In the third episode of Netflix and Marvel’s new superhero show Daredevil, a man crushes in his enemy’s face by repeatedly smashing it with a bowling ball. We don’t see the act itself—out of common decency, perhaps, or collective squeamishness. But we do see the droplets of blood that splatter the assailant’s face, like some hellish precipitation from below. This comes after a few action-packed minutes of the satisfyingly meaty thud of successful punches, the wrenching crack of a man’s arm breaking, the unsettling slosh of viscera leaking from the body, sounding approximately like someone doing a jig in a large vat of oatmeal.
The violence only escalates from there (case in point: this is far from the only death by face-atomization we see this season). I don’t go in much for TV, and even less for superhero franchises, so I was skeptical about Daredevil from the start. But the gritty violence, at the forefront of most of the show’s publicity, and still somewhat unusual for a TV series, caught my attention. I may not enjoy TV, but I still enjoy a good old-fashioned ass-kicking. And Daredevil certainly delivers.
From the first episode, the series pushes the envelope for what might be considered acceptable TV violence. Even Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, presumably one of the show’s more enthusiastic boosters, said he hasn’t watched more than the first episode, since it was “too violent” for him. It doesn’t feature the explosions and large-scale destruction of most superhero movies, nor the body-count of such sprawling TV epics as Game of Thrones (and let’s not even mention Lord of the Rings). But the violence on display is more suited to the medium—it’s smaller, and more intimate, much like TV itself. There are few battles between opposing sides. Most of the time, it’s just Daredevil and one worthy foe, or maybe a few of them, if they have guns.
But what the fights lack in scale, they make up for with intensity. The violence feels particularly real, not only because the choreography is expert and exact, but because the sounds are perfectly paired to the damage inflicted. Daredevil (played by Chris Cox), it should be said, was blinded in a car crash as a young child. His other senses have grown sharper to compensate, giving him some rather implausible but entertaining mini-superpowers. For instance, he can act as a human lie detector by listening to someone’s heartbeat, and can detect subtle undertones in his food with the expertise of a gourmand. In addition to his parlor tricks, he can also hear when someone’s about to punch him, say, or when an enemy cocks his gun, an effect the show mimics nicely with some skillful sound mixing.
But that’s merely window-dressing for the show’s real focus, which is the visual pleasure received from watching its beautiful, bloody violence—and, if you go in for plot and that sort of thing, the takedown of a New York criminal empire, which has for decades oppressed and extorted, well, someone probably. Daredevil doesn’t give much consideration to why the bad guys, a consortium of suit-clad mobsters, Chinese heroin manufacturers, and Russian street gangs, all led by Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio, at times restrained and chilling, at others startlingly brutal, but always extremely bald) are bad, or why they would be working with each other in the first place. For the show, it’s enough that Fisk is a charismatic leader, able to unite disparate factions with vague speeches while ominous music plays in the background.
Daredevil’s motives are similarly opaque. He professes a desire to “make this city better,” but the show doesn’t let him off that easily, since Fisk often says those exact same words (and might even mean them). If we can’t look to their intentions to draw the line between hero and villain, then the next best option might be to examine their methods. And here, the difference appears more clear-cut: Fisk kills to get what he wants, and Daredevil doesn’t. The first problem with this is that what Daredevil wants is Fisk dead. The second is that, even if Daredevil’s not a killer, he’s quite the torturer.
Though most of the real action comes from the fight scenes, most of the plot development comes from the torture that occurs in their wake, inflicted upon whatever bad guy was unfortunate enough to have remained conscious. This varies from the basic (punching a tight-lipped bad guy until his face resembles something out of Picasso) to the extreme (performing unlicensed and unnecessary eye surgery on unwilling “patients”). Daredevil seems not to care about the extreme violence he routinely deals out to others, so long as it doesn’t result in their death. It’s a bit of a running gag in the series that he keeps checking to make sure a man he sent flying off of a roof—and into a coma—is still breathing.
Daredevil considers this torture justified because the information obtained will help lead to the capture (and possibly, death) of Fisk, an enemy too evil to be allowed to live. It’s not difficult to imagine this rhetoric, based on a simplistic good/evil dichotomy that’s never fully explained, let alone justified, coming from a Bush-era torture report, which should clue viewers in to the fact that our hero may not be all that heroic. At one point, he even admits to one of his victims that he doesn’t torture merely to acquire information, but “because I enjoy it.”
