The first and best of the Marvel-Netflix series, “Daredevil” returns for its third season having contracted the same affliction that has plagued encores of its brethren: a sluggish, plodding pace that arduously advances the story. Despite marquee villains new and old, the Man Without Fear thus risks becoming the Series That Induces Sleep.
“Daredevil” arrives at a bit of a crossroads for Marvel and Netflix. The pair individually introduced Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, carefully building to the superhero team-up “Defenders.” Since then, though, the franchise has seemed somewhat aimless. The recent cancellation of “Iron Fist” – easily the weakest of the stand-alone shows – merely underscored that when it comes to the vagaries of TV, even the Marvel brand and Netflix’s it’s-a-hit-if-we-say-so algorithms aren’t invulnerable.
In the kind-of-good-news department, the season introduces the Daredevil villain Bullseye (Wilson Bethel), albeit in a customarily slow-motion kind of origin story. It also sees the return of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a.k.a. the Kingpin, mirroring the twin bad guys of the lightly regarded 2003 “Daredevil” movie that starred Ben Affleck.
Of course, Fisk is in prison from his first run-in with Daredevil/Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) – the blind superhero whose heightened senses, athleticism and ability endure massive amounts of punishment allow him to fight crime – but that doesn’t stop him from operating the levers of power from behind bars.
Where “Daredevil” feels especially dreary is in its slowly recovering leading man, who once again engages in a period of soul-searching; and the various subplots involving his friends and allies, law partner Foggy (Elden Henson) and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll), who, based on the events that capped off season two, were convinced that their pal is dead.
The action, when it does come, remains dark and gritty. But like recent seasons of “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist” and “Jessica Jones,” excessive flabbiness has crept into the formula, to the point where the lingering threat is that somebody’s going to get talked to death. In “Daredevil’s” case, the fragmented focus on the villains and supporting players causes the story to crawl along, before finally kicking into gear in the last of the six episodes previewed.
Going in, that character-driven formula was the plan for these Netflix shows, but the conceit has worn thinner as the series piled up. Now, even the better shows feel a bit tired and the 13-episode orders conspicuously stretched out, where a more economical run might have trimmed some of the conspicuous fat.
Granted, the Marvel-Netflix properties have enough of a following that there might not be much incentive to mess with the existing formula. But given that Marvel parent Disney has ambitious plans for its own streaming service that will make use of the Marvel brands – along with “Star Wars” and the studio’s animated properties – it would be well advised to consider the limitations of these shows, as well as the strengths, before braving another “Daredevil”-like plunge into the streaming waters.
“Marvel’s Daredevil” begins its third season Oct. 19 on Netflix.