Tuesday, April 21, 2015

An Impressionistic Painting: Thoughts on Daredevil

In the fifth episode of the new Netflix series Marvel's Daredevil, lawyer-by-day, vigilante-by-night Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox) explains to his new friend Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) how he sees the world.  Blinded in a childhood accident, Matt discovered that his other senses had become superhumanly sharp, allowing him to perceive far more than ordinary people.  "You have to think of it as more than just five senses," he tells Claire.  "I can't see, not like everyone else, but I can feel.  Things like balance, direction, micro-changes in air density, vibrations, blankets of temperature variations.  Mix all that with what I hear, subtle smells.  All of the fragments form a sort of... impressionistic painting."  It's a speech that offers insight not only to Daredevil's title character, but to the show itself, which often feels less like a straightforward narrative than an impressionistic work in its own right, zooming in and out of its story in a way that seems almost random.  It's a novel approach, especially in genre TV, but one that hasn't entirely paid off, resulting in a series that is brilliant at points, but whose whole is curiously unsatisfying.

The third effort to bring Marvel's cinematic universe to the television medium, Daredevil is also the opening volley in a project that is the televized equivalent of the ambitious Phase I.  Over the next two years, Netflix plans to release three other series--AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist--featuring Marvel characters and set in roughly the same environs as Daredevil, culminating with a team-up of the four shows' heroes in The Defenders.  While the cinematic universe has been spectacularly successful, however, Marvel has so far floundered in its TV efforts.  Agents of SHIELD remains so in thrall to the events of the larger story around it (it is currently setting up events that won't pay off until 2019) that it has yet to develop characters or a story that are compelling in their own right.  Agent Carter has a dynamite main character and spectacular action scenes, but struggled to find a story to tell with them, even when limited to only eight episodes.  Daredevil rather badly needed to make a splash, and perhaps for that reason it has struck a much darker tone than the rest of the MCU (another reason is that it draws on the work of Frank Miller, who has written some of the definitive Daredevil stories, and who acted as a consultant on the show).  The core of the series is Matt's frustration with his belief that the city he loves (specifically Hell's Kitchen, the neighborhood where he grew up and still lives) is being lost to crime and corruption, and his struggle with the question of whether the best way to address this is as a lawyer, fighting for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, or as a masked vigilante, who beats up criminals and seriously debates killing the crimelords who control them.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Daredevil--and, initially at least, the most compelling--is how fully it takes advantage of the streaming TV model, and of the expectation that it will be watched in a single or at most a few large gulps rather than week-by-week.  Freed from the need to win over an audience with standalone episodes (which hardly any genre show does well anymore, unfortunately) or to be accessible to viewers who tune in halfway through the season, the show allows itself to be structureless.  There is no straight line running through Matt's crimefighting and his pursuit of the criminal gangs plaguing Hell's Kitchen, and the show feels free to elide the parts of the story that it finds boring or unnecessary.  The first episode ends with Matt using his super-hearing to pick up the sounds of a kidnapping in progress.  The second episode begins with Claire, a nurse, finding him badly injured in the dumpster behind her building.  As she patches him up, he explains that he's been pursuing the kidnapped child and ran afoul of some people involved in the crime, but the show trusts that we don't need to see that connective tissue.

The expectation of binge-watching also allows Daredevil to draw out explanations of its world and title character.  When we first meet Matt, he's already patrolling the streets and performing seemingly impossible feats.  It takes five episodes for us to learn what his powers are and how he uses them; seven, to learn who trained him to fight and put the idea of vigilantism in his head; and ten for him to articulate why he decided to don the mask and how he justifies his violent actions.  By the same token, the season's villain, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio), known in the comics as Kingpin, is only introduced at the end of the third episode, and the season's eighth episode is dedicated almost entirely to him and to laying out his past.

As the first season draws on, however, the shapelessness that was initially so intriguing becomes a burden.  It saps tension from the story, which was anyway never particularly propulsive.  Fisk actually achieves the bulk of his dastardly plan at the end of the fifth episode, when he bombs several city blocks which he plans to redevelop (as noted in this brilliant dissection of the show, Daredevil simultaneously oversells and undersells the evil of a villain whose master plan is basically gentrification).  For the rest of the season, Matt is playing catch-up, trying to either prove that Fisk is a criminal or decide whether he wants to kill him.  But instead of building to a climax, the story seems rather to stumble onto a solution that allows Matt to confront and defeat Fisk without doing most of the legwork required to bring him there.

