Netflix’s Daredevil and its beautiful, believable fallibility
Welcome to TV Minus the TV, a column full of thoughts about TV shows watched on laptops published on the internet for you to read on your phone.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be checking in with some of the various superhero shows that have assembled across the airwaves, as part of a mini-series we’re calling State of the Caped Crusades.
Today, Jacob Oller takes on Netflix’s Daredevil.
Since Marvel first Assembled its Avengers back in 2008, it’s dealt almost exclusively in characters who are nigh-unstoppable as individuals, forcing evolving character and group-dynamic changes to bear the brunt of the Universe’s inter-political plotlines. It’s not like Captain America’s going to get shot down in his first (or second, or third) movie, so the battles that matter have to be primarily internal in nature.
Joss Whedon once gave an interviewer the blueprints for a film universe in which the good guys always win:
“The only stakes are emotional. The only stakes are moral. Can they get through this unscathed as heroes? Can they still be heroes? Can they call themselves that? Are they actually useful as a team? Or are they going to fall apart?”
The faceless robot legions these heroes slaughter and the Big Bad’s doomsday device they stop subsequently pale in comparison to the potential ramifications of the group’s actions and decisions. Do they like each other? How about their political views? And while there are long-term payoffs with this strategy – say over a decade of lucrative films – taken individually, these snapshots of tenuous morality can be weak, insubstantial, and frustratingly serialized.
But Netflix’s Daredevil, Marvel’s first foray into bingeable programming, bolsters this damaged, self-reflective morality with a unique second-tier superpowered attribute:
By emphasizing Matt Murdock’s fallibility – his life as a (semi) regular guy with a regular job in touch with (semi) regular issues – Daredevil coerces the audience to invest in every brutal fight scene (helping us better connect with Murdock’s complex physical and moral relationship to the violence he inflicts in the process), and is able to give us true satisfaction when its more believable – therefore ultimately more menacing – villains get taken down. Unlike Batman, Daredevil is no seemingly-invincible billionaire locked away in a hilltop manor brooding over his city. He’ll brood over his city alright – if the Avengers are global protectors, he’s a community activist – but he’ll do it living down in the dirt and grime alongside the henchmen he pummels.
Daredevil’s relationship with violence starts early and personally. The series kicks off with young child Murdock getting his eyes viciously burned up via vehicular-radioactivity#, and its first few episodes (not to mention its best supporting role) revolve squarely around the multiple cringe-inducing wounds inflicted on Daredevil and nursed by Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple.
But like any good New Yorker kid whose dad scraped by as a boxer, Murdock just won’t stay down. The Rocky of the Marvel Universe, he just wants to prove he belongs in this world; that his force of good can make a dent in society’s evil.
And like Rocky, his fights are brutal displays of masochistic meat-bashing (at least, in comparison to the cartoonish energy-blasting battles of the films).
Nevertheless, after having seen him previously wind up in a dumpster, ribs broken, relatively helpless, his beautiful struggle to an eventual victory in a multi-combatant hallway cage match feels especially gratifying:
He’s exhausted, but we’re exhilarated – a fresh feeling that only Iron Man 3’s examination of PTSD comes close to matching. When violence isn’t the only tool in your box – especially when facing villains whose takedowns cannot be fully orchestrated with punches – the hero’s problem-solving skills (even fruitless attempts at violence) become that much more engrossing. The internal battle, whether between one’s physical limitations or mental scars, ends up taking precedence over the fistfights.
Matt Murdock’s personal internal battle is with the intrinsically-human problem of harboring violent impulses towards his opposition. He tortures a mafioso for the location of a kidnapped child in the second episode, chucking the gangster off a roof once the information has been extracted; episode three sees the vigilante beat Fisk’s name out of an assassin, only for the man to commit suicide from fear of the repercussions. Their crimes piss Murdock off, and hurting them makes him feel good, which we know because he tells them. Intimidation and revelation mix as his righteousness takes over. But this allows him to be trapped, toyed with, manipulated.
In addition to the plot proceedings, away from the rabbit hole of clues, Daredevil also – to paraphrase Mr. Whedon – has his morality at stake.
As the season goes on, we realize that while Daredevil can certainly kick some ass, ass-kicking alone won’t beat anyone in the “real world” of this Daredevil.
