Context Matters: Netflix’s Daredevil
Matt Murdock stands at a funeral service for a murdered friend. A woolen scarf is wrapped around his neck. It obscures his face. The cold wind whips around him. The situation is as stark as the emotion. He knows that his friend is being lowered into the ground but he himself is unable to watch. He was blinded as a child whilst saving a pedestrian from an oncoming vehicle; the resulting crash spilled toxic chemicals that simultaneously blinded him and heightened his remaining senses. He shivers off the cold while hidden behind his woolen scarf warms him.
It is several days earlier and Murdock – the so called Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, a man whose name will have changed by the end of Netflix’s Daredevil – is reacquainting himself with Stick, the then elderly and now seemingly ancient man who taught him to regard his blindness as a gift and not a weakness, a man who turned a scared boy who had lost his eyesight and then his father into a warrior. Stick has reappeared after twenty years in hiding to ask for Murdock’s help and to question his former pupil. In his aggressive and frankly condescending way, he implies his pupil’s softness by pointing toward Murdock’s silken sheets. Murdock explains that he cannot sleep on anything else. “Cotton feels like sandpaper on my skin.”
The problem with so much storytelling is that we’re meant to both invest and ignore and we’re often asked to do this at the same time. In the above example, we’re supposed to take Murdock’s biography quite seriously while ignoring what appear to be glaring albeit perhaps small inconsistencies. We’re meant to understand Stick’s hardness as an instructor by the way he questions his pupil’s pursuit of scant comfort – sidenote: they aren’t silk sheets, at least per a brief shot we see of Murdock in bed later – and we’re meant to understand Murdock’s chill at the funeral by the way he has his huge woolen scarf tied tight around his neck, but we’re meant to ignore that these two things are plainly at odds with one another.
Woolen scarf versus silk sheets is smalltime. There are bigger problems too, including the idea that this series exists within the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe and that New York City, or at least Hell’s Kitchen, is a crime-ridden hellhole under the covert control of Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk.
Let’s address both very quickly.
The idea that the Avengers have fought space invaders blocks away from where this series occurs – an event referenced within this show – and that everybody involved doesn’t spend every minute of every day discussing this fact is absolutely impossible to believe. That movie’s final battle presumably caused roughly $850 trillion worth of damage to the city and yet life in Hell’s Kitchen remains unchanged. Sure. Whatever. This is dumb beyond all measure of dumb and I’m frankly shocked that the first episode didn’t begin with a producer addressing with the audience with a very heartfelt, “That was bad. We blew it on that. We really need to rethink the extent of the universe that we’re proposing here, because it really requires all of our characters to act in a manner entirely unfamiliar to the modern world.”
Then there’s the idea that Wilson Fisk controls the city’s criminal underbelly to such an extent as to be able to escape police clutches via masked gunmen while on live television. Forget, for a moment, that the Avengers exist with this world, and forget, for a moment, that the Avengers presumably have television, and forget, for a moment, that Ironman can easily travel very quickly, and forget, for a moment, that an alien invasion from an alternate dimension was parried with relative ease, and forget, for a moment, that flying battle fortresses exist and forget, for a moment, that I can literally keep doing this all day. Instead, focus on the fact that the Fisk is able to disappear from helicopter surveillance with ease. In modern America. With many news helicopters having already shown the gun battle.
What are we as viewers meant to do here? The answer would seem to be letting it go, to simply exist within this fantasy world that Marvel has created for us. And that might be a solution, but it’s harder with Daredevil for a number of reasons, foremost being the the intensity of the violence that we’re witnessing. In The Avengers, the Incredible Hulk grabs Loki and smashes him relentlessly on the floor, then says casually that Loki is nothing more than a puny god. This is played for laughs. Oh, ha ha, one superhuman crushed another superhuman and nothing substantive seemed to happen! So those are the rules then? Because in Daredevil, Wilson Fisk smashes a crony’s head in a car door until it literally explodes. Stick removes hands and heads with a swing of a sword. Daredevil himself is routinely thrown, punched, kicked, and in at least one fight, stabbed. In Daredevil, people die, occasionally in truly awful ways. The world that we are watching is meant to be understood as very real, and yet, it is the same world in which somewhere – presumably no more than blocks away – there is a man in a metal suit flying over people at hundreds of miles per hours and another man whose anger is such that he can throw tanks. Which is it?
There isn’t a good answer. The more I think about it, the more annoying the whole thing becomes. I understand that the people who greenlit this storytelling did so because Marvel is Latin for “machine that prints money” but unifying all of them until we’re meant to believe that there might be a day in which the Thor smashes Kingpin with a hammer?
And here’s the thing: if you can stop thinking about that – if you can just watch the show and ignore the references to other, bigger things – you’ll find yourself consuming a hugely enjoyable superhero show. What Netflix has done with Daredevil is give us a very limited world with a very limited cast of characters involved in a very limited fight with one another. We’re not witnessing a war for the world but rather, the war for a neighborhood, the war for a way of life. And we now know at least as much about Matt Murdock’s world as we do about anybody else from Marvel’s world. This was 13 episodes at 50ish minutes each, or almost 11 hours of blinded high-flying suspense and intrigue and action. The stakes seemed far realer here than they have in the bigger Marvel productions precisely because the scope was so much more limited and believable. A madman trying to gain the necessary foothold to destroy and then rebuild a neighborhood is far easier to stomach than a madman trying to literally explode the planet.
Daredevil then gets an enthusiastic recommendation within its own limited confines. If you’re looking for superheroes who aren’t as super, for action that is simultaneously less impressive but more meaningful, for characters that actually seem to have something riding on the outcome beyond “The utter destruction of the planet would sure be a bummer!”, then Daredevil might meet your needs.
If though you’re looking for something that makes sense within the broader universe in which it is supposed to exist? Steer clear here, not because it isn’t good, but because the idea that human beings the same human beings we’re meant to care about here can be entirely nonplussed by Thor and Ironman and the Incredible Hulk fighting block-long metal snakesharks being ridden by mechanized space warriors is simply too much to ask of audience capable of breath.
In case you think a fun thing to do would be telling me that I need to read the comic books if I want to really understand what’s happening here, please don’t do that. Either Netflix’s Daredevil stands on its own or it doesn’t. If it needs other materials to really work, it doesn’t really work on its own.