Superheroes and consequences

April 27, 2015

The specter of superheroes stalking "bad guys" in a city run by evil disaster capitalists gives the television series Daredevil real punch, writes Laura Durkay.

"HEROES AND their consequences are why we have our current opportunities," says Leland Owlsley, accountant to the criminal underworld, in the pilot episode of Daredevil. "Every time one of these guys punches someone through a building, our margins go up 3 percent."

It's a fitting introduction to the world of Daredevil, the latest television series from Marvel Studios and the first of several Marvel original series produced for Netflix. It's the first Marvel product designed to be rated TV-MA (similar to an R rating in the film world), and the smartest, darkest and most sophisticated of the studio's superhero tales yet.

From the perfect casting and superb acting, to stunts that would be the pride of any big-budget action movie, to the inky shadows and high-contrast colors that make the show actually look like a comic book, every individual element of Daredevil is a notch above Marvel's other already-solid TV products. But it's the writing, the characters and the world they inhabit that make Daredevil stand out.

Daredevil tries to protect his neighborhood from corporate greed
Daredevil tries to protect his neighborhood from corporate greed

THE SERIES takes place in the aftermath of the Battle of New York, the city-destroying smash-up at the end of The Avengers. In the world of the show, the climax of a summer blockbuster becomes a real-life disaster from which ordinary New Yorkers are struggling to recover two years after the big heroes won their battle and moved on.

This conceit alone gives the show a groundedness that will feel startlingly familiar to New Yorkers who have lived through 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, the Great Recession, citywide blackouts and exploding tenement buildings. It also suggests that it's possible to read the entire Marvel television canon as a series of stories about what ordinary people do in the trail of destruction left by the big superheroes of the blockbuster films.

Daredevil follows Matthew Murdock (Charlie Cox), blinded as a child by radioactive chemicals that also heightened his other senses to superhuman levels. By day, he's a defense lawyer with law partner and friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), attempting to defend the innocent in a system that's relentlessly stacked in favor of the rich and powerful. By night, he suits up as a masked vigilante and resorts to other means.

Review: Television

Daredevil, starring Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll and Vincent D'Onofrio. A Marvel Studios original series streaming on Netflix.

Daredevil's villains, headlined by Wilson Fisk (Vincent D'Onofrio, in a jaw-dropper of a performance), are disaster capitalists par excellence, enriching themselves on gentrification schemes erected on the ruins left by the alien attack on New York.

These are criminals who wear designer suits and are 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.

The fact that the show's antagonists are literal criminals in addition to being real-estate developers often seems almost incidental. Yes, there's heroin dealing and human trafficking, but it's just another revenue stream to fuel their dreams of luxury high rises and upscale retail. In an era where inequality in New York City has reached proportions that often feel criminal, the idea of mobsters being in the condo business seems completely appropriate.

A vision of New York City as a neoliberal wasteland proves to be the perfect backdrop for a grimmer and bloodier version of the superhero narrative than anything Marvel has produced so far.

Daredevil is dark--often literally, as characters skulk around lit only by arc-sodium streetlights and LED billboards--and it's as much crime thriller as it is superhero tale. More than most superhero stories and even most cop shows, it reckons with our relationship to violence and doesn't come up with any easy answers.

Murdock and Fisk are both violent men in a violent world. There are no bloodless PG-13 punches here--the violence is real and brutal, and Matt takes just as many beatings as he dishes out.

Matt, who's supposedly the good guy, is constantly hurting people--to get information, to force them to do what he wants, as punishment, or for revenge. While Fisk repeatedly states that he doesn't relish violence and uses it only when necessary, Matt is open about the fact that he goes around beating people up at least partially because he likes it.

Taking pleasure in violence is a characteristic usually reserved for villains, but Daredevil flips this paradigm. Matt is very aware of his own enjoyment of violence--and he's terrified of it. In his long opening monologue in the pilot episode, he tells a story about his father, a boxer, which almost brings him to tears. It's clear on repeat viewings that what's gnawing at him isn't anything about his father, but the fact that Matt sees that same capacity for violence within himself, and it fills him with fear and guilt.

But Matt's problem is that he lives in a world where the state will not protect you. Fisk and his associates buy juries and politicians, use the NYPD as their own personal death squad, and won't hesitate to kill anyone who stands in their way. In such a world, vigilante violence can seem like the only option, not just for justice, but for keeping the people you love alive.

And this is the genius of Daredevil: It creates an environment in which the external conflict of the show constantly forces the main character to confront his internal conflict. When the show weaves together both these sources of conflict, it's at its best.

DAREDEVIL ISN'T a perfect show. Despite great writing, it never completely escapes some of the less progressive aspects of its genre. The general framework of women, children and the elderly as helpless victims, menaced by dangerous criminal men--to whom it is permissible to do all kinds of violence because we know they are "bad guys"--never gets completely challenged.

There's a whole lot of torture, and while the writers don't necessarily intend us to be comfortable with these scenes, all of the standard yet false assumptions--that torture works, that it works quickly, and that it produces reliable intelligence--are accepted pretty much without question. And given the amount of beatdowns requiring hospitalization that Matt delivers, his "no killing" rule seems a bit facile at times.

While the show's female characters do come into their own over the course of the season, they never have as much to do as the men. Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), whom Matt and Foggy meet after she's framed for murder, goes from being a fairly one-dimensional victim character to a capable investigator, with a few surprises up her sleeve. Rosario Dawson is brilliant as Claire Temple, an ER nurse who patches up Matt when he gets severely injured, but she has far too little screen time.

Given that the rest of the Marvel TV universe is full of women who can hold their own in an action setting, the absence of a fighter like Peggy Carter or Melinda May in Daredevil is noticeable.

Despite these limitations, however, the show is elevated above most of the standard crime and superhero offerings by the emotional complexity of the characters and the strength of their relationships to each other.

Far from being desensitized or brutalized by the violent world they live in, every single major character feels fully human, with their own vulnerabilities, relationships, backstory (often multiple episodes' worth), understandable motivations and full range of emotions.

Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk are both introduced to us first by their vulnerabilities. The relationships between Wilson Fisk, his love interest Vanessa, and assistant and friend Wesley are just as rich and powerful as those between Matt, Foggy and Karen, and the show excels at getting us to empathize with the "bad guys" just as much as the "good guys"--a rare feat.

This makes the show's violent moments land with even greater impact--because we really care about these characters, and we know that they care about each other. Combine this powerful emotional core with high production values and a savvy take on gentrification, wealth and power, and you have a recipe for vaulting a superhero show to the level of great television.

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