Superheroics are inherently stupid, and the best comics acknowledge this. The Batman canon has wallowed in this harsh truth for years, with its characters (in every medium) openly wondering if the Caped Crusader does more bad than good. Moore famously designed his seminal superhero text Watchmen to be the genre’s epitaph. Its central cast of costumed adventurers were shown gradually to be little more than a collection of fascists and sociopaths, prone towards sexual and emotional dysfunction, not to mention extreme violence.
Ironically however, that same book contains one of most important lines about the entire superhero exercise: “Nothing ever ends.”
Uttered by Dr. Manhattan, the most omnipotent yet emotionally-stunted Watchmen character, the line describes humanity’s innate inability to move forward with some degree of permanence. It speaks to the cyclical, ineluctable truth of human achievement, which is destined to be eroded by time, not to mention the weakness and shortsightedness of man.
It also functions, quite intuitively I might add, as a grim acknowledgement of the eternal serialization of the superhero concept. Across every medium that they have appeared in, a feeling of finality, of permanent change continues to escape the concept, which in turn often renders the emotional payoff of many stories nugatory.
For a large portion of Marvel’s Daredevil – which premiered on Netflix on April 10th – the storytelling flirts with refuting this paradigm. The series postures as being a more realistic take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), where there are real consequences to superheroism. Not only does the series feel like a product of previous events depicted in the MCU, but it also parses the detrimental effects of superheroism better than the Universe’s other installments.
Unfortunately, the series’ fundamental questions about the corrosive nature of violence, not to mention the finite efficacy of vigilante heroism go unanswered, even after 13 hours of programming. The series flirts with there being a real permanence to its characters’ actions. Yet, in its concluding episode, it reverts into yet another trifling Marvel exercise, a half-measure that doesn’t move the universe artistically forward.
At this point it is safe to say that causality, consequences and lasting change has been largely absent from the MCU. For the better part of a decade these films have often felt weightless, with the events of each entry carrying few consequences. There is some bleed over from one film to the next of course. Hell, Iron Man 2 begins with Stark dealing with the fallout of his actions in the original film, where he revealed to the world that he and Iron Man were one in the same.
These scenes were still treated largely as a joke, with Robert Downey Jr.’s smug, Jack-o’-lantern grins ensuring audiences that nothing much had changed. It wasn’t until The Avengers that viewers began to infer that things could happen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that actually meant something. At the conclusion of that film, one significant supporting player had been killed (Agent Coulson – who of course returned to life quickly after) and the world had dramatically changed. Normal Earthlings had become fully aware that intelligent life was out there in the universe and that it had a mean proclivity towards violence.
This positive trajectory was reversed however in the initial stages of Marvel’s Phase II. Two of the worst films of the franchise were released during this period (Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World). Not only did both stink as individual works, but they also killed any of the forward momentum established by The Avengers.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed all that, presenting a world gripped by paranoia and fear due to the Chitauri invasion seen in The Avengers. The film was marred by other logistical issues, such as the confounding problem of the other Avengers not showing up to assist Cap with preventing the destruction of SHIELD (you can read about this here). Regardless, the film still accomplished what (up until that point) other entries had not. Not only could you see Winter Solider as being the product of past events, you also felt that, on a more micro-level, Captain America had been affected by his past on-screen adventures (something rarely felt with other Marvel Universe characters).
In the film Cap’s superheroics are shown to carry a real cost. It is revealed that his missions in WWII laid the foundation for his best friend Bucky to be transformed into the Winter Soldier. He is also shown to be despondent over the isolating nature of his life as a solider in modern America. One of the most startling scenes is when he visits Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson and insinuates that he is considering retiring from his life of perpetual violence and government work.
The initial episodes of Marvel’s Daredevil are incredibly promising, as they appear to largely continue these encouraging and artistically-rich moves. What becomes immediately clear in watching the series’ first episodes is that the cataclysm depicted in the climax of The Avengers has destabilized New York City. It has allowed it to descend back into a level of violence and crime not seen since, well, New York in the 1970s-90s.