As the season grows more slack, it also becomes easier to notice that a lot of the innovation that Daredevil supposedly brings to the MCU--the emphasis on class and on the effect that crime and corruption have on the poor, the central importance of an urban setting which the hero vows to protect, the use of rich plutocrats as villains--are things that were done just recently, in the first season of Arrow.  To be fair, this is less a case of plagiarism than of two works drawing from a common source (more precisely, Arrow's first season is a blatant riff on Batman Begins, which in turn was heavily influenced by the work of Frank Miller).  But there's no denying that there are elements in Daredevil that feel as if they were lifted directly from Arrow.  Fisk's evil plan to save the city from corruption by destroying the parts of it that he has deemed too diseased echoes both Malcolm Merlyn on Arrow and Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins.  The season's tenth episode, "Nelson v. Murdock," centers on the disgust and dismay felt by Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Matt's best friend and law partner, when he learns Matt's secret.  The episode is designed to show Matt how a normal, sane person reacts when they learn that he has dedicated his life to violence, but Foggy's reaction is almost word for word the one expressed by Tommy Merlyn on Arrow when he learns Oliver's secret.

To be sure, Daredevil is often much better made than Arrow, particularly the early episodes which were quite dire (it also has an obvious advantage over Arrow in being a story about class whose characters actually come from a working class background).  But it is not so much better as to completely distract from the fact that it's retreading very familiar ground, and in some cases it actually falls short.  The most crucial of these, unfortunately, is Matt himself.  Like Arrow, Daredevil is the story of how its title character grows into heroism, but the show rarely seems willing to commit to actually depicting that process.  It spends a lot of time explaining Matt's background to us, but very little time on Matt himself.  Cox is very good at showing us the various masks that Matt presents to the world, but when it comes to the anger and ugliness that lie beneath, he's rarely given enough to work with.

Matt's character arc over the course of the first season revolves around the dilemma of whether he should kill Fisk.  That's a fairly inert plot--no story that puts so much emphasis on whether or not our hero will kill a single bad guy is going to end with him doing the deed--and made even more so by the lawyerly way in which the show phrases the question--in the second episode, Matt brutally tortures a man for information and throws him off a roof, but it's OK because he lands in a dumpster and only ends up in a coma.  Arrow was actually much smarter about this issue--it started with Oliver already an unrepentant killer, and let him slowly walk back from that state over the course of its first season.  One of the problems of telling a superhero story in a gritty, "realistic" tone is that the closer you get to setting your story in something that resembles reality, the clearer it becomes that superheroes are actually a really bad idea, and that people who choose to go out at night in masks to beat up criminals are pretty messed up.  So giving your hero some space to become a better person without actually giving up the vigilante lifestyle, as Arrow does, is a good idea.  Daredevil, in contrast, paints itself into a corner--if Matt commits this particular murder, he's damned--and has nowhere to go from that point.  It ends up embroidering around the question, sometimes in ways that are very compelling--Matt's conversations with a priest (Peter McRobbie) who challenges him to decide whether he's looking for a reason not to kill Fisk, or a justification for doing so, are a consistent highlight of the season--but never in a way that leaves him room to grow or change.

Matt's flatness stands in even sharper contrast when he's compared to Fisk, who is simultaneously Daredevil's greatest accomplishment and its biggest stumbling block.  Played to perfection by D'Onofrio, Fisk is at once ruthless and deeply vulnerable.  He is also one of the series's most emotionally available characters.  In one of his earliest scenes, he makes an awkward but extremely sweet pass at a gallery owner, Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer), whose relationship with him is the season's central romantic plotline.  He has a strong, supportive friendship with his assistant Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), who seems to genuinely care for his boss, and whose affection is clearly reciprocated.  In a show full of masculine posturing, Fisk is the only character who allows himself to behave in decidedly unmasculine ways--when Wesley is murdered, Fisk sits for a long time holding the dead man's hand in his own, and plants a kiss on his forehead before leaving.  And yet Fisk is also a deeply damaged man, scarred by the abuse of his father, whom he murdered to protect his mother, and harboring deep reserves of rage.  When his first date with Vanessa is interrupted by one of his criminal associates, Fisk kills the man in a fit of incandescent, irrational anger, shouting "you embarrassed me in front of her!"

