Warning: This article contains spoilers.
“Heroes and their consequences are why we have our current opportunities.” — Leland Owlsley, Daredevil, episode 1
The products in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been getting consistently better, more sophisticated and more diverse, particularly since the wormhole to the Whedonverse opened up with The Avengers and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel’s Daredevil, which dropped its first 13-episode season on Netflix April 10, is the best of the bunch by a long shot, and shows a serious leap forward in tone, sophistication and style.
Daredevil is not always a perfect show, although the writing, casting, acting, photography and stunts are all exceptionally good. If it has a conceptual weakness, it’s that it never decisively smashes the comic book trope of violent men fighting over victimized women, children and old people — although it does provide a few delicious moments of contradiction to it. (This is worth noting because the other Marvel TV products are full of women who can hold their own in an action setting, as well or better than their male counterparts.) Not every episode is the perfect gem of great writing, great acting, great photography and great fight choreography that the season’s high points hit. But the good things about the show are so good, and such precious commodities on television, that they’re worth discussing at length.
The show follows defense-attorney-by-day/vigilante-by-night Matthew Murdock (Charlie Cox), blinded as a child by radioactive chemicals (isn’t it always?) that also enhanced his other senses to superhuman levels. Matt is a good Irish boy in a New York City that’s gone very bad since his childhood days playing stickball in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a setup that could easily open itself up to a reactionary interpretation driven by a law-and-order-politics framework, but the show mostly dodges those ideas, by setting up Matt’s antagonists as capitalists first and organized criminals second, and by never letting us rest easy with Matt’s identity as a guy who gets what he wants by beating the shit out of people.
Daredevil unfolds in the wreckage of a New York City still reeling two years after the Battle of New York, the metropolis-destroying smash-up at the end of The Avengers. The way the show foregrounds this idea makes you think that perhaps all the Marvel TV shows can be read as stories about what ordinary people do in the trail of destruction left by the big superheroes of the tentpole action films. (Agent Carter is literally about a postwar world, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. came into its own when it picked up where Captain America: Winter Soldier left off with the infiltration and destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. by H.Y.D.R.A.)
Daredevil’s villains are disaster capitalists par excellence, enriching themselves with gentrification schemes erected on the ruins left by the alien attack on New York. The fact that they are literal criminals in addition to being real estate developers often seems of marginal importance — yes, there’s heroin dealing and human trafficking, but it’s just another revenue stream to fuel their dreams of luxury condo towers and upscale retail. They’re equally at home using conference tables full of lawyers or sledgehammer-wielding thugs to drive tenants out of rent-controlled apartments — a scenario that’s not so fictional in New York City.
In fact, the whole show feels so grounded in the neoliberal, post-9/11, post-Hurricane Sandy reality of New York City that you wonder if the writers read The Shock Doctrine. It’s hard not to watch a slimy senator making zoning restrictions disappear for Fisk & Co without thinking of the real history of Hell’s Kitchen, or the current glut of super-luxury condos metastasizing on Manhattan’s far west side, while just across town, hundred-year-old buildings are reduced to rubble because a cheapskate landlord illegally tapped a gas line.
While themes of urban decay are nothing new in the comic book universe, there’s a way in which Daredevil’s specific vision of urban dislocation, alienation and desperation living cheek-to-jowl with glass-fronted one-percenter opulence feels particularly relevant to New York City today.
“The Hell’s Kitchen we grew up in was a real shithole, but it had a heart,” Matt’s best friend and law partner Foggy says to Matt in one episode. Centering so much of the story in a single New York City neighborhood, with a tangible, acknowledged history and a consciously multi-ethnic, multi-lingual present (the show switches between English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and Russian with ease, and many characters speak multiple languages) makes it feel rooted in the lived reality of New York City in a way that many shows set in the city lack. Even the real estate details, from Fisk’s glossy condo with a view of the Time Warner Center (certainly built, New Yorkers will tell you, during the Bloomberg years) to Matt’s converted loft (a relic of Hell’s Kitchen’s industrial, working-class past) feel accurate.
A sense of history and the past informing the present is everywhere in the series. While the entire season is one long origin story, the show also spins off a number of origin stories to the origin story, in rich, episode-defining flashbacks that give us either emotional contrast to the present-day story or key pieces of information about characters’ motivations. The epic hallway fight at the end of episode 2 packs such a wallop not just because it’s cinematically and choreographically amazing (which it is), but because it’s immediately proceeded by the story of Matt’s father’s death, a consequence of defying the wishes of the mob boss of his day. Nothing needs to be said about how that story relates to why Matt is doing what he’s doing now. The meaning is clear in the cut from the past to the present.
A vision of New York City as late capitalist wasteland proves to be the perfect backdrop for a grimmer and bloodier version of the superhero narrative than anything else Marvel has produced. (The show doesn’t go full Frank Miller, although his hand is definitely visible.) More than any of the recent glut of superhero products — and more than even most cop shows — Daredevil reckons with violence and our relationship to it, and doesn’t come up with any easy answers.
There’s a very common pattern among violence-worker protagonists in how they they think about what they’re doing. Let’s call this the “it’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it” philosophy. We’ve all heard versions of this: “I don’t like hurting people, but sometimes it’s the only way to do what needs to be done.” Finding pleasure in violence is a characteristic normally reserved for villains.
Daredevil reverses this pattern, giving the self-justifying logic to the villain. Fisk repeatedly says things like “I don’t relish this” — although clearly, the dude has anger issues. But he’s very conscious of not wanting to repeat the patterns of his father, a bully who lashed out at those weaker than him.
