Daredevil's Dark Knight Syndrome: It Doesn't Like its Hero Nearly as Much as It Loves its Villains

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<i>Daredevil</i>'s Dark Knight Syndrome: It Doesn't Like its Hero Nearly as Much as It Loves its Villains

Even in a genre as reliant on suspension of disbelief as the superhero sub-genre, Netflix’s Daredevil requires a pinch of salt. Consider the premise for its recently-launched second season: Seeking revenge for the murder of his wife and children, PTSD-dazzled vet Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) storms NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen to execute the criminal gangs that run the city and slaughtered his family. When the might of the law fails to successfully apprehend Castle, it comes down to none other than the legally blind Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox)—lawyer by day, non-sighted spandexed crimefighter by night—to bring him down.

That the core conceit is this ridiculous is a big part of why Daredevil can be forgiven for so much. It’s an imperfect stab at making a grown-up comic book saga, for older graphic novel enthusiasts and once-teens, now into adulthood—those who grew up witnessing superhero cinema’s initial explosion in the early aughts. The dialogue is patchy, the mixture of tones isn’t always harmonious, and the action is hit-or-miss depending on who’s directing. Meanwhile the show’s cast can be the greatest in one scene (up until only very recently, you wouldn’t have seen actors of Vincent D’Onofrio and Jon Bernthal’s calibre teaming up to defeat a cabal of magic ninjas on the small screen) and the worst in the next (hello, Elden Henson and Elodie Yung).

Daredevil is a glossy, yet uneven pulp noir, but the very set-up means you never take it seriously enough to count its transgressions. It’s a show about an attorney-cum-urban warrior with a strict no-kill policy, singlehandedly defeating New York’s criminal fraternity with a billy club and a fast pair of fists. Once you’ve accepted that, you can deal with a few stale lines of dialogue and the occasional wooden performer.

There is, however, one problem with Daredevil that’s difficult to overlook.

In Season One, Daredevil’s writers went to great lengths to elicit compassion for their baddie, Vincent D’Onofrio’s refined crime boss Wilson Fisk. He was the show’s MVP, a rare Marvel screen villain more interesting and often more sympathetic than the hero. But while Season One stopped short of glamorizing its bad guy, Daredevil’s second run plainly appears to enjoy Frank Castle’s pathological rampage. With the PG-13 restrictions reserved for its big-screen Marvel counterparts lifted, Daredevil revels in violence and darkness. The show’s writers obviously enjoy the freedom they’ve been given to explore taboo territory for the genre (Drugs! Swearing! Car door-based decapitations!), but their enjoyment comes, arguably, at the expense of their show’s hero.

Daredevil was supposed to be about due process and the value of law and order, as much as it was to be about R-rated superheroics. But by Season Two, the violence has become doubly gratuitous, the lawyering side of Matt Murdock’s life is almost irrelevant (unlike in Season One, zero justice is done in Daredevil’s second season by legal means) and the show becomes markedly more exciting and focused whenever its villains are on-screen.

More than it likes the American legal system, more than it even likes its own hero, Daredevil loves characters who take the law into their own hands to maim, torture and kill. It fetishizes characters who give in to darker urges—characters like Frank Castle, Wilson Fisk and Scott Glenn’s doomy fundamentalist Stick, all of whom get the most badass lines and the swaggiest finishing moves. Facing them, you have Matt Murdock, preaching about his no-murder rule and lecturing those who disagree with him on how they ought to behave. Murdock has alone decided what justice is, and his mission in life is to stop the very stylized bloodshed that Daredevil specializes in. He is effectively the buzz kill of his own show.

It doesn’t help Murdock that Daredevil’s key rogues are played by the series’ three best actors, who add heft in a way that the likeable yet lightweight Charlie Cox can’t. But regardless, their characters have been developed with much more enthusiasm than has the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Frank Castle could be described as a better-equipped Travis Bickle; Wilson Fisk is a troubled, manic-depressive that thirsts for love and affection; while Stick is an old drifter, brainwashed by his own ideology, stuck in a war he’s resigned himself to fighting alone. Where these are well-drawn people, Matt Murdock remains after two seasons little more than a symbol. And the show doesn’t always appear to agree with what he stands for.

While Daredevil the show glamorizes vigilantism, Matt Murdock is, like Bruce Wayne, a man that considers ‘cleaning up the streets’ a duty, but not one that he necessarily enjoys. He self-flagellates and reminds those around him constantly that his actions don’t make him a good person. In effect Matt Murdock admonishes viewers for trying to take any pleasure from his story. He’s a square-jawed comic book hero, so of course he has to suffer in his guilt, in order to separate him from the bad guys. Daredevil’s villains meanwhile are free to run wild, and the show’s writers clearly have more fun exploring them than they do trying to do anything new with the virtuous superhero type. It’s a case of Dark Knight Syndrome, where the hero gets pushed to the sidelines, as the writers fail to disguise how liberating they find developing the villain.

The scribes behind Daredevil would probably prefer it if Matt Murdock could cut loose more. But he’s a good guy in a show that doesn’t have much admiration for goodness. Murdock’s flawed, but he can never be that flawed, and in a series as fond of the dark as this one, there’s little room for a classic comic book hero to prosper.

At the end of Season Two, Murdock finds himself giving his blessing to Frank Castle and his brand of ultimate vigilante justice (maybe killing big bad The Blacksmith is the right way to go, he relents), as well as fighting alongside hesitant accomplice Elektra as she embarks on a ninja murder rampage. Here we find the writers losing interest in their good guy’s principles: Murdock has become complicit in the brutality and the merciless killing, and it’s suddenly as though his code never meant anything at all. While Frank Castle at first serves as Season Two’s chief antagonist, by episode 13—after hours of bloody massacring—Castle has become the hero right alongside Murdock, with all his crimes apparently excused. It’s a peculiar message, to say the least, for a show that purports to be a champion of law and order.

Brogan Morris is a UK-based freelance writer, as seen on the Guardian, Little White Lies, Flavorwire, the BFI, the New Humanist and more. Opinions range from ridiculous to passable. You can follow him on Twitter.

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