Monday, October 3, 2016


Marvel's Luke Cage came out this week. I don't want to review it without a chance to think about it for a while, so instead let's talk about the first of these Marvel-Netflix shows (where they released an entire season at once, and based in the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU)) : Daredevil.  It is much moodier, darker, and more visually interesting than an MCU movie (or Agent Carter or Agents of SHIELD), and so in that way it is more like the DC movies we see coming out (Dark Knight, Batman vs Superman). (In contrast, the Flash show might as well be part of the MCU.) 

Daredevil is the comic about lawyer Matt Murdock who at night dresses up in a costume and beats up crime in his beloved, rundown neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Twist is, he’s blind, and does all this only using other heightened senses.

I. Violence
One thing most reviewers have noticed is the violence. This first part of this article is one example
The protagonist Matt Murdock doesn’t KO thugs with one punch in the telegenic and antiseptic fashion one typically sees in action-oriented popular media. He slams guys into walls, knocks them down, then puts a knee in their chests and pounds away at their faces, left-right-left-right, until their noses shatter, their orbitals fracture, and their teeth rattle loose under shredded lips. The show pairs every strike with wet, crunchy Foley-work wincingly suggestive of human flesh and bones becoming pulverized through acute trauma. The camera lingers over the way the blood mingles between the bad guys’ mangled bodies and Murdock’s gore-soaked, ever-skinned knuckles.

This seems half true. For one, the show doesn’t have too much violence, and some action scenes were quite skimmable. For another, showing the damage of such violence did not increase the realism narratively speaking but rather decreased it. It was hard to believe that the hero kept pulling off feats of derring-do when you had seen him take so much damage.
(The fight scene at the end of Episode 2 is so staged, unrealistic, and graceful that it might as well be considered a dance scene, but it makes for a darn good looking one. Check it out. None of the other action scenes really impressed me.)

True, the “one punch knockout” is unrealistic and it was good to see it (largely) disdained here. In addition, characters who die in fight scenes, go down hard and brutally. Killing is much, much less anti-septic on this show.

The article above also takes issue with torture in the show. Murdock’s chief way of getting information is find some thug, beat him until he talks, listen to his heartbeat with super-hearing to see if he is lying, and beat him until he stops lying. Said article thinks this promulgates an unrealistic depiction of torture and minutely contributes to our government’s willingness to use torture officially.

I am much more interested in how art depicts reality, than how art convinces dumb people to believe dumb things. In this case, this art reflects the reality of torture pretty well: Matt Murdock goes out and finds people who look bad, adds in some circumstantial evidence, and beats them up until they tell him what he wants. He brings to this an ability to “tell if someone is lying” that he has a lot of confidence in, but we aren’t given any reason to trust in this lie-detector other than his own belief. He sounds like a pretty typical real world torturer to me. (In particular, when he is using this heartbeat-hearing ability, the show zooms in on the heartbeat so we can hear it too. It’s kind of an existential silence – where Matthew hears from that honesty or lying, all we can hear is the beating, which always sounds the same to the audience.)

(The high point of this is when he describes his first act of vigilantism. He hears a particularly disgusting crime from three blocks away, but when he tries to report it, no one believes him and the criminal did not leave any evidence. So he hunts down the criminal himself, and beats the criminal until the criminal is sufficiently threatened as to promise to stop, and the criminal’s heartbeat assuages Matthew’s conscience. This whole thing could be a heroic origin story, or it could be the fantasy of a power-mad ego. Neither interpretation is contradicted by the text.)

II. Murdock
Which isn’t to say this is all a “the hero is really the villain” interpretation. Matt Murdock is a very disturbed individual, and wrestling with some very difficult moral questions with regard to his vigilantism. The show emphasizes these struggles and his problems and the damage they do to his relations with others. He almost certainly does more good than harm (this is not a show where the hero inadvertently leads to the violence he is trying to prevent, though there are some good quips about that dynamic from other characters.) But his desire to constantly do violence to “thugs” (all men, mostly white[1]) means we really do have to question him. And to be fair, the show does an excellent job of contrasting his extremely extra-legal behavior, with his role as a defense lawyer who thinks the law needs to be restrained in dealing with criminals. 

In the third episode he gives a very good speech about why a jury should acquit a man because the prosecution failed to prove their case – and then that night he finds and beats the everloving crap out of that man. It’s drenched in irony.