It's an impressive, complex portrait, and I very much hope that genre prejudice will not preclude D'Onofrio from receiving some award attention for it.  But it's also a huge problem for the show that contains it, because Fisk turns out to be massively more interesting than anything else on screen, including of course the show's titular hero.  As a lot of superhero stories do, Daredevil mirrors its hero and its villain--both come from a working class background, both had violent fathers (though Matt's father, a boxer, was never abusive towards him), both care deeply about their neighborhood and believe that it has fallen to them to save it, and both struggle with deep-seated rage.  There's even an obvious echo of Matt's condition in Fisk's defining moment, when he stares unseeing at a blank wall, unable to drown out the sounds of his mother being beaten.  But the parallel runs so deep and Fisk is such a dominant figure in the story that it feels less as if Daredevil has mirrored Matt and Fisk, and more as if it has given them the exact same character arc, and let Fisk do it better.  By the end of the season, it is Fisk, not Matt, who has had a complete character arc and experienced a transformation (and it is Fisk's decisions, not Matt's, that move the plot, his own bad choices that lead to his downfall far more than Matt's heroics).  In a way, this was inevitable the moment the show chose to center itself around the question of justified violence--Fisk, who is not a hero, can come to the logical conclusion of this dilemma in a way that Matt never could, embracing his own villainy in the season's final moments.  By the end of its first season, Daredevil feels a lot more like Fisk's story than Matt's, and though this is interesting and clearly the result of deliberate choices, it's also unsupportable, especially within a universe as fundamentally conservative as the MCU.

The impressionistic storytelling, the shapeless plotting, the choice to humanize its villain and place his story at its center--these are all ways in which Daredevil tries to work within the conventions of prestige crime shows like The Wire or True Detective (and one of its core problems is that, well made though it is, it lacks the level of writing that can take these challenging tropes and weave them into a compelling story).  Another example is the over-emphasis on male characters at the expense of any women in the cast.  There are three women in Daredevil's main cast, and none of them feel particularly well served by the first season.  Claire appears in only a few episodes (Dawson is apparently intended as a crossover character between the different Netflix shows, and as her character in the comics has connections to Luke Cage she will probably be seen in his show) and seems to function primarily as a caretaker and sounding board for Matt, though she also has enough good sense to shut down their nascent romantic relationship when she realizes that he has no intention of stopping his vigilantism.  Vanessa gets more screen time, but her relationship with Fisk is frustratingly one-sided.  We learn enough about him to understand why he falls for her so deeply and so quickly.  But we learn almost nothing about Vanessa (who is hardly ever seen away from Fisk--there is only one scene in the first season that she does not share with him), much less anything that would explain why she's not only willing to date a man whom she knows to be a violent criminal, but so quickly ties her life to his, involving herself in her crimes and agreeing to go on the run with him at the season's end.

The one bright spot on the female character front is Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a client of Matt and Foggy's who becomes their receptionist.  Unlike Claire and Vanessa, Karen is the driver of her own story, in which she investigates the criminal conspiracy that led to her being falsely accused of murder, and which inevitably leads to Fisk.  Woll is excellent at conveying not only Karen's determination, but the hint of mania that underpins it as she browbeats and steamrolls her way towards the answers about the events that tore her life apart.  Though driven by noble intentions, Karen's zeal to get at the truth and find justice for herself and others leads her to act recklessly and often unethically, and unlike Matt there is space in the show for her to become somewhat unlikable without completely losing her way.  Unfortunately, Karen's plot strand is also the season's least successful, least interesting aspect.  Her investigation somehow manages to be simultaneously too detailed and not detailed enough, drowning the viewers in a flood of meaningless names and places while signposting major breaks in the case that don't actually make any sense.  In the season's later episodes, Karen and her partner, the journalist Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), discover that Fisk killed his father--not so much by being ace investigators but because the truth more or less falls in their laps--and walk around convinced that they have a smoking gun, even though it should be obvious that a twelve-year-old boy who killed his abusive father would be a figure of sympathy, not scorn.  It's a story undeserving of its main character, and it helps to cement the feeling that Daredevil is a lot less interested in the women in its story than in the men.

