I’ve been watching Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix these past few weeks. My wife and I made the massive mistake of launching into it with our two little girls, ages 6 and 9, after i consulted with a non-parent about how violent the show was. He said, squeamishly, “well, there IS a scene where someone stitches up a wound in someone else’s face, and it’s a bit gory.”
What he failed to mention were the snapped bones jutting out of people’s arms and legs, the ribs torn out of a corpse and used as makeshift weapons, and the mounting head trauma which started with a man impaling himself through the eyeball on a sharp metal spike, escalated to a brutal head cave-in with a blunt object, and ramped up in episode 4 with someone getting laboriously beheaded via multiple slams with a car door. Thankfully, we made Daredevil a grown-ups only show after the third episode, after deciding to limit the girls to cuddlier Marvel fare like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (in which a man’s still-beating heart is ripped out of his chest by a villain who later explodes.)
My Nerd Pedigree Disclaimer
i should say that i’m not a fan of comics, but i’ve become pretty invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which to me is a fantastic creative accomplishment. i adore the continuity across the films and teevee series – it’s the kind of creative harmonization that i dreamed of as a kid, that i’d only get a taste of in those rare crossover moments when, say, the Jetsons met the Flintstones. i haven’t read a single Daredevil comic, and i haven’t watched the Ben Affleck movie (although it’s interesting that Affleck and Ryan Reynolds are getting the chance to either redeem themselves, or to become serial franchise killers, with each of them crossing over from Marvel to DC and vice versa – Affleck to Batman, and Reynolds to Deadpool). i have made it as far as episode 4 with the Netflix Daredevil series.
Is It Safe?
Growing up, there was a definite line that i felt made someone a hero: heroes don’t kill. That’s why Superman was a hero to me, and it’s what separated Luke Skywalker (hero) from Han Solo (anti-hero). It’s fine for Luke to eventually kill Darth Vader or the Emperor (tellingly, he doesn’t), because killing the Big Bad is understandable. But killing, and especially torturing, random henchmen on the way to the Big Bad is not the domain of heroes. Torturing is what bad guys do. Iraqi Sayid’s entire character arc on LOST was about his moral redemption after torturing people in Iraq – Iraq, where the bad guys are, and where torture is, because only bad guys torture. But since LOST, the President of the United States has admitted to torturing detainees for the country’s “greater good,” and so America’s art must respond in kind. Americans now have to have a hero who tortures people, and it has to be okay. American art is now responsible for justifying American practice.
So Daredevil tortures henchmen. The show’s writers attempt to make this more palatable to us by involving the baddies in crimes which are supposed to inflame our moral outrage. It’s not enough to hurt one woman, but put a bunch of women in a shipping container to traffic them overseas, and now it’s okay for Daredevil to snap a few bones while he metes out justice. Child endangerment is still a sacred cow, so Daredevil is allowed to stab a guy through the trigeminal nerve to extract information from him, as long as it results in a hero shot of Daredevil carrying the abducted child away in slow motion after dispatching a hallway packed with baddies (in an extremely well-choreographed fight sequence that recalls the action centerpiece of Oldboy).
I’ve seen a number of moral atrocities committed by so-called heroes in the name of saving children. My favourite line from the trailer of the Andy Garcia flick Desperate Measures (which i haven’t seen) is “how many more people are gonna have to die tonight so that kid of yours can live?” If you want to justify heinous acts of violence and a really big adult body count, just put one cute (white) kid in peril.
Daredevil doesn’t end up killing a henchman that he throws off a building, but he doesn’t know it at the time. Contrast this with earlier, actual heroes. Spider-man might throw a bad guy off a building, but we’re always relieved to see the villain caught in some cartoonishly large spider web, where he bounces around gently waiting for the police to come and find him. When Batman throws someone off a building, he eventually bungies back up in some sort of bat-contrivance, and dangles by the ankle while Batman phones the cops.
But Daredevil? No. Daredevil just straight-up throws the guy off a building.
The Easy Way Out
It’s difficult for me to respect a supposed hero who tortures and mains his villains, even when the fates of a cargo container full of frightened woman or one terrified little boy are at stake. I think it’s because it’s far more challenging to write a character who’s clever enough to get what he needs out of his bad guys without torturing or killing them. Throwing a bad guy off a building, and then diving after him to catch him up in a web shows a little finesse. Throwing a bad guy off a building, period, is lazy.
I liken it to stand-up comedy. George Carlin gained a legion of fans before i first discovered him narrating a show about anthropomorphized trains. When i finally decided to check out his adult-oriented stand-up routines, i found him doing a bit about Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie taking an agonizing shit in the woods and wiping her ass with a pinecone. The gist of the bit, i guess, is that Carlin found Little House too wholesome. Humour is extremely subjective, but i just didn’t find Carlin very funny. His Ingalls bit was easy, and reminded me of the kind of desperate shock humour kids would go for in the second grade.
Contrast Carlin with someone like Brian Regan, a comic i respect immensely, who can do an entire hilarious hour completely clean. It’s easy to be funny and crude, as most comics prove by saving their dirtiest material for the big laughs the end of their set. It’s tremendously difficult to be funny and clean, and so i end up respecting rare comics like Regan far more than the Carlins, Pryors, and Murphys of the stand-up annals.
This even extends to the villains in a comic book fantasy. Kingpin is Daredevil’s bad guy, and to prove it to us, the Daredevil writers have him behead someone – slowly and forcefully – with a car door.
Contrast this with Batman’s archenemy the Joker, who kills people, sure. But again, there’s a real creative flair and finesse to that killing. The Joker will gas an entire population so that they die with their faces pulled into garish smiles. Kingpin will slam your head in a door until it oozes off. The Joker’s crime is, in a weird way, fun and interesting despite being horrifying. Kingpin’s act of brutality is just unadorned brutality. It’s like the writers forgot that he’s a fantasy villain.
To that end, it’s like the writers forgot what heroes and villains are for in the first place. Superheroes comprise our modern-day pantheon. They’re supposed to be our Zeuses, Lokis and Ras. They’re supposed to embody our qualities in the extreme, and to play out our hopes and desires on a larger-than-life scale.
The problem with Daredevil is that i don’t want to be Daredevil. i’ve always thought it would be fun to intimidate crooks from the shadows like Batman, or to leap across buildings like the Tick. i may even harbour a fantasy or two about being the Joker, pulling off some fanciful themed scheme that sees my victims beheaded and turned into macabre jacks-in-the-box. But i don’t envy or want to emulate Daredevil. And Kingpin’s brutality doesn’t satisfy any secret wish fulfillment for me.
An anti-hero is a hero who has unheroic qualities. Han Solo does many heroic things, but he’s also surly, and will shoot Greedo under the table. Mal Reynolds will shoot a horse out of the way to get to you, which is unheroic but refreshing, because in Westerns you never shoot the horse, even when your bad guys are using it as cover. Indiana Jones shooting the acrobatic swordsman was a little untoward, but he got away with it because it was funny. Batman will scare the living daylights out of you, but he’s not going to snap your thumbs to get the information he needs, because that’s not what heroes do.
Somewhere in the transition from Superman to Daredevil, the concept of an anti-hero has gone from “a hero who sometimes does unheroic things,” to a much more literal definition. Daredevil’s anti-heroism is exactly that: not heroic. Perhaps in the wake of America coming to grips with its own recent anti-heroism, Daredevil is not the anti-hero it needs, but the one it deserves.