Patrick Harbron/Netflix
March 16, 2016 at 03:38 PM EDT

When Marvel’s Daredevil debuted this time last year, the Netflix series muscled to the front of the superhero TV pack by muting the superhero TV stuff and dialing up the premium-service edge. Crusading lawyer by day, brutal vigilante by night Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox, soulful and scruffy) had superpowers—amplified senses and batlike radar to compensate for his blindness—but the “horn-headed man without fear” didn’t fully adopt his suit and guise until the season’s final episode. Creator Drew Goddard (The Martian) and showrunner Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus) were more interested in making a heightened neo-noir that took seriously the cost and folly of antihero do-gooding. Matt, a brooding Catholic with a social conscience, was a fine expression of themes, but Vincent D’Onofrio’s tortured, romantic villain, Wilson Fisk, was magnificent. The supporting players were witty and humane—including Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Matt’s best friend and legal partner, and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), their plucky paralegal. Pulpy and poignant, Daredevil was a sparky serial with a promising future.

But Goddard, DeKnight, and D’Onofrio are gone, and so is the spark. Season 2—overseen by exec producers Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez, who both wrote on season 1—is a straight-up disappointment. The first four episodes pit Daredevil against Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher (Jon Bernthal), a vengeful killing machine bent on blowing away the gangs in New York. For all the deeply felt damage and fury that Bernthal puts into Castle, the character remains a sketch of noxious nihilism. The story chases profundity about the nature of heroism, but there’s no freshness to the ideas. In fact, they barely feel relevant to Daredevil’s underdeveloped world of Hell’s Kitchen, an uneasy blend of real-world Manhattan and cartoonish caricatures. The philosophical conflict is subverted by Daredevil himself. Watching Matt develop his heroic identity was compelling in season 1, but the identity itself is surprisingly bland. He’s just a thug with a bleeding heart.

Other critics have taken aim at the structure and pacing of Netflix shows—how their novelistic form makes for meager single episodes, how seasons stall in the middle. Daredevil is skimpy and sluggish from the get-go. The initial, haphazardly plotted Daredevil/Punisher “arc” is a flatline of inert drama, with long scenes of windy exposition or dull skulking interrupted by the occasional well-staged if ridiculously gory fight sequence.

Hope for improvement arrives in episode 5 with the formal introduction of Elektra, Matt’s former flame, played by Elodie Yung (Gods of Egypt), who brings some compelling trouble with her. Elektra’s a genre cliché—the exotic kick-ass—but Yung has such fun with the role and generates enough chemistry with Cox to win you over. And Castle becomes more humanized via an emerging rapport with Page. With additional characters, relationships, and plot, Daredevil gets meatier and more satisfying. Episode 6, a taut caper with humor, sexiness, and pathos, should be a template for the rest of the season. It also keeps Cox out of Daredevil’s ugly body armor, a limiting piece of work that makes Cox look stiff and silly. Much like the show around him. C

Matt Murdock, the blind superhero, gets his own television show via Netflix.
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