(Much has been made of the fact that the people behind the show's scenes are almost entirely men--only one of the season's episodes, for example, was co-written by a woman--and one of the ways in which this feels most obvious is the show's handling, or rather its failure to handle, women's relationship with violence.  Both Claire and Vanessa choose to become romantically involved with men whom they know to be violent, and at no point is it ever suggested that they fear that violence could be turned onto them.  It's obviously not unrealistic for women to ignore the danger that their romantic partners pose them, but the show itself never seems to consider that this is a questionable choice--despite showing us repeatedly that both Matt and Fisk have deep reserves of rage which they often have trouble controlling, we're apparently meant to take them at face value when they assure the women in their lives that "I would never hurt you."  Karen, meanwhile, comes to Matt and Foggy's attention after she's drugged while on a date with a man, and yet the obvious implications that such a setup would have for most women are never considered--drugging her is merely a means to framing her for her date's murder.  This is not the only way in which Daredevil's pretense of "realism" runs aground on the shoals of its limited perspective--for a show about poverty and class, it's jarring that the perspectives we see belong almost exclusively to white people, and it will be interesting to see the show analyzed from a disability rights perspective--but to me it was the most obvious.)

Sporadically brilliant but ultimately inadequate, Daredevil is a marked improvement on its predecessors, but still not the home run that Marvel needed to launch their Netflix experiment.  There's probably a longer discussion to be had about why Marvel does so well in its movies, but has so far struggled to expand its universe into television (while DC has had the exact opposite results).  My previous theory was that television series need room to grow and become their own story before being folded into a wider universe (one of Arrow's problems in its lackluster third season has been that so much of its storytelling is in service of jumpstarting more and more spin-offs set in its world).  But Daredevil is undeniably its own thing--even as it cribs to blatantly from so many sources.  Perhaps the problem is simply that Marvel's TV shows have the same storytelling flaws as their movies, which tend to half-ass their plots and cover for it with fun character moments and exciting action scenes.  That's not an approach that can work in a multi-part story, and especially not when your main character can't quite hold the spotlight.  There's still a lot here worth watching for, and certainly enough to build on in the second season, but I hope that future Marvel series have a stronger sense of their main character, and a more interesting story to build around them.


Stanoje said...

When Fisk went all super-villain in the finale and had his military-esque minions engaged in a large-scale shoot-out with the police, all I could think about was - what does he pay them? Why do they do this? Their lives are over should they be caught, but they're obviously skilled individuals, so it's not like they don't have anything else to fall back on aside from the kind of crime that will bring down half the cops in the nation on them.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

To be fair, this is a problem that a lot of genre shows have. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Person of Interest as an example of a series that gets that any organization, much less a criminal or clandestine one, has strong manpower limitations and that you can't just assume that the bad guys have a limitless army at their disposal. Hell, within the MCU there are several other examples of this fallacy - see the huge ranks of Hydra agents, or the fact that SHIELD apparently had thousands if not tens of thousands of employees despite being a super-secret, black book operation.

But yes, there are some serious problems with how Daredevil imagines Fisk's operation that undercut its claim to be a realistic, serious show. For example, it's never really explained how he built his criminal empire given that he's an agoraphobe with crippling social anxiety. Once he became powerful he had Wesley to do everything for him, but how did he get to the top? What exactly did he bring to the table aside from a fondness for killing people with his bare hands? It's not a question the show seems interested in, which is typical of its sloppy storytelling.

Ruzz said...

Agree that (i) what is it with these plots about urban displacement - is this the only "real world" alternative to a full comic-book universe?; and (ii) great to see the attention given to the Bad Guy, and indeed his eerie sidekick, but at what cost to the narrative dynamic. A curiously inert show. But I do like the title sequence.

Brigonos said...