It’s clear that Matt, on the other hand, goes around beating people up at least partially because he likes it. He tells us as much in the second episode, while threatening to throw a guy off a rooftop. And if we had any doubts, his bloody knuckles and satisfied smile in the show’s promotional images sum it up nicely.
Although it’s never explicitly stated, it’s easy to see how someone who constantly gets perceived as vulnerable because of their disability would be attracted to feeling powerful, even being feared. But the show is clear that Matt’s actions are not simply a compensation for his disability — which, after all, is significantly mitigated by his superhuman senses. Matt is very aware of his own enjoyment of violence — and he’s terrified of it.
Watching the series a second time through, this is clear even in Matt’s long opening monologue to his priest, a story about Matt’s father and his capacity for violence, which brings Matt nearly to tears at points. On second viewing, it’s clear that what’s gnawing at him is not anything about his father, but the fact that Matt sees that same capacity for violence within himself, and it fills him with terror and guilt.
But Matt’s problem is that he lives in a world where you cannot count on the state to help you unless you are powerful or rich. The police and the legal system are completely under the control of his enemies, who are both of those things. This is a lethal world in which the formal structures of power provide no recourse, which means that sometimes vigilante justice is the only means available to you. So the writers have created an environment in which the external conflict constantly forces the main character to engage with his internal conflict. As TV writing goes, that is pure gold.
This is also why the show’s TV-MA rating (the first of its kind in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) is not just a marketing tactic to capture a more adult-content-seeking audience. In a show that’s as much about characters’ uncomfortable relationship to violence as it is about anything else, the violence can’t be a bloodless PG-13 punch. It has to feel real. It has to feel like it hurts, and like it has real consequences. It’s no coincidence that Matt gets beaten nearly to death twice in the course of thirteen episodes, or that characters walk around traumatized both by acts of violence they’ve committed and been the victims of, or that everyone drinks too much episode after episode. Consequences are everywhere in this show.
Daredevil takes place in an incredibly dark world. (Often literally — watch how many times an important character moment is lit by nothing more than a single bit of highlight on an eye or a cheekbone.) But its characters are not desensitized by the brutality around them. Anything but. They are full of emotion and have deep, meaningful connections to each other, and this is what makes the show so powerful.
Much has been written about Vincent D’Onofrio’s superlative turn as Wilson Fisk, one of the most rich, interesting and humanized villains in recent memory. His excellent performance rests on equally good writing, including the choice to spend his introductory episode showing him as a vulnerable and deeply relatable person, fumbling with teen-like awkwardness through a romantic encounter — only to finish the episode with a moment of jaw-dropping violence that will forever change the way you look at car doors.
It’s a great study in confounding viewers’ expectations. Fisk, an enormous, hulking presence who wears custom-made bullet-proof suits and commands a legion of minions in black SUVs, still fumbles around like a seventh grader at the school mixer when it comes to human connection. Matt, whose blindness makes him seem vulnerable (an expectation he often chooses to reinforce with a self-deprecating persona and careful calibration of his body language) will beat you to a pulp with his bare hands and have fun doing it. And he’s supposed to be the good guy.
Over the course of the season, it’s Fisk, not Matt, who gets the great love story. In his relationship with Vanessa, Fisk gets to have what Matt desperately needs — someone who sees the darkness all around him, accepts it, and chooses to be close to him anyway. The show also gives us a beautiful, slow reveal of the idea that Fisk’s assistant Wesley is not just his employee, but his friend — possibly his only friend. When the show’s central conflict threatens both Wesley and Vanessa, the writers allow us to genuinely empathize with Fisk’s rage and pain just as much as we would one of the “good guys.”
Matt gets some tender moments with Claire, a nurse who patches him up now and then (Rosario Dawson, in an awesome but too-infrequently-seen performance), and with Karen, Matt and Foggy’s client-turned-secretary and investigative partner. But it’s clear as the season progresses that his main emotional connection is with his best friend Foggy. Their temporary friend-breakup toward the end of the season is deeply felt and genuinely painful — particularly when it’s paired with an extended flashback of how they became friends (their friend-falling-in-love, if you will) in the episode “Nelson v. Murdock.” It’s not so often that you get an entire episode of two straight dudes crying and talking about their feelings for each other, in a way that feels completely genuine and unapologetic, and not out of tone with anything else in a show that also includes one character killing another with a bowling ball.
In the very dark world of the show, these emotional connections are sometimes all the characters have. (Even Stick, who’d probably growl something about how feelings are for pussies, has them. Otherwise he would never have kept a childhood token from Matt.) Particularly in its back half, the show builds a terrifying sense of the “good guys” being completely overwhelmed and besieged by relentless, deadly forces much more powerful than them, forces that keep threatening and killing people we care about–and then piles even more misery on Matt by perhaps fatally damaging his most important relationship, pushing him to the point where his isolation feels unbearable. (If the show’s relentless emotional masochism reminds TV viewers of anything, it may be because three of its key writers, Drew Goddard, Steven S. DeKnight and Doug Petrie, all worked on the later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) When Karen gives Matt a much-needed, platonic hug in a late episode, we feel the relief with him. But even when stability is restored to the Matt-Foggy-Karen trio, we know it’s not perfect, since Matt and Karen are both keeping a big secret from at least one other member of the Scooby gang.
Given the emotional and plot-related messiness the show sets up for itself, it may seem like everyone gets out of the corners they’ve been backed into a bit too easily in the final episode. (It seems logical that the final fight between Daredevil and Fisk should have put Matt’s “no killing people” rule to the season’s most severe test, but this doesn’t happen.) But we’re still left with enough lingering questions, ticking time-bombs and emotional dynamite to fuel future seasons. Which really cannot come soon enough.