The whole depiction of Murdock is great, and open to being read in different ways by the audience. The actor is extremely good, and in lesser shows he would be carrying the show. As it is, he is only carrying half of it.

III. Kingpin
On paper, Murdock’s arch-villain is one of the most boring villains you could have in a comic. He’s a middle aged white male mob boss of a small corner of New York City (although in some versions he is black.) I have never in my life cared about Kingpin aka Wilson Fisk before this show.

But man, does the actor (Vincent d’Onofrio) bring him to life. It’s like if Tony Soprano were the villain of a show. He is the best actor, and best written character of the show. Best villain the MCU has seen so far, hands down.

Ironically, he doesn’t show up for the first 2.9 episodes. The characters try to set up a “do not speak his name” superstition around him. Plenty of franchises try this, as a way to make their villain seem more threatening and less human, but it is usually pretty ineffectual because once you start seeing Lord Voldemort anyway, none of that terror from “he who must not be named” carries over. He’s just a guy.

In this case, you find yourself wishing they had just introduced him earlier, so we could get more Fisk time. And in fact, the transition from “don’t say his name” to “Fisk is hanging out everywhere” actually works pretty well. Lots of characters comment on how Fisk has “changed” and is acting more erratically than he used to. And if we wonder what they mean by how he used to act, we know it was this whole “from the shadows, don’t speak his name” type inhuman monster thing. His first appearance in the actual show, is the beginning of his descent into humanity.

This is all concurrent (non-coincidentally) with Fisk starting to date a woman named Vanessa. And this relationship is fantastic. The show is trying to depict why an intelligent, independent woman could fall for a mob boss, and it does so amazingly. The scenes of their first dates are worth watching all on their own, even if you don’t see the entire series. He’s nervous and humble but also passionate and ambitious – she’s incisive and scared but also intrigued and impressed. They’re very well written and acted on both parts.

The most interesting scene in the series is their second date in the fifth episode. He’s rented out an entire restaurant overlooking the city (not to impress her, but because he doesn’t like being in public.) At the same time he has orchestrated the destruction of the Russian mafia that used to work for him but is turning against him. This involves blowing up four buildings where all the Russians were arming up. The two lovebirds stand solemnly at the window, looking at the buildings on fire.
WILSON: Did you read about the boy who watched his father being pulled from their car and beaten, before the boy was taken? The men that did that they will no longer infect this city.   
VANESSA: Good. (Sidles into his arm.)Now what’s amazing about that, is obviously these Russians were working for him at the time they committed that particular crime (an act so outrageous so as to draw Daredevil into a trap.) And you could read Fisk’s line as consciously dishonest, knowing he was responsible for that attack. But I think that’s wrong (and not just because Fisk has reason to be honest in that scene.).

Fisk is like the liberal CEO. He makes abstract demands for what he wants (for drugs to keep flowing, in this case), turns a blind eye to how it is accomplished, and then is outraged when he finds out what horrible working conditions were necessary in order to accomplish it. He distances himself from responsibility for the act, by making a show of force and punishment against the proximate aggressor (he is innocent because he was ignorance). You saw this with the US and Saddam, or our government and torture, or McDonald’s HQ and the low wages they pay their workers. Fisk focuses on punishing bad men (whom he calls an infection[2]), instead of looking at his role in the system (where he is literally the Kingpin). When he says that line to Vanessa, he is utterly secure in his moral righteousness, and I love the show for it. He really does think he is the good guy.

This does not mean this villain is the good guy. As with any CEO, he’s part of the very dysfunctional system. But his passion for “making the city a better place” allows us to see him as a human character, and to somewhat sympathize with his decisions and situation. In fact, his idea of “a better place” is incredibly vague and ambiguous, and mostly seems to come down to changing zoning codes, razing old housing, and building some gentrified developments. There is so little to admire in his vision that we can still be sure he’s the bad guy, but we can at least be fascinated watching him and his loved ones.

(Similarly, he has a particularly strong view about women. He respects them to the extreme and is very protective of them. This makes a lot of his interactions with female characters complex or touching, and he stays away from cliché nice-guyness, giving them space whenever he senses they need it. But it’s also fundamentally infantile and it makes him a complex, nuanced character – not an admirable one.)

Clearly one could write about Fisk for pages. It’s important to note that most of the supporting cast around him (Vanessa, the Chinese woman who runs the heroic market, his slimy assistant Wesley, his comically nebbish accountant Leland) is also immensely entertaining and even somewhat understated. Wesley gives a speech in Episode 10 that is a straight up homage to Agent Smith’s speech in the Matrix, but goes even better places with it.

