When Matt Murdock returns to his improvised ripped-cloth-mask get-up near the start of Daredevil’s third season, looking for all the world like a skeezy New York alleyway Zorro, it sums-up the satisfying, back-to-basics approach of Netflix’s new outing for the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.
Gone are the mystical martial arts conspiracies. Back are the crises-of-faith, bruising fist-fights in basements, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk as the grandstanding, centre-stage villain.
What results is bone-crunching violence, seedy underworld scheming, and an actual honest-to-God crime thriller tapestry to paint all of that vigilante soul-searching on.
And yes, there is a gruelling, extended and highly impressive long-take fight sequence to rival the corridor and stairwell brawls from seasons one and two. So fans of elaborately audacious action filmmaking can rejoice.
Chaos, revenge and Catholic angst
At the outset of Daredevil season three, we find Marvel’s most masochistic superhero at his lowest ebb; blind lawyer and human punch-bag Murdock more battered, bruised and broken than ever following the events of The Defenders, and even more mired in Catholic angst (if you can believe it).
He even has a straight-talking nun now as the Alfred to his Batman, as he discusses the Book Of Job and Original Sin between painful physical training sessions and scrappy, chaotic initial attempts to get back to his crime-fighting ways.
And New York needs him once again it seems, as the shadow of incarcerated criminal kingpin Fisk looms large.
But is Matt simply motivated by a thirst for nihilistic revenge, now that so much he has loved is seemingly lost? And could him re-entering the fray provoke dire consequences?
Fisk is riveting
After a few Marvel TV mis-steps since the second season of Daredevil, including Iron Fist’s flop first run and Jessica Jones’ somewhat disappointing return, it feels like Netflix have really played to the strengths of their flagship smallscreen superhero for his third outing.
When the sparks fly, in vicious fist-fights or intense, imaginatively captured shoot-outs, it’s an absolute treat.
Daredevil’s mystical ninja aspects, while sometimes fun, were usually its weakest aspect (Madame Gao aside), and with The Hand now seemingly out of the equation – and the attention squarely on Fisk as a nemesis – the drama feels gloriously moody and grounded as a result, even though you could hardly call the narrative ‘realistic’.
D’Onofrio is truly riveting as Fisk for every moment he is on screen; as softly-spoken and quietly thoughtful as he is potentially explosive and dangerous.
Fisk even has something of Hannibal Lecter about him at times here, with his calm, manipulative mind games and seeming omniscience, even when locked down and guarded 24/7.
The way his calculating schemes play into the plot provides some of the new story’s finest moments.
A fan favourite arrives
Meanwhile, the introduction of deadly marksman ‘Bullseye’ into the equation is sure to excite fans of the comics, and banish all memory of Colin Farrell’s snarling, pantomime henchman from the much-maligned movie adaptation.
Here, the character takes the form of troubled FBI Agent Benjamin ‘Dex’ Poindexter; an angry, resentful loner with a darker side that is gradually teased out; his backstory explained with an inventive, stylish and compelling flashback sequence.
His growing involvement in the drama provides one of its most interesting facets.
As far as the other crucial players go, Matt is now deliberately removed from the lives of tenacious journalist Karen and likeable bestie Foggy; the former hanging on to hope that he might still be alive, the latter seemingly resigned to the belief that he isn’t. But both also have their own personal baggage to deal with besides.
Speaking of baggage, we get the full-on predicament of another new FBI character right up front so we’re in no doubt as to his motivations and personal stake in the whole Fisk and New York crime affair.
And it really works; Agent Nadeem’s entry to the cast giving us a new sympathetic law enforcement official wading through the moral and literal mayhem of gang wars and their fall-out.
These types of characters have served the Marvel TV Universe (MTU) pretty well so far – and he makes for a worthy addition.
Karen and Foggy remain reliably solid supporting characters, too; with fresh investigative and legal roles to play in the season respectively.
‘The world is changing’
As with the MTU in general, there are going to be times when callbacks to certain characters or events will confuse you, even if you have seen every single series.
The ‘who are they again?’ and ‘remind me what that thing was?’ moments are present and correct. But they don’t cause too many narrative issues.
Cheesy, cliched dialogue can occasionally induce a cringe, however. Red Letter Media fans may even giggle when one character intones that “the world is changing” with a completely straight face.
But as always, that corniness suits the pulpy tone the show is going for, while the more ludicrous or seen-this-before story elements do – to a certain extent – come with the comic book territory.
Daredevil is not highbrow drama exactly, but then it isn’t trying to be. It’s an engaging vigilante tale served up with quality set-pieces, properly formidable bad guys and a few decent heroes to root for.
Frantic, vicious and edge-of-the-seat
Murdock is more morally grey than ever before, and even if his introspective brooding and inner turmoil can sometimes grate, the set-up makes for some interesting storytelling turns.
The old superhero theme of endangering or hurting the ones you love the most through your actions is also extended to several characters here, including the antagonist, which is an interesting touch.
Joanne Whalley does a fine job as Sister Maggie, Matt’s new confidant, while Wilson Bethel and Jay Ali make strong additions as Bullseye and Nadeem respectively.
As for the action, Daredevil remains at the top of the TV game. That aforementioned long-take scrap may lack some of the bells and whistles of season two’s biker gang rumble in the violence stakes, but it is jaw-droppingly staged and choreographed; moving from claustrophobic and confined desperate struggle to take in a much more expansive series of sets, extras and effects.
Just like another pivotal showdown in the first half of season three, more importantly, it is a frantic, vicious and edge-of-the-seat confrontation where you can almost feel each agonising, wounding blow. Just as it should be when it comes to Daredevil.
NB: This review is based on the first six episodes, which were made available by Netflix.
Daredevil season 3 is on Netflix from Friday, October 19
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This article originally appeared on our sister site, iNews.