Saturday, July 25, 2015

Some spoilerific thoughts on the first season of Daredevil

On my Facebook page a while ago I wrote some negative things about the first episode of Daredevil (sorry, can't find it because Facebook lacks a decent feature to search your own timeline). Nevertheless I decided to watch the whole season with Jeff. Now that I have, I realized this is a show that goes a lot of places many superhero shows don't; it addresses issues like gentrification, inequality, and, even more shocking, believable human relationships. It humanizes its villains in a way that is pretty much unprecedented for an action adventure show. Unfortunately, it also sometimes slips into negative stereotypes, especially Oriental mysticism and occasional ableism.

To go along with the show, I had to turn my suspension of disbelief engine to eleven to accept that the Hell's Kitchen of the show is a dangerous, violent, dirty slum -- in other words, what the place that is now known as Midtown West was 30 or 40 years ago. This probably is a lot easier to accept for a person who never lived in New York. Once I did that, it was much easier to watch dirty streets in Bushwick that I know very well with signs representing 52nd Street and 10th Avenue thrown up over those of Wyckoff and Irving (1). But once I accepted this, I realized the show was addressing issues that are real to New York.

Windermere Apartments
In fact, in the early 80s (which is when the show should have been set if they weren't determined to leave open the possibility of merging the story with the contemporary MCU) there was a real-life Wilson Fisk driving poorer residents out of an old HK apartment building called the Windermere using methods similar to the ones Fisk used on the building inhabited by Ms. Cardenas: "rooms were ransacked, doors were ripped out, prostitutes were moved in, and tenants received death threats in the campaign to empty the building." And needless to say, such tactics continue today in countless neighborhoods across the city being gentrified.

What's really revolutionary in this show is what they did with Wilson Fisk, who Marvel readers know as The Kingpin, though he's never called that in the show. He begins the show as a mysterious ganglord, someone so secretive and so powerful that his employees know that even saying his name where someone can overhear it is equivalent to suicide. It would be easy to make this character a stereotypical Big Bad: emotionless, psychotic and ruthlessly confident in every way.

But that's not the way they went. First of all, Fisk really believes that his campaign to tear down Hell's Kitchen and gentrify it is the moral thing to do. The fact that he must murder people, bribe everyone in power in the city and deal with drug dealers and white slavers is an unpleasant necessity to him. Fisk gets not only an engaging backstory, but also a very touching love story that normally would be reserved for a hero. Fisk's girlfriend Vanessa is fantastic. On learning that the guy she's going out with is a violent gangster, she is not only not shocked but completely down with it (she kind of already had figured it out). After she is nearly murdered by poison, Fisk tells her that "the people who did this will suffer." This is where we expect her to tearfully tell him not to resort to revenge and make things worse. Instead she says, "I expect nothing less."

Fisk isn't the only villain who's humanized this way. The Russian gangster Vladimir and his brother (whose name I can't remember) have an engaging and believable bond, and when the brother is killed you really feel for Vladimir. Wesley, Fisks' consigliere, is more of a cipher, but he shows moments of humanity in spite of his unshakeable loyalty, for example his conversation with Karen when he kidnaps her, where he admits that unlike his boss he actually hates the city.

And then there's Owlsley, the cynical accountant who knows how to weild a shock baton. Owlsley represents the psychosis of today's American financial sector, a respectable criminal who always keeps his hands clean of the vicious crimes that keep him wealthy. But he's no psychopath, and you can tell that he is often fearful and disturbed by the characters he's involved himself with. Owlsley's murder by Fisk is not only instrumental to the plot, it also shows the emotional complexity of both characters. Owlsley admits that he and Gao attempted to murder Vanessa. But believes he's safe because he's got a trump card to protect him: he held on to Detective Hoffman, who can blow the whistle on Fisk's whole operation. From his point of view, it makes sense for a person like Fisk to swallow a little betrayal rather than put his whole operation at risk. But he overestimates Fisk's rationality in responding to an attack on someone he loves. If he knew Fisk's backstory better, he might have played things differently. After all, Fisk's first murder was of his father, who was beating up his mom. Dismissing the importance of Hoffman (to his eventual regret), Fisk loses his shit and throws Owlsley down an elevator shaft, which is typical of Fisk's violence. When Fisk fights we have less a sense of a powerful supervillain and more of a sense of a superstrong toddler throwing an extremely deadly tantrum.