The problem with Arrow starting out with its main character as a killer - a character element it arguably borrows from the Daredevil movie - is that even if all his victims come back to life, he'll still be a murderer.
I don't think the question of whether a central character will commit murder or not is a redundant plot to explore in the modern superhero anymore, as heroes murdering people all the time - Superman snaps necks, Batman blows people apart with rockets, Iron Man uses flamethrowers on the Taliban - is an accepted part of the narrative landscape. I personally find the "hero on the run from authorities" storyline to be far less interesting, if only because it's been the basis of 99 percent of superhero movies and tv shows.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I sort of respect the attempt to engage with real-world issues, but you very quickly run up against the problem that gentrification and urban displacement aren't things that can be addressed by a vigilante with a mask. Daredevil tries to get around this by making Fisk a criminal as well as an urban developer, but this feels contrived - the danger he poses to the city is precisely the same danger posed by a completely law-abiding mogul who buys up affordable housing and turns it into luxury condos.

One of the ways that Arrow dealt with this issue was to have Oliver target white collar criminals whose wealth and connections made them untouchable by the law - people who had raided pension funds and the like. But the show seems to have abandoned this approach in favor of flashier and less realistic opponents.


The problem with Arrow starting out with its main character as a killer is that even if all his victims come back to life, he'll still be a murderer.

That's true, and one of the things I like about Arrow is that it periodically has people who are close to Oliver protest that "he doesn't kill people anymore!" only for those who aren't caught up in his halo to point out how insufficient a defense this is. But I still think that's preferable to a hero who engages in brutal violence and yet somehow never kills anyone.

As I say in the review, if you want to tell a "realistic" superhero story you will eventually have to deal with the fact that what your hero is doing is illegal, violent, and probably immoral. I don't know if there's a good way to get around that bind - probably the only reasonable approach is to have your hero face off against people who are as superpowered as he is rather than garden variety criminals - but if there is then Daredevil hasn't found it.

Foxessa said...

Along-side your cogent exegesis, you might like to see this.

Love, C.

Stanoje said...

re: women in the orbit of violent men
Have you seen Drive, the movie with Ryan Gosling? Your thoughts made me think about the elevator scene, and the reaction of Carey Mulligan's character to the sudden violence.

Unknown said...

It's been interesting to watch the reviews and commentary come in for the Netflix-released whole seasons of shows. It was my experience that the initial release of Daredevil had a lot of my friends on Twitter and Facebook commenting how fantastic it was, how great the action sequences were, and how amazing Vincent D'Onofrio was. Then you had a lot of more developed discussion (shorter articles) about the positive aspects of the show - "A superhero show that takes the urban environment seriously!" "Gentrifying Developers as Bad Guys." The word gritty got mentioned a lot. And now we've moved into the phase where I'm seeing more pieces like this one where the whole show is looked at more soberly and the author argues that the show is not as profound as it appears and is pretty problematic in some parts. I, too, was bothered with Daredevil having some of the same problems about vigilantism and violence that its goofier brethren have.

I wonder if that's a function of the show Daredevil becoming in general more ridiculous as the season wore on, or just the way that we as fans process these shows that are presented to us in full seasons. Is it because some of the laudatory pieces were written before people had finished the show, and thus couldn't know that it didn't entirely solve its issues?

Abigail Nussbaum said...


That's an interesting observation. I think I ended up liking the show more than the author of that article (plus I knew that I wanted to write about it so there was no question about finishing out the season), but it's true that the Netflix model makes putting a show down harder.


I really liked that aspect of Drive, and particularly the scene you mention. The Driver is definitely introduced as a very similar type of character to Matt Murdoch and other violent heroes - someone who is capable of causing great harm but only directs that force at the undeserving - and what that scene and the rest of the film reveal is that no, he's actually just a psychopath who happens to have forged a connection with this woman and her child.


You're right about how quickly and cohesively the responses to Daredevil have shifted in the week and a half since its release. I think partly the dynamic you describe is just the compressed cycle of internet enthusiasm, where something is initially the best thing ever and then naysayers show up with more nuanced or just contrary perspectives. But that's not all of it - compare the reception of Daredevil to that of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which has seen some reevaluation but is still generally beloved. I think the reason is a combination of, as you say, people responding to the show's earlier, stronger episodes before seeing the weaker end of the season, and the fact that the early responses came from comic book fans who were primed to love the series more than people like myself with no grounding in the character.

baeraad said...

