Things have been a bit rocky in the Netflix/Marvel Defenders universe lately. But is back in top form for a strong third season, largely due to the much-anticipated return of arch-villain Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio, ). Everything that happens this time around is one more step in a steady march toward an inevitable final face-off between Daredevil (Charlie Cox, ) and Fisk.
(Some mild spoilers below, but major plot twists are not revealed.)
Season 3 opens where left off: with Matt Murdock (aka Daredevil) caught in a massive explosion that leaves him near death—indeed, he’s been presumed dead by his friends all this time. He’s found by a random passerby and taken to the parish where he grew up, nursed back to health by the astringently affectionate Sister Maggie (Joanne Whalley, . As always, he heals miraculously, yet we must plod through every step of the tedious comeback process, complete with philosophical soul-searching.
It makes for a sluggish start, a common problem with all the Defenders series, which suffer from a bit of bloat. (That may have been part of the dispute between Netflix and Marvel over the canceled third season of : Netflix allegedly wanted to cut the season from 13 episodes to ten.) ‘snarrative arc this season could easily have been condensed into ten or eleven episodes—by giving us, say, a quick montage of Matt’s return to fighting form or showing us how he survived the blast in a series of flashbacks.
Vincent D’Onofrio is simply riveting, stealing every scene he’s in.
Ditto for Karen Page’s (Deborah Ann Woll, ) complicated back story. Yes, it provides some rationale for her many reckless decisions, but do we really need an entire episode devoted to it? We learn as much about Matt’s best friend and former law partner Franklin “Foggy” Nelson’s (Elden Henson, and) family history in a fraction of the time.
Cox, as always, gives a very good performance in the title role. The character is prone this time around to a lot of whining about the unfairness of it all as he grapples with his loss of faith. As Sister Maggie tartly observes, “I know self-pity when I see it.” Matt is positively wallowing in it, and it’s just not that interesting to watch. Plus, we’ve seen this superhero-grapples-with-going-to-a-dark-place arc so many times, it’s hard to feel much suspense over the central conflict. Will Matt forsake his moral code never to kill someone in order to take out what may be an otherwise insurmountable threat?
That threat, of course, is Fisk (aka Kingpin), who manipulates his own release from prison and sets in motion a meticulous takeover of the city’s various crime syndicates. He’s also out for revenge on Daredevil, orchestrating a plot to discredit the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen by hiring a murderous imposter. D’Onofrio is simply riveting, stealing every scene he’s in—much like he did in the first season.
Call him Kingpin
Where Matt is impulsive and reactive, ruled by raw emotion, the impeccably dressed Fisk is the picture of calm control (except when he’s rage-bashing someone’s head in, but even the most disciplined crime lord needs to let off a little steam now and then). Fisk is always several steps ahead, and Matt keeps playing right into his perfectly manicured hands.
Fisk is patient, smart, and savvy, with a keen insight into what makes people tick, and is completely ruthless about manipulating them to serve his ends. Case in point: his slow seduction (there’s really no other word for it) of FBI agent Benjamin “Dex” Poindexter (Wilson Bethel, ), whose carefully constructed life slowly comes apart as he’s caught in Fisk’s ever-expanding web.
It gets a bit tedious watching Matt get beaten to a pulp again and again.
His only weakness is art dealer Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer, ). Their unlikely romance was the highlight of the first season and had many of us flat-out rooting for the couple despite Fisk’s truly villainous acts. He has always been a study in contrasts: at once brutal and refined, confident and insecure, capable of unspeakable cruelty and selfless sacrifice, at least when it comes to Vanessa—the only person to know his true self, warts and all. Love is his prison, he tells the FBI agent who arranges his transfer to protective custody, Ray Nadeem (Jay Ali, ). As long as Vanessa is threatened, he will do whatever it takes to secure her safety.
It’s not like Matt doesn’t have his own complicated nature: he’s a devout Catholic and law-abiding attorney by day, a violent crime-fighting vigilante by night. He’s an orphan with serious abandonment issues that cause him to push away his loyal friends. Yes, his other senses are preternaturally enhanced because of his blindness, and he’s a well-trained fighter. But his biggest superpower is the ability to take a beating and bounce back like the Energizer bunny—a trait he clearly inherited from his late boxer father. Honestly, it gets a bit tedious watching Matt get beaten to a pulp again and again.
Fortunately, the impressively creative fight choreography helps alleviate the repetitiveness—most notably the spectacular prison fight scene in episode four. The nearly eleven-minute sequence deserves every bit of praise it has received. It was all shot in a single take without any cuts or CGI magic—a “oner,” in Hollywood parlance. (Another standout fight scene from Season 1, by contrast, took place in a corridor and consisted of several takes stitched together.) Filmed in an abandoned prison on Staten Island, the sequence required a full day’s rehearsal prior to shooting, show runner Erik Oleson said in an interview with .
To his credit, Cox himself performed the lion’s share of the stunt work (roughly 80 percent), and the choreography required several rapid switches for his stunt double to take over. Oleson only had a limited number of takes to capture the whole coordinated effort on film, due to the inevitable fatigue of the actors and stuntmen. They finally nailed it on the seventh take, by which point Cox wasn’t so much acting as “legitimately exhausted,” according to Oleson.
The season’s well-paced second half more than makes up for the slow start, as longstanding secrets are revealed and Fisk’s web tightens into a stranglehold on the city. The finale leaves sufficient open narrative threads to set up a hoped-for fourth season, but the unexpected cancellation of and has fueled fears of a similar fate for . If so, perhaps we’ll see a continuation of the story on Disney’s forthcoming streaming service.