I just finished, last night, watching season 1 of Netflix's Daredevil. This was good timing because of how I've been thinking about cinematic portrayals of heroism, and gnashing my teeth an awful lot in DC's direction (from the current Justice League shared universe -- which is, admittedly, not very far along -- to the gritty, militarized grimdark fantasy of the Nolan Batman films). I'm putting something together that thinks about cinematic heroism for women, but it's in progress while I actually ask some women what they think first. In the meantime, I'll take having finished Daredevil as a fortuitous coincidence, and review it here in light of my earlier thoughts about selling heroes to a primarily adult audience. (Incidentally, one of the reviews I read while I prepared for this warned young viewers that Daredevil was more Oldboy than Agents of SHIELD, which kind of makes me sad for all those young viewers who actually get the reference to Oldboy there...).
Spoiler about Netflix's Daredevil: I really, really, really did not like it. (Warning: ACTUAL SPOILERS behind the cut.)
But enough about what I thought. What did other people think? Here's a sampling:
"Tonally and aesthetically, the show is far darker and different than anything that Marvel has produced thus far -– but in exploring a new color, Marvel has just found yet another corner of the comic book world to dominate."
"Buffy/Angel alums Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight ... delivered a taught, thoughtful, and appreciatively earnest take on Matt Murdock - one of Marvel's most complex, hard-to-get-a-handle-on characters..."
Yowza. Dark Knight Rises, The Wire, Frank Miller: This show, I think it's fair to say, got a lot of praise. From the refreshingly dark tone to the amazing fight choreography to the zoomed-in focus on the plight of the underprivileged to how the show actually takes its main character's faith seriously to the collection of interesting, nuanced performances, Daredevil probably should deserve this kind of praise.
And yet, for all that, the show remains devastatingly white and hyper-masculine in the worst ways, and its portrayal of heroism follows. Perhaps not surprisingly, this is reflected in the response the show was received as well: In the above quotes alone, the show is held favorably against the work of Frank Miller -- whose comics are notoriously sexist and racist -- and Nolan's Batman -- who withholds revolutionary, world-benefiting technologies from the world because he's rich, and who never saves or protects any people of color (except for a few convicts, collaterally) or women he's not personally involved with (and whose writers whitewashed the Arabic Ra's al Ghul, and whitewashed the canonically Caribbean Bane twice-over when they first stripped him of his canonic origins in favor of a white actor, and then wanted us to believe that white actor was not playing a Caribbean but rather an ambiguous maybe Romani).
I'm not planning to talk about the show's approach to violence quite yet in this review, even though it's one of the problems I've been most vocal about in my previous analyses. This feels a little like burying the lede, but I want to address race and gender first, because I can't justify relegating those issues to an afterthought in this review.
Daredevil is not absent people of color. From Claire to Elena Cardenas to Ben Urich and his family to Hand Ninja Nobu to the Chinese drug conglomerate run by Madame Gao, the cast is fairly diverse. It's just not enough. Even with all of that, we have the basic paternalist framework of two white guys giving up success and power to help the poor who can't help themselves (ultimately facing off against Kingpin, another white guy). I suppose the show can only do so much to untwist this foundation, which it inherits from a source material that's over 50 years old, but it can at least use its people of color to subvert it.
So: Who do Nelson and Murdock represent? As far as I can tell, they have two clients (when you strip away the villains they are manipulated into representing): Karen and Elena. Karen, the white woman, gets cleared of her charges and in the fallout from the case is given a job at Nelson and Murdock! Good for her.
Elena Cardenas is terrorized, hospitalized, and finally killed (her legal representation making no progress on her case all the while). Her death becomes one of Murdock's driving motivations to step up his Daredevil game. And it's not bad enough that this woman of color is stuffed in that fridge, but she's also little more than a stereotype of an older Latina woman: a fiery woman whose home is filled with Jesuses and somehow manages to make sure enough delicious, hot, home-made Mexican food is at the ready to place before her guests. She deserved better.
Do our other characters of color get better?
Ben Urich is kind of a fascinating character who does initially resist stereotyping, a struggling but driven newspaper columnist who's getting by on the notoriety of his past work while trying to make sure his sick wife continues to get the medical care she needs. He's relatively active in the narrative and has a long and interesting history in the comics that can be mined, opening up a lot of storytelling possibilities for the show's future... until he also gets stuffed in a fridge. I don't know that it's fair to say Ben Urich is treated like a Magical Negro, but for all the show gives him in his favor, his story still follows the framework of a wise old black man whose sage wisdom aids our white protagonists before his shocking death gives them a reason to act. Ben Urich deserved better.