I'm only midway through the season so far, but I more or less agree with the things you say. I would like to go further, though, and claim that not only is Fisk a lot more interesting and even sympathetic (in the sense of being easier to sympathise with, because you can see where he's coming from - not in the sense of being an objectively better person or anything) than Matt, but the same goes for every single other character in the show, both the nice ones and the crooks. All of them, the decent folk and the violent thugs, all have human-seeming emotions and reasons for what they're doing, and go through interesting sequences of doubt and conviction and despair. Matt's just a smirking douchebag who punches people a lot.

You wanted a disability rights perspective? Well, I am in fact a disabled person, for whatever that's worth - though I will admit that I clench up at terms like "disability rights," because I've spent enough time in the disabled community to know that it consists of one part genuine concerns and productive discussion to ten parts entitled whining and baseless hatred and contempt against those damn able-bodied people who totally want to smother us all in the crib! Feh. But yeah, I have a disability, and therefore I'm certainly interested in shows portraying disability, and my take on this series from a disabled perspective is:

It's completely irrelevant. Bordering, in fact, on faintly insulting.

Because the thing is, unless some major downside to Matt's admittedly unique situation is introduced in the second half of the season, he is not actually disabled. There is not actually anything that a regular person can do that he can't do even better. But that doesn't stop him from getting sympathy and extra consideration for his supposed handicap, or from making constant smirking jokes aimed at making the sighted people around him feel uncomfortable. And of course, even more skeevily, apparently he's also using it as an excuse to touch up beautiful women under the guise of "feeling their faces" and, at one point, letting Karen undress in front of him because she thinks he can't see her. Ugh. Just... ugh.

Part of this comes with the character, of course. That was always a problem with Daredevil - his supposed defects aren't actually relevant unless the writer really, really puts some effort into it, meaning that he's actually an alpha male in underdog's clothing. But the 2003 movie, for all its flaws, at least made some efforts, like having Matt be forced to sleep in a sensory deprevation chamber to shut off his super-hearing. This version of him just seems far too superhuman, without any of the vulnerability that would make him at all relatable to an actual disabled person.

You know who got it right, the whole "disabled superheroes" thing? Alphas. I had to stop watching that show, because they used the term "neurodiversity," which I for above reason am allergic to, but I still have to admit that they accurately portrayed what it's like to have to live with different abilities than most people, how even being superior in some ways is decidedly cold comfort to the fact that you are inferior in other ways and that those other ways are keeping you back from many things that most people take for granted.

Despite this vitriol, I actually like the show. I just watch it for, well, absolutely everyone except Matt. Matt sucks.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think that episode 10 addresses some of your problems with Matt, in that it gives him a platform to explain himself (and to someone who isn't at all sympathetic to those explanations, whom he desperately wants to mend fences with). But it's definitely a flaw in the show that it takes us so long to see into his head. I think the writers think that his conversations with the priest throughout the season are making up for that, but since they center on one question - should Matt kill Fisk - that has an obvious answer, they don't do enough to shed light on him.

I definitely take your point about the inherent problems of the Daredevil concept - it's basically taking the canard that blind people's other senses become more powerful and extending it to illogical extremes. And to go back to episode 10, I think it's significant that the very first thing that Foggy asks when he finds out the truth about Matt - and asks with a great deal of pain and indignation - is "are you really blind?" But I don't think the show goes quite as far as making Matt "an alpha male in underdog's clothing" (for all that that's a great description). We don't really see him benefiting untowardly from the perception that he's disabled - Foggy and Karen worry about him, but they also trust him to be capable. There's no scene where he gets people to do things for him that he can't do himself, for example - in fact he's remarkably self-sufficient for a blind person, which is something you'd expect more people to comment on. You're right, of course, that the show is too cavalier about how Matt's supposed blindness enables him to take liberties with women, but on the other hand I also think that it's really disrespectful to take your clothes off in front of someone just because you think they're blind, so both Matt and Karen are behaving badly in that scene.

I absolutely agree with you about Alphas, which I am more and more beginning to think had worked out something about how to tell a superhero story that no other show has even come close to. The way that it treated superpowers as, as you say, something that both gives and takes, and the way that it specifically used terms from psychology and the disability rights movement to address both parts of that equation, was something unique. The idea that what superpowered people need more than anything else is a therapist is something that a lot of other shows should be addressing, but somehow never do.

baeraad said...

