So about a month ago I wrote a review about the pilot episode of Netflix’s original series Daredevil. In that review I praised the episode for taking on a more realistic and serious tone compared with Marvel’s studio films. I was thrilled that this wasn’t another CGI fest with absurd fights and 9/11 porn. I still stand by this assessment. But a funny thing happened as I watched the rest of the series. I started wishing that the series was more comicky and absurd. But even more important, I started with his Daredevil was more heroic and less thuggish.
To be clear, I’m not hating on the show. I liked that it was more crime based and less about the superhero. But what kept nagging me was just how violent the whole thing was, and more importantly, how that violence was portrayed.
Violence isn’t anything new cinematically. Westerns had their shootouts, Dirty Harry had his Smith & Wesson revolver, superheroes have their super powers. I have no qualms with the very idea of violence in films, the same as I don’t with sex and nudity. What I do worry about is to what ends these rated R excursions are used. Just what message are the filmmakers trying to convey?
That’s the question that kept poking it’s way through the back of my skull as I watched Daredevil pulverize criminal after criminal to a bloody pulp, often to no avail. The usual setup is that he’s trying to get information from these guys, so like any good American with power does, beats the shit out of the person for information. You might be thinking it’s okay because they’re bad guys, but let me ask you this: how would you feel if that was a cop bearing those people?
That’s the tricky issue when it comes to superheroes. The obvious problem is that they’re breaking the law, but the real moral quandary is that they’re using violence as an means to an end. In an age when more and more people are questioning the authority of the military and police officers, why are we excusing superheroes from the same arguments?
To be fair, I’m signaling out Daredevil in particular because the show goes at lengths for verisimilitude. Like Nolan’s Batman trilogy (which also has issues with superhero vigilantism), Daredevil is shot with a dark filter, takes place on actual locations, and features what seemingly are more realistic fights. Daredevil doesn’t have absurd battles. He has a style more like Muay Thai. Blood pours out of enemies faces as they get hit with brutal punches. Daredevil himself gets the wind knocked out of him numerous times (about twice per episode by my account). So when I pick on this show this show for questionable use of violence, I do so because the show creators have gone to lengths to force us to equate what’s on screen to reality. It’s why we don’t go bat-shit over a Looney Tunes cartoon but freak over a YouTube video that shows police brutality.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that plenty of superhero films have gotten flack over their depictions of violence. One of the most recent that comes to mind is Man of Steel, but going back films such as Watchmen ran into these issue as well. And it’s not just exclusive to the superhero genre. Esteemed critic Pauline Kael called Dirty Harry fascist. Gene Siskel gave Taxi Driver a thumbs down because it showed man’s fingers get shot off. Sometimes people want to roll their eyes when critics raise issues with what’s being depicted. I know I’m one of them. But there comes a point where you start to wonder if what you’re seeing is in fact insidious. Yes, insidious, which Google defines as meaning “Proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects”.
You’re probably wondering how the hell this applies to a show where the good guy stops the criminal.
Hear me out. First off, calling Daredevil insidious isn’t calling the show evil or bad, nor suggesting creators had an intention at warping your mind with violence. But what it does suggest is that there was thoughtless choices about what was being depicted and how that was being depicted. Law in the case of Daredevil, the creators meant to depict justice triumphing over evil, but what they ended up promoting is the use of violence to circumvent the law. Again, what would we think if we saw a cop do the things Daredevil does?
Which, by the way, includes beating up numerous men senseless by continuously punching them in the head, stabbing a guy in his eye, and even beating up cops (both crooked and straight ones).
But this isn’t what makes this so troublesome. I’m fine when characters do morally questionable things. What really raised my red flag was not what was being depicted, but how it was being depicted, as well as how the characters in the show react to this depiction.
So the setup is this: Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer by day, and a vigilante by night. He works with his unknowing partner Foggy and secretary Karen. Karen has unraveled a crime organization that includes our villain Kingpin, though he goes by Wilson Fisk.