Okay, what about Claire? You mean the nurse who gets almost no screen time despite being played by Rosario Freaking Dawson except to stitch up our hero, get saved by our hero, aid our hero in a gruesome torture scene, and assure our hero that she would always be there for him, no matter what?
Maybe Nobu? You mean the silent, stoic Japanese businessman who is ALSO A NINJA WHO MONOLOGUES ABOUT HONOR... before he dies?
Or Madame Gao (who at least may possibly be some kind of a god, I guess)? A manipulative and deceptive elderly Asian woman whose dialogue is largely built on sage fortune cookie wisdom (one of her most significant monologues devolves into a cheesy fable about a snake that tried to eat an elephant and got stepped on for its hubris -- a fable which she describes as having actually happened in her "village"). And, oh yeah, she's also a skilled martial artist (who can both knock our hero flat and disappear into thin air on a dime). And whose blinded, enslaved Chinese workforce apparently adores her enough to protect her livelihood in the face of their own salvation? At least she doesn't die, I guess.
But by the end of the series, every meaningful character of color is underserved, either dead or departed.
Thinking about gender, the only critical review of Daredevil I ran across was most scathing of the show when it was, of all things, at its most emotionally sensitive (which the reviewer characterizes as feminine). Some choice bits: ""Every time Karen Page and Ben Urich – or Karen Page and Foggy Nelson – got into a room together to ... cry about stuff that they’d already cried about, the show would slow to a crawl." "[Toward the end of the series] I was glad to see [Karen] shoot Wesley in cold blood -– but I also think she stalls the show far too often and cries way too much." "This whole episode [when Murdock reveals his identity to a justifiably betrayed and devastated Foggy] is basically that scene in every romance comedy where the girl finds out something about the guy, overreacts in a way no human being ever would (it’s never that big of a deal), and they break up, only to get back together later..."
The show is not quite as bad with its women as it is with its people of color. Claire, Elena, Karen, Vanessa, Gao, and Marci are strong in their own rights, and in ways that are largely different from each other. This is actually a success! I think the show struggles less with its actual women than with scenes, themes, or arcs that might read as feminine, even in its male characters. I don't want to conflate a review that thought the show was too "girly" with a show that actually portrays women badly, but I do think that a consequence of the show's hyper-masculine atmosphere is to alienate it and its audience from any elements that might read as feminine, so that when Karen -- who woke up next to a dead body and was the victim of TWO failed assassination attempts herself -- actually suffers from the consequences of her trauma, the show's viewers think that she's over-emotional, weepy and boring. Or that when Foggy -- justifiably pissed when he learns that not only is his best friend the very psycho vigilante he's been disgusted with for episodes on end, but also has been deceiving him horrifically since the day they met -- actually expresses his feelings, he sounds more like an over-reacting harpy than a real person. I don't think it's a mystery why people who watch a hyper-violent show like Daredevil will get bored sitting through emotional honesty while waiting for the next absolutely amazing piece of bloody, brutal, frankly amazing action choreography (and they are amazing). The show even kind of feels this problem out intuitively as it goes and course-corrects against emotional sensitivity and romance in its final episodes, so that the organic and genuinely lovely budding romance between Foggy and Karen is dropped without a word (first when Foggy inexplicably goes out for a manpain-fueled bootycall with a woman he hates, which should be a massive betrayal of Karen, and then again when Karen's feelings for Foggy are mysteriously dropped without a word before she can actually feel betrayed by the same manpainy betrayal and... I don't know... maybe, like, justifiably cry about it or something). So that any romance that might have been building between Matt and Claire is forgotten without a word*. So that the only emotional outbursts left over by the end are almost exclusively about what a Bad Guy Fisk is and how much he needs to be stopped.
(I wanted to mention at some point that exceedingly strange moment when we've been set up to believe Ben Urich's white, fatherly editor is on Fisk's bankroll -- because there is literally an orgy of compelling evidence in place that he is -- only to have the man exonerated like all good fatherly white men must be when it turns out to have been a nameless female reporter all along, but I just couldn't work it in smoothly.)
So, all of that said: What about the violence?
In my other essays, I wrote about how pathological heroes like Man of Steel's Superman and the upcoming Affleck Batman are being drawn. It's deeply, deeply frustrating that Superman might only come to understand that killing is unconscionable by actually trying it. It's insane that the ethics of murder are being sorted out by our heroes on a trial and error basis. I was similarly frustrated that the new Batman seems to only actually care about the destruction of Metropolis because one of Bruce Wayne's buildings was among the rubble. It seems clear to me at least that a really important ingredient in actual heroism is empathy. That Batman must necessarily be hurt personally to be moved enough act heroically demonstrates a shocking lack of empathy, and by extension a shocking lack of heroism. And it's not strictly a DCU problem. Nolan's Batman tortures his prisoners. Jack Bauer's ingenious innovations in torture horrifyingly inspired actual Americans who actually torture other people to be more creative in their torture.