Okay, I've seen the other half of the season now. I agree that episode 10 does improve things (I nodded with much approval at that part about "yes, yes, you don't see in the traditional sense, but are you blind?"). And we do in fact get some mention (eventually) about how he has to buy silken sheets because cotton feels like sandpaper and how he's constantly forced to know all the horrible crap that goes on in the world, as well as an explanation (eventually) for why he hid his powers long before he had a secret identity to protect.

Still, I agree - it took much too long, and all in all, I still think Matt is a weaker character than even some of the one-note characters like Leland Owlsley.

I'll also admit that I might have overreacted to the fake-disability thing - you're right, he doesn't actually get any benefits out of it beyond sympathy, so that's something. Still, it's a shame. The comics have often done a fairly good job at showing Matt as fragile and prone to being mentally overloaded, so while the "disability superpower" thing is tricky, it can be pulled off. As it was, Fisk actually came across more as someone who was constantly struggling against his limitations than Matt did - it was more D'Onofrio's acting than the script, but you can just feel him defying his own inner weakness with every step he takes. In the comics, the Kingpin is the polar opposite to Daredevil, a man who is physically, mentally and socially powerful, devoid of meaningful weaknesses and with nothing but contempt for weakness in others. Here, he kind of made for a better Daredevil than Daredevil.

Chris said...

"I sort of respect the attempt to engage with real-world issues, but you very quickly run up against the problem that gentrification and urban displacement aren't things that can be addressed by a vigilante with a mask. Daredevil tries to get around this by making Fisk a criminal as well as an urban developer, but this feels contrived - the danger he poses to the city is precisely the same danger posed by a completely law-abiding mogul who buys up affordable housing and turns it into luxury condos."

Not really disagreeing but going beyond "Daredevil;" I think most shows about outlaw heroes claim to be about rogues defying the system and helping the helpless, but in practice end mostly have the heroes simply catch other outlaws, and as often as not leaving them tied down for the authorities to clean up. Even "Arrow," from what you're describing, sounds like that. His targets may be CEOs, but he's still basically chasing criminals, who just happen to be rich enough to cover their traces, buy off potential witnesses, or corrupt the victims. Not people who are doing horrifying things 100% within the law because the system just happens to be set up that way. (I'd like to see an outlaw hero show that really focused on *that,* but it doesn't happen much).

And this is something that's basically written into the genre all the way to its earliest roots. Robin Hood and Ivanhoe might be outlaws, but they're fighting an *illegitimate* king who's basically abusing power he has no right to, and a happy ending is when the *right* king comes back and everyone's back in their proper place. The stories that followed mostly took their cue from that.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I'd like to see an outlaw hero show that really focused on *that,* but it doesn't happen much

I think the only example that comes to mind is Leverage, which isn't really a superhero show - the heroes are former criminals who band together to run cons on rich and powerful people who have trampled the less powerful. It's not a perfect show - heist plotting requires a deft touch and the show often falls on the side of silliness - but creator John Rogers made a conscious effort to highlight the kind of abuses that happen in the real world, and which are often not even illegal.

I had a twitter exchange with Saladin Ahmed a few days ago where he said that superheroes have the potential to address unjust systems - for example a superhero who protects people from an abusive police force. But, he concluded, too often what these stories depict as "injustice" are things like the police not being allowed to beat up criminals.

Chris said...

Leverage is about the best I've found in that respect. There's been more than a few times when I felt like they were pulling a punch, but when they're right, they're right.

The early storyline about the CEO who let one of the main characters' kid die because he was too cheap to cover his medical treatment is pretty much *exactly* what I wish that genre did more of. The bad guy's not a crook, he's not a criminal, he's a scumbag who's 100% legitimate, in a system that just happens to foster that kind of power. And he wasn't left for the police to clean up after being "exposed" (because there was nothing there to expose). The team just strong-armed themselves into a position of "leverage" over the insurance company, then used that to force it to change its employee policies, and toss the CEO out on his ass. Robin Hooding done the way it should be.

Chris said...

And I agree completely with your friend about "injustice" and the police. It's gotten way too mainstream to simply assume that the good brave hardworking cops should be trusted to mete out justice on their own terms, and that there's something horribly corrupt and shady about suspects having things like attorneys, presumption of innocence, and trial by jury.

Post a Comment