One particularly interesting dynamic is that over the course of the season, 
Fisk’s world collapses and he turns to either fighting or being betrayed by all of his allies, and everyone he knows traces his problems to a single root: that woman Vanessa, who has led to his overall more emotional, human behavior. There’s a lot of talk about that, and none about “there is an invincible crime fighter who is destroying all your plans.” 

This is either very admirable of the criminals (dealing with internal problems instead of blaming some external aggressor) or very dumb of them (blaming the new woman instead of the obvious material problems they have.)

IV. Good Guys
The other supporting cast and their plot lines take up a decent amount of screen time. Foggy Nelson, Murdock’s best friend, law partner, and down-to-earth comic relief, starts of fairly rough, with too obvious acting and an overly comical hangdog manner. But the actor quickly gets better, and he comes into his own even though the show doesn’t have a very definable single role for him. One episode in particular is devoted to him learning his best friend’s secret identity, and the huge emotional impact it has on him. They really spend a whole hour on the emotional reaction to learning a big secret, where most superhero shows gloss over it with a simple “Okay I’m really upset with you but we need to save the world now so we’ll talk about it later!” And Foggy turns his comic relief reflexes into barely using humor to hide his very visible pain.

His secretary Karen gets involved with the media to expose Wilson Fisk, and that entire thread is like a bad parody of Season 5 of the Wire (the one about corrupt newspapers). It’s so absurd and anti-realistic. For one, if you want to get out scandalous information, the internet age has made it easier than ever, not harder. For another, the reporter’s (Ben Urich) editor objects because this incredibly dramatic crime story won’t sell papers, and instead wants Ben to write about a proposed subway line to Hell’s Kitchen.

In this universe, no one wants to read about crime and corruption scandals, and instead the plebes are distracted by plans for mass transit. Who wouldn't want to live in this world?! In fact, what the show is saying with this plotline is that “people will take the empty promises of material comforts over confronting inescapable evil”. Which parallels well with Fisk’s entire strategy: that redevelopment is worth the price of some broken heads.

Anyway, Ben Urich does a pretty good job acting out what is a fundamentally silly plot, so that is a credit to the actor. And I think the show raises genuine questions about pursuing dangerous topics too far. Many comic book stories have bystanders telling the heroes to stop poking around if they know what’s good for them, but this story makes the bystanders seem more sympathetic and correct than usual. And towards the end of the season, due to this plotline, Karen really comes into her own and becomes a fascinating character to watch.

(There is also a hispanic woman that serves as a cliche fridge-head style character. That was annoying, but otherwise their female characters are all fantastic and thought provoking. Murdock's love interest was under-developed, which is unfortunately due to Marvel's determination to use her across multiple series.)

V. Theme
So what is the show about? What are the two titanic forces battling in this comic epic? Interestingly, Daredevil seems a fairly conservative hero battling against the forces of modernity. Not even “he’s a liberal who fails to battle the true sources of evil, like Tony Stark”, but rather he seems very devoted to a familial, tribal vision of his Hell’s Kitchen.

The best example is corruption. Obviously Wilson Fisk has bribed half the police department and that makes justice nearly impossible. But how does Murdock have an idea of what;s going on in the force or know who he can turn criminals into? He has his own buddy cop, of course. And whenever he asks that buddy for a favor, he or Foggy bring a bag of cigars for his mother. It’s funny and cute, and down-to-earth sort of petty corruption. It’s still, you know, bribery (and could have easily been left out). What separates Murdock from Fisk is only degree and charm of bribery, not some bold line about who does it or not. A corruption of friends just helping make the day a little more tolerable, not like those Other People and their much more toxic bribery.


[1] By having enemies who are mostly white males, the show falls for the typical liberal-capitalist trap of not wanting to depict what violence really looks like. Our drug war, and our police force, are profoundly racist in how they disproportionately affect black and Hispanic men. In the real world, this is the inevitable conclusion of “get tough on crime” when crime is defined by white power structures. If Daredevil were always beating on people who look and speak differently from him, then we would question his actions, and the need to use violence against crime, more seriously. However, this show is hardly the worst offender in this genre, and you can seem much more extreme examples of this problem in Iron Man 3, or Die Hard.

[2] "Infection" is always a word to watch for in ideological critique. Like "snake." It means the speaker is obsessed with the secret threat that subhumans present.

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