There is, in all of this, a very strange and disturbing displacement of the line that must not be crossed. In Superman, killing is apparently the line that must not be crossed... twice. In Batman, killing people Batman knows personally is apparently the line that must not be crossed.
In Daredevil, killing by itself is touted as the line that must not be crossed. Killing. Period. The question of whether or not to kill Fisk -- or anybody -- comprises the bulk of Matt Murdock's ethical and religious dilemma throughout the series, and his ultimate decision not to be a killer held against Fisk's willingness and eagerness to kill is what we're made to understand separates the one from the other.
At the same time, we just got a trailer for a movie where Joker, the archetype for murderous psychopath villains, directly tells us that torture is more his thing than murder ("I'm not gonna kill ya; I'm just gonna hurt ya real, real bad"). And despite Fisk's proclivity for murder, he repeats over and over throughout the series that the people who cross him don't need to die, but need to suffer. And I hope -- oh, I hope -- I don't have to justify the idea that torturing and beating the crap out of people are simply things that good people not only do not do, but also know without trying either (because they possess empathy) that they should not do, and don't want to do.
So in the same breath that we advance the idea that heroes are heroes maybe only because they refuse to kill people, we advance the idea of villains who are frightening specifically because they would rather torture us than kill us. Here's a thing: Matt Murdock tortures somebody -- successfully -- for information in nearly every episode of this series. Among those people are a drug addict who is high out of his mind while Murdock is beating him, an innocent rookie cop who is just trying to do right, and a mentally disabled man. He regularly puts people into comas, and expresses with no ambiguity in the middle episodes that he actually enjoys doing all of it. He never once faces an ethical quandary about the fact that he's regularly putting people -- even innocent people -- in the hospital, and even resolves the season's final conflict simply by beating the ever loving crap out of the show's antagonist.
Allow me to repeat for emphasis: Daredevil tortures a victim of the city's out-of-control drug trade, and innocent person, and a mentally disabled man. He tortures a mentally disabled man.
Holy crap, already. Daredevil: He's not gonna kill ya. He's just gonna hurt ya real, real bad.
I want to note really quickly the mixed message the show sends about torture (which is of course a TERRIBLE way to get actual, reliable information out of people): Every single time Murdock tortures somebody, he gets the information he needs out of them within a minute or so of starting. When "the Russians" kidnap Claire, though, and spend hours trying to beat and torture any information about Murdock that they can out of her, she doesn't give them a thing. Apparently, torture is both okay and effective when you're the protagonist of the show, but abhorrent and entirely ineffective when you're an essentialistic ethnic villain.
But the show insists -- insists that despite all this there remains one thing that separates Daredevil's actions from those of the bad guys (the show even puts the words "I'm not the bad guy" in Murdock's mouth! Methinks he doth protest too much?) -- and that thing is his unwillingness to kill. Which, thin as it is, remains enough justification for the heroism of Murdock that viewers seem to buy it (recall that earlier review: "He has a hero's heart this entire time..."). And yet: What about Nobu? Matt Murdock, in no uncertain terms, kills him at the end of their fight, manipulating Nobu into a position where he's doused in fuel and then lit on fire and then burns to death. There is literally no interpretation of this scene but that Murdock kills Nobu. And yet in the next episode he continues to insist to Foggy that he hasn't killed anybody, and the script itself seems to believe him.
The extended cast of heroes isn't much better: Karen shoots Wesley, apparently in self-defense, but just as apparently needing to empty the entire clip into his abdomen in the process. Claire moralizes in Murdock's direction, but remember that time she eagerly helped him torture a dude into a coma? Her advice to shove a knife through that guy's eye socket was amazingly helpful in the moment, and she never seems to struggle with the role she played in that encounter.
Which is all, again, just a lot of words for: Actual heroes don't torture people.
And which, again, brings up the question of what exactly makes us as a culture think that a piece of cinema which at every turn reduces complex ethical questions about violence and vigilantism down to "he might beat you into a coma and probably won't kill you, but definitely deserves hugs when he inevitably does still manage to kill you" is also a piece of sophisticated adult entertainment? No. Daredevil is bad. That's my review: It's really bad.
* There is something admittedly refreshing about having two of the show's main women remain unattached at the end of the season, and not having them getting stuck in an obligatory romance, but that says nothing for all the time and energy the show put into actually setting those romances up (and at least in the case of Foggy and Karen, doing it organically). The romances are there; the show just backs away from the cooties before they get too far.