The show goes at lengths to show Matt as the lawyer trying to put Fisk behind bars, which makes sense given he’s a lawyer. But just as the show goes this route in the finale, Fisk escapes being arrested and must be taken down by Daredevil bare knuckled fist fight. All fine and dandy. Except the show has in previously raised the question of Matt’s use of violence.
Foggy found out about Matt’s secret identity a few episodes prior and voiced his concern over what Matt was doing. It was an interesting turn for the superhero genre, and I expected this question of violence to play out as the show progresses. In essence, the issue is raised over the morality of Daredevil, but is dropped for the conventional ending where good guy defeats bad guy.
But what’s worse is how the creators show Daredevil beat up the bad guys. Most superhero films rarely show blood or gratuitous violence. It’s presented almost like a cartoon. But as these films become more grim and realistic; they run into trouble over the glorification of the violence they depict. Man of Steel ran into this problem when the filmmakers chose to show Superman leveling building a whole city, seemingly causing the deaths of the citizens below, without any repercussions. The casualness of this destruction caused many to voice concerns over just what message we were sending to the audience. Why should we call Superman a hero when his own actions led to the death of people he’s supposed to protect. This would be fine if the film had grappled with these issues, but instead Superman got to kiss Lois Lane and chastise the government for its surveillance program. I guess we were supposed to root for the the lesser of two evils, though I’d make the argument that government was the right choice to side with.
It’s a tricky issue, these superheroes. Unlike western heroes, the superhero is supposed to the model of citizenry, sworn to protect human life. And for the most part of forty years, this was the case. In Superman II, Superman took the fight with Zod away from the city and out to the desert so that innocent lives couldn’t be loss. In the comics such as X-Men, our heroes made a point to not kill their enemies, at many times even letting them go. But a funny thing happened after Christopher Nolan redefined the superhero genre. Films began to take on a more dour and grittier tone, which is fine in and of itself. But what they lost in attempting to show moral ambiguity was that if you’re going to show supposed heroes beating up the bad guys, you have to make clear that you’re striving to depict this as a morally questionable. Filmmakers can’t expect us to root for the bully. And they damn well can’t glorify gratuitous violence while expecting us to believe in the bullshit.
Which brings us to Daredevil. There comes a point when you have to ask why you should root for a thug that stabs a guy in the eye and puts him in a coma. Especially when by the end of the season we’re supposed to cheer that said hero made up with his friend who was questioning the hero’s violent tactics. It’s as if the whole side plot was swept under the ring because hey, the bad guy was stopped. Daredevil could have been a great drama that explored the morally troublesome nature of vigilantism, but instead fumbled the ball and settled for the conventional hero saves the day. The show creators made it all too easy by using the stereotype that the cops are the bad guys, forcing Daredevil to skirt the law to restore justice.
All this begs the question: What are we supposed to take away from the show? Is it just another mindless superhero flick striving for the vein of Nolan’s Batman trilogy? For all the revisionist complaints hurled at the later, no one denies that the films had enough thematic to chew on. I’m not sure the same can be said of Daredevil. Like the most reductive westerns, it’s good guy beats up bad guy. Order restored. Which is a shame, because the show started off as an intriguing crime thriller that just happened to have a superhero. But as a wise critic once said, the ending is the conceit. And at the end of the season, Daredevil gets his suit and moniker. The message is clear, he’s ascended his status from a street thug to a hero. The problem is, he didn’t earn it.
So why is all the all insidious? It all stems for our culture of consumerism. In an era where people binge watch shows like they were junk food, we slowly take in what we see, and whether or not we consciously do it, we absorb the shit being spewed at us. Art should be held to a higher standard, and while we can disagree on what we deem moral, we should use moral ambiguity as an excuse to let art off the hook. It’s the same reason we call Michael Bay out on his sexist and pro-military bullshit. Not because his product is bad (and despite what people can say, the guy can direct) but because he’s careless in what he shows. Which is where Daredevil is at: tip-toeing hell’s boundary. We can call it more an intelligently written drama, but we can question that morality of rooting for a thug. That doesn’t mean we have to stop watching it. Rather, it implores as to ask more out of artists. And in a world where people constantly say the arts don’t matter, I can’t think of better way to honor what they do.