However, before we judge too quickly, we should consider the possibility that perhaps he’s just letting off some steam after a frustrating day at the office, where he works as a criminal defense lawyer. I was certainly frustrated with those scenes, though more for their plodding pace and poor attempts at comic relief than for the legal system’s insufficiencies. Daredevil (who goes by Matt Murdock when not fighting crime) and his best pal Foggy (Elden Henson, a little overeager for my tastes) begin the series as two idealistic young lawyers, hoping to change their city by working with the system. But Daredevil quickly realizes that the law is plodding, inexact, and not nearly vindictive enough for his tastes—hence the superhero alter ego.
This puts Daredevil in an interesting position. No matter his get-up, he fights for good, although his methods change drastically over the course of the day: a quiet morning of lattes, reading through case briefs, and exchanging banter with Foggy, followed by an evening of beating a few neighborhood thugs half to death (after another exchange of banter, of course). He is both lawyer and vigilante, hero and superhero. Ideally, this would make him something like a badass version of Lady Justice, just as blind and fair as she is, but much more willing to engage in capital punishment. In practice, however, Daredevil is a man of many contradictions, perhaps too many, and certainly more than the show itself is willing to admit.
The series seems mostly uninterested in Daredevil’s moral ambiguity, as well as in its own questionable use of extreme violence, two sides of the same coin. It takes for granted that the legal system is simply not up to certain tasks—most notably, the takedown of Fisk, who has his fingers in all of New York’s important industries (the police, the media), making him too firmly entrenched to be defeated by legal means. Fisk, like Daredevil, lacks superpowers in the traditional sense of the word, but he has an uncanny ability to move through the shadows, obscuring secrets about his past and his identity. For the first few episodes, most characters refuse to even say his name, for fear that he will—somehow—find them and exact revenge. Fisk murders frequently, ferociously, and creatively (as when he decapitates a man with the door of his SUV). But even more shocking, he gets away with it. He manages to present himself as the city’s savior, despite his multiple homicides (especially of the city’s poor and ethnic residents), because of the dark secrecy around him.
The solution to this problem, the show suggests, is the sort of righteous moral vigilantism that Daredevil practices. His torture and his ability to act as a human lie detector cut through the bullshit that pervades the city’s legal system and surrounds Fisk himself, a sort of verbal equivalent to the impervious body armor he wears. And when Daredevil hands over the information he’s obtained through torture to the proper authorities, they’re generally able to move quickly and make arrests. The system may not work, but apparently torture does.
I was a little uncomfortable with this wholehearted endorsement of torture (even as I gorged myself on the spectacle of Daredevil’s violence). The distinction between fighting and torture, so clear in the real world, is blurred in Daredevil, and perhaps in TV more generally. They both involve inflicting pain on others, and they have rather similar effects on the viewer, good for raising pulses and making the faint of heart squirm. And though Daredevil occasionally targets a more defenseless character, such as a junkie too out of it to defend himself, it’s still satisfying to see him wail on the bad guys, whether they’re fighting back or bowed into submission.
That is, until you remember that these are “bad guys,” and not necessarily bad guys, and that their methods don’t differ all that much from Daredevil’s, even if he’s not a killer. As Daredevil’s priest (our hero is a practicing Catholic, which explains his aversion to murder, as well as his bent for punishment) tells him, “another man’s evil does not make you good”—advice that he chooses to ignore, and that the viewer probably forgets rather quickly too. Such are the show’s pleasures, which make it easy to forget that in real life there are no such things as good guys and bad guys, and that the use of torture is almost never justified, since it risks turning us into the bad guys we seek to conquer.
The show goes to great lengths to cast Daredevil as a sort of archetypal embodiment of America. He grew up working class, the son of a mediocre boxer, but worked hard and, despite his disadvantages, made it into college and became a lawyer—one more concerned with justice than money, to ensure that we remember this is fiction. More than that, he’s a solitary light in what he sees as an abyss of moral darkness—and given his blindness, the only thing he “sees” is darkness, even if it’s not really there. Like America, he’s willing, perhaps too willing, to see evil where none exists, to invent problems where before none existed, and to then attempt to solve those problems not diplomatically or legally, but through the unchecked and unregulated use of brute force. And we, in good American fashion, eat it up.