This rant has spoilers.
And I don’t mean “Daredevil” is a terrible show to watch. I simply mean that Daredevil himself is very bad at his job.
Now, I suppose I should be touching on Catholic guilt, redemption, gender roles, sense of place, and all the other markers of a serious superhero thinkpiece. But really, the theological and philosophical depth of Daredevil is an inch-deep façade of comic-book meditation. A church in the NYC cityscape. A troubled gaze from Matt Murdock when visiting his parish priest — whose sporadic appearances are peppered with highly un-Christian guidance. All of it masquerading as thoughtful subject matter.
And that’s OK.
Setting aside some of the clumsy plotting of the second season, binging Daredevil provided me with a lot of great content: The Punisher. Elektra. Ninja (and I think I have this right) zombies. Lots of ninja zombies, actually. The Hand, whatever that is. And a populist vigilante who patrols an imaginary West Side of Manhattan, trying to stop criminals.
There’s a central problem though. Daredevil happens to suck at being a vigilante. I contend he is a net producer of crime in his neighborhood. Obviously, few criminals curtail their activities because of Daredevil is on patrol. The crime rate is sky high. The place is a mess. Most of the violence we see is perpetuated because of his presence.
Daredevil is so incompetent, in fact, that I began rooting for him to be sidelined by his guilt-ridden conscience — or shot by an Irish mobster — so that the show could focus on more compelling characters. And by this, I mean all the other characters. Because Daredevil is, sorry to say, neither physically nor spiritually cut out for this kind of work.
How is it, for example, that a man who is trained by world’s greatest blind samurai guru, Stick, is always being knocked around?
Sure, Daredevil can handle the average henchman, but when pitted against anyone of a higher caliber, he is typically throttled to within an inch of his life. Not only is he captured and chained to a chimney by The Punisher — who, though he possesses no superpowers at all could have killed Daredevil on at least three occasions — he’s manhandled by Wilson Fisk, who could have strangled the life out of him, as well.
In part, I blame this on the fact that Charlie Cox looks to be a chiseled 5’5”, 140 pounds — sort of a less-gritty version of Paul Rudd. Then again, if viewers can suspend their disbelief long enough to accept the premise of Antman, anything is possible.
Second, Murdock is an emotional mess. A tedious and whiny mess. And the spiritual crisis of Daredevil can be summed up in this quotation from the show:
Daredevil: No killing.
Punisher: Altar boy!
Daredevil will not kill you. Not if you’re a working stiff on the lower rungs of the Irish mob or Yakuza or The Hand. He will hit you in the face with approximately 35 blows, smash your head against a brick wall, fling a metal rod at your skull, or maybe compound fracture your arms and legs. You’ll probably live. He demands others, Elektra and The Punisher, not take life either. Those two, comprehending the nefarious nature of the enemy, do not adhere to religious doctrine in a comic-book world.
It’s difficult to be impressed by Daredevil’s supposed moral fortitude or his existential crisis because Daredevil is not a good Christian. He doesn’t even try to be. But worse, he can’t get the job done. While Murdock is incessantly grappling with the consequences of vigilantism, The Punisher is making the world a safer place. At one point Murdock even concedes that Frank Castle’s methods — killing the worst criminal elements — might be the only way to fix the city, since the courts and the police have failed the people of Hell’s Kitchen.
Now, if I were writing a respectable thinkpiece, I would be compelled to point out that in some sense this reflects contemporary populist attitudes about American institutions. But that would be ridiculous, because this is show about a blind guy who can avoid punches by hearing them.
What’s far more important is that I stress that the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen is probably the least interesting thing happening in Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen. And that the rest is pretty great.
The Punisher, played brilliantly by Jon Bernthal, for instance, gives us everything Murdock can’t. A sometimes-visceral anti-hero who isn’t weighed down by the tiresome moral entanglements of his fellow, less-effective vigilante. It doesn’t make him simple. Bernthal exudes pain, toughness, and regret and steals the show. Daredevil Season 3 should called The Punisher, Season 1.
Or maybe Elektra, Season 1.
Elodie Yung is also fantastic and charismatic and mysterious. Vincent D’Onofrio’s ominous Fisk returns with a prison storyline that ends up pumping a lot of life into the series. Even Karen Page (played by Deborah Ann Woll), the ostensibly naïve character, offers a charismatic performance.
Daredevil’s crime-ridden and mobbed up Hell’s Kitchen (a place that no longer exists in the real world) offers a gritty retro-realism that’s often missing in superhero fare. The shows toggles from the dark streets of muted reds and blues to the bright swanky penthouses of the wealthy. It’s as aesthetically interesting as anything on TV.
Daredevil also features dynamic fighting stunts. One brawl early on in the second season (it reminds a bit of that famous hallway scene from “Old Boy”) is more intricate than any I can remember seeing on television. (Though if you’re binge watching, the fighting can grow a bit repetitive.)
It’s not often the eponymous character of an excellent show is what holds it back. This can be remedied. Murdock, it should be remembered, has a law degree from Columbia. In the first season, his little firm put away Fisk, not by needlessly transforming Hell’s Kitchen into a war zone, but by embracing law and order. Daredevil would do his beloved city a great favor by taking a six-figure job, paying his taxes (maybe then the NYPD could afford to hire a single, competent detective), and moving to the East Side so that his friends and neighbors will no longer be put in constant danger.
Let the cool-headed professionals fix Hell’s Kitchen.