries of their friendships are tested now that they've learned how to stand on their own feet without Matt Murdock. While it's certainly not what they'd prefer, both Foggy and Karen have been forced to forge a much harder path that shaped them into people who can stand against Fisk on their own. As Matt works to take down Fisk in typical Daredevil fashion, Karen works on exposing the truth to turn public opinion with the kind of shoe-leather reporting that's hard to find anymore, and Foggy works on knocking out Fisk's allies by running for a political position he's unlikely to win but will severely undermine Fisk's machinations and sphere of influence. Because Fisk's greatest weapon isn't his physical strength, Karen and Foggy do as much as Matt in the first six episodes to bring Fisk to justice.
While this is a brilliant move in terms of the pacing and development of the show, it also highlights very clearly that Matt is the reason for most of his current problems. Working together, Foggy and Karen manage to do what Matt can't, at least not on his own. In the back half of the season, it's likely they'll get to a point where the three need to work together, and Matt will admit he needs them while Karen and Foggy will reluctantly admit the same. They're stronger together and everyone seems to know it except Matt. But the question is, will Matt realize that before or after Bullseye and Fisk tear them apart for good? And how much of Hell's Kitchen will get caught in the crossfire?
Season 3 of Daredevil premieres Oct. 19 on Netflix.