Where the show falls down in regard to humanizing its villains is with Madame Gao. For the first part of the season, MG insists on speaking Chinese through a translator, even though she makes it obvious that she knows English, because she doesn't need people's answers to be translated for her. She often falls back on "Confucius say"-type Oriental aphorisms, and rarely shows any of the emotional complexity you see in other characters. The show doesn't go too far with this, however, until the heroin-factory scene in the penultimate episode, which I'll address later.

A moment should be devoted to the importance that Karen, Foggy and Ben play as well. Not only are they humanized in many ways, they both significantly advance the plot, unlike most non-superpowered characters in superhero stories. Without Foggy getting his girlfriend to get important documents from Landman & Zach, and Karen and Ben's dogged pursuit of the Consolidated story (to say nothing of Karen killing Wesley), Matt would never have defeated Fisk no matter who he beat up. Karen and Foggy also react far more believably to the violence they are experiencing than most "sidekick" characters. After throwing the gun she killed Wesley with in the river, Karen immediately goes home and drinks an entire bottle of whiskey and falls on the ground shaking in terror. Then she goes back to the fight. Her trauma is believable, but it never makes her helpless or weak.

And Foggy reacts in the most realistic way I've ever seen to learning that your best friend is a masked vigilante. He is furious at the betrayal, fearful for Matt, and rightfully points out the hypocrisy of Matt telling Foggy and Karen to follow the law while Matt secretly pursues his idea of justice entirely outside of it. Foggy struggles with the conflict between being honest with Karen and keeping his word to Matt that he won't tell her about Matt's actions - though by the end of the show I think they're kind of being assholes by still not telling her what's actually going on.

Ben Urich was also a rich and believable character, a crusading journalist fallen on hard times. Which was all the more disappointing when the show let Fisk kill him. Really, Daredevil, you have to kill the Black guy? And he knowingly sacrifices himself for Karen, not telling Fisk that she was with him when they talked to Fisk's mother. It might be that Urich's death is a central part of the comic, which I haven't read enough of. But the trope of the Black person giving their life to save a White hero is a trope this show didn't need to fall back on.

I have one more significant criticism of this show, and it's not a small one. In the episode "The Ones We Leave Behind," the second to last of the first season, the show unfortunately slips into unnecessary Orientalism and ableism with Gao's opium warehouse. Begin with fact that Chinese Gao is the heroin dealer. The story of evil Chinese seducing white people with opiates is an old one in America, and goes back to the sensationalistic stories about opium dens of the 19th century (in spite of the fact that history shows that it was Europeans who enforced opium on China, literally at gunpoint in the Opium War). We had already learned earlier that Gao's workers at the opium factory were all blind. My son and I debated whether Gao blinded them or they were people who just happened to be blind. The show's explanation was actually worse than either of those explanations, as Gao explains: "They blinded themselves. Because they had faith in me."

Oh, those mystical Orientals! Poking their own eyes out because of misplaced loyalty to the Dragon Lady! And the show's treatment of these blind people ruins a lot of the pro-blind aspects of this show. When a person loses their eyesight, it means they can't see anymore, and nothing else. It does not make them voiceless heroin-shuffling zombies as they are in Gao's factory.

To call Matt blind is really only true in the most literal of senses. While there may be a few things he literally can't sense, such as colors, printed text and two-dimensional images, his superpowered senses in other areas leaves him with little of the physical disadvantages blind people really face. He can sense when people nod or make other nonverbal gestures, and he faces none of the concrete danger a sightless person normally faces in walking around in a city. On the other hand, the disadvantages a person with a disability deal with go far beyond physical. Matt identifies as a blind person and therefore faces all of the prejudices that a person with a disability faces, and the show is fairly believable in this way. Which is why it's a disappointment when the show takes the only other blind people (besides Stick, who has basically the same superpowers Matt has) and dehumanizes and others them through their Orientalism and circumstance.

Hopefully the show will improve in this area in the second season. Because we need superhero shows that address in a somewhat believable way the real-life consequences of people taking the law into their own hands, dressing up in costumes and beating up bad guys.

1. The hand-wavy excuse used by the show is that HK is a slum now because the "Battle of New York," AKA the Avengers vs. the Chitauri, tore the place down. But that is not a very good explanation, because, due to recent events, we know exactly what happens to a neighborhood when a catastrophic attack tears part of it down. And Battery Park city did not become a violent slum in the early 2000s. Also, Fisk's backstory suggests that HK has been as it is now for a long time; this is not a recent event.