In a way, this reflects the disenfranchisement plaguing the average (read: fallible) American. Matt Murdock’s tactics (and failures) are originally fueled by his idealism that the good guy can punch his way to victory, but it’s not so easy when you’re protecting Hell’s Kitchen from Russians, rather than Earth from aliens. Things get complicated. You can get lost in the criminal bureaucracy.
Daredevil’s villains comprise a shadowy council of entrepreneurs and investors, compartmentalizing the classic trope of world-domination into local gentrification – criminals with the pure purpose of profits.
That avaricious worship of nothing but the bottom line means inter-organizational turmoil constantly threatens to quake the foundations of their respective partnerships, the delicious mindgames of betrayals, counter-betrayals, and press battles positioning the show’s developing morality as a complexly logical word problem. Superheroes often symbolize the ideals of its readers – Superman as embodied patriotism, Batman as human crime-fighting taken to its logical and psychological conclusion – but Daredevil is the uphill struggle in the face of crushing systematic impotency.
Subsequently, the satisfaction (though not-necessarily-guaranteed closure) we experience from the fall of these baddies – as opposed to exploding various tainted artificial-intelligences or megalomaniacal demi-gods – is derived from the systemic wrist-slapping we see administered to these white collar crooks daily. We see the headlines stretched into grandiosity, begging to be felled. Crime lord Wilson Fisk, his sycophantic handler James Wesley, accountant Leland Owlsley, and other various business-oriented organized criminals seem like only slightly heightened reality in the scope of the Marvel Universe, even compared to Daredevil’s aforementioned superhero cousin, Batman.
Because Daredevil’s villains more accurately reflect real-life, local villainy, Murdock’s approach to his vigilantism ends up reflecting more realistic small-scale heroics, as well.
Seeking justice through a mask not yet validated by the media or government, Daredevil’s first season takes on the punchy pragmatism of a beat cop or a ‘70s muckraker, fighting the system in noir urbania. With his grounded aspirations of justice, even with a monster for a villain, there’s room for error in judgement. A vigilante in the streets, a lawyer in the sheets, Murdock works both sides of the law as delicately as he can.
His life, along with its fragile balancing act, depends on it.
Daredevil can’t shove Wilson Fisk unceremoniously into an asylum or toss him, hogtied, onto the foot of NYPD’s steps. Murdock’s better than that, or he’d like to be. Dropping people off buildings isn’t his M.O., it’s his shame.
Matt Murdock is the consummate guilty Catholic, turning his inner demons outward, hoping to use them in pursuit of justice. That’s why he has to hold a multi-step prosecution on the outskirts of the law, with only the penultimate step being physical confrontation of his target (followed by the capital-L Law). He must first attempt to try his enemies in the press, or pit them against each other, or prove himself worthy of the trust of disillusioned henchmen; his honor-bound morality might attract the loyalty of spurned minions who see in him a chance to get back at their boss, and he’ll take their help, because he’s not too proud. He understands, like we do, that these criminals are only people. They screw up. They’re not monsters, like those he truly hunts. That’s why he trusts the information of his former enemies, and why they entrust him with it.
Where some heroes turn their villains over to the police after they’re done with them, arrests are an ambition rather than an understanding for Daredevil. His associates work with newspapermen and defense lawyers, investigate real estate barons and pension pilferers. They can screw up and they can be endangered without smacking of damsels in distress, but brothers-in-arms.
The build-up – the procedural work – defines these good guys as the beat-cop, working-men whose humanity actually lies in their multi-faceted capacity for failure.
Over the course of a bingeable season, Daredevil thematically accomplishes what it’s taken Marvel movies almost a decade to do, and in a more narratively satisfying way#.
In comic terms, while things like The Avengers: Age of Ultron offer hedonistic splash pages, Daredevil episodes are pulpy issues, offering gripping plot points and real character depth. Because of its form, Daredevil is able to release an ebullient catharsis from its bubbling bottle, as we watch a villain who not only seems to be beyond the law, but reflects those we see in real life who embody this quality, outwitted and exposed by the idealistic processes our democracy relies on.
Doing away with the flights of fantasy, no gods or Hulks will save Daredevil’s New York – just a hard-working team scrubbing the gutters with their bureaucratic toothbrushes.
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