Daredevil depicts a ravaging battle between ol’ Hornhead and his sworn enemy The Kingpin, played by Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio respectively. One of the main themes that unites the two men is that their battle for the soul of Hell’s Kitchen is inherently unsustainable. This is true not only in a legal sense but also in a moral, emotional and physical sense to boot.
The show is largely obsessed with this topic, and it runs like a verbal refrain throughout the story. In watching it one loses track of how many times this commentary emerges. If it is not Wilson Fisk (The Kingpin) grousing about how he regrets (or at least doesn’t relish) the brutality he must continually engage in, it’s Claire the Night Nurse (played by Rosario Dawson) wagging a finger at Matt Murdock (Daredevil), warning him that vigilantes always end up “bloody and alone.” The show lends this warning a particular level of credence, with nearly every person Matt cares about becoming threatened due to his superheroics.
The salient point is that the show characterizes both men as being on a collision course. Each man is desperate to realize their respective goals before the awful darkness they are forced to wallow in consumes them (and their loved ones) entirely. This is a refreshing change from other Marvel properties, where the idea of hanging up the costume is rarely verbalized and the consequences that superheroics create for the superhero’s loved ones is only occasionally broached.
Marvel’s Daredevil is also preoccupied with the impotence of the superhero to affect change on a systemic level. This is one of the first times this theme has ever been addressed in the MCU, a fact perhaps appropriate considering that Daredevil is battling chronic problems like civic corruption and human avarice instead of a figure like Guardians of the Galaxy’s Ronan.
Despite this ambition Daredevil is incapable of completely following through with this preoccupation. For all of their faults, Nolan’s Batman films did effectively establish an end game for the Caped Crusader’s vigilantism. With the films positioning Batman as being primarily focused on shaking Gothamites out of apathy through symbolic theatrics, The Dark Knight Trilogy lived up to its cultural label as being a “realistic” superhero film. In fact, its greatest accomplishment is probably how it exposes the fallacy that a “lone man” can actually make a difference. In Nolan’s Gotham it is the community – inspired by Batman’s example – that must ultimately rally to become whole and healthy.
In the concluding episode of Daredevil’s freshman season, the micro and macro themes hit a proverbial wall. The film’s evocation of the events of The Avengers as being the reason behind the crime-ridden streets we see in Daredevil is given no further exploration. Despite the hell that Matt’s vigilantism has caused for characters such as Foggy, Karen and Claire, the core team is reunited by the final episode and actually emerges stronger than ever.
Additionally, the ultimate point of Matt’s violent quest for justice remains inconclusive. Throughout the course of the series, Matt is continually asked by various combatants if he really thinks that his actions will make a qualitative difference in the grand scheme of things. Most powerfully, this question is posed by Wilson Fisk directly after the vigilante has subdued him in the series’ final episode. What’s intriguing about these moments is that Matt either brushes off the question or doesn’t answer at all. But this silence is incredibly telling. It is suggested at one point that Matt actually likes beating on people and his altruism in fact a chimera, an excuse to indulge his violent fantasies. If this is true it irrevocably colors his heroism. This fact is ignored by Daredevil in its final moments. Its final shot depicts Matt as a valiant defender leaping into battle. It superficially positions him as hero yet dismisses how the character’s ostensible selflessness actually conceals a profound self-absorption.
Of course, the rationale behind his silence could be a lot less interesting. As is the case with most of the superhero products in our culture, Daredevil was always destined to return. Even its broaching of the untenable, unsustainable and largely ineffective nature of the superhero is no match for the demands placed on the genre. As Dr. Manhattan said, “Nothing ever ends,” and Daredevil is no exception. Due to the demands of the market, he will always be back to fight another day, even if that means that the resonance and meaning of each season has to suffer.