There's a huge problem with American moral culture.
Here's a huge problem with American moral culture.
I recently sat down to watch the entire second season of Marvel's Netflix's Daredevil in one sitting. It reified something that has been boiling in my mind for awhile now, and previously was going to hold off until I got my triumphant hate-watch of Zack Snyder's Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of (what passes for) Justice, but there's a deeply troubling aspect to the new season of Daredevil that's extremely difficult not to acknowledge.
I want to talk about pedigree a little bit. I have the privilege that no one is really going to question my expertise on comics because I'm a man and because nerd culture still has a misogynistic cancer in its heart, but let me tell you: I have read comics since i was a very small child. As in, before I could read, I "read" comics. I worked at a comic book store for four years, and I'm intimately familiar with the comics industry. I have friends who are professional full-time comics artists, and am at least acquainted with a few major professionals. Daredevil, historically, was one of my favorite superhero characters, and I also own this copy of Punisher: Born, drawn in by hand by Darick Robertson to return a favor. I know a lot about the history, story, pathos, etcetera of these characters.
That being out of the way: I am of two minds. On the one hand, my teenage brain who read Frank Miller's contributions to the Daredevil mythos is on fire with the commitment to tone and subject the series has taken. This is commendable on the part of the show-runners, and as far as quality, the series is one of Marvel's more impressive efforts. Apart from some bad direction of the actors, another mis-stepped climax (third in a row for Marvel's Netflix's shows), and a few other all-to-convenient plot twists, it's overall a well-executed show about a borderline psychopath beating criminals with a stick.
The moral quality of this is certainly questioned by the series, but like most contemporary superhero fiction, eventually lands around accepting that's it's probably fine for him to jump down and quickly make decisions about potentially-complex situations that he has almost no information about. This is a natural problem and frequent conceit of these stories: that the hero is in the moral right for the virtue that they're the main character.
It's a really horrifying world to live in, even in fiction, but it takes on a deeply sinister value in the contemporary world. It's a context that might make sense to a child in the 1950's, a moralistic world without regard for the complexity and nuance of the world in which we live.
I don't really want to talk about specifics of plot because the way it unfolds is pretty natural and overall entertaining. There are some cameos that are super great for people who are into Daredevil. But there is a massive blind spot in the series: the first season touched on whether or not Daredevil had any moral fortitude at all, if he was truly doing the "right thing" by using his abilities to beat the shit out of criminals. These themes emerged naturally, but remained sort-of unchallenging; they're no more complex than what the unconvinced viewer might evoke at first watch. For the new season, they introduce a character and plot that would be rife for examining the verisimilitude of Daredevil's moral argument in Jon Bernthal's play as the Punisher.
It should be noted that the Punisher was one of the earliest modern-era antiheroes, a reference point which would ruin superhero comics through the late 1980's into the 1990's. Confusing brutality for realism, man-child fans of the time rode a wave of euphoric violence-obsession that would see almost every popular character in superhero comics resort to gun violence as an end. This even included Batman, albeit not Bruce Wayne, a character popularly notable for his aversion to guns. So despite the existence in the world of complex (and even entertainingly cartoonish) depictions of the character that recognize the contradictions and limitations of his character, the widely-adopted portrait of the character is the always-right violence monger that gives proto-fascists sexual feelings they aren't really mature enough to process.
And Season 2 of Daredevil is not really ready to parse any of that out. Sure, it at first treats the Punisher as a menacing element, one to be stopped, but it quickly acquiesces that he's just a guy with problems, and attempts to paint him as severely mentally ill. Sidestepping the patronizing bullshit that the genuinely mentally ill deal with constantly (mentally ill people actually commit fewer violent crimes than neurotypical population, and if anything are more likely to be the victim of violent crimes), their plot set up essentially argues that spree shooters and violent reactionaries shouldn't be held responsible for their actions. It exploits the worst impulses in the justice system to shoot first and cover later, to remove people from the equation entirely instead of recognize their basic underlying value and make even the most minor attempt at reform. He's every piece of shit killer cop who ever walked away clean, excepting for the propaganda that these cops "went through hell" to get where they did. The mere assumption that he's some kind of mass-murder genius who can presciently know exactly who to kill is only more mind-bendingly horrorfying. By the end of the season, he's even graced with an extensive arsenal and personal iconography, a bullet proof vest upon which he paints his signature skull, a symbol with a certain amount of iconic heft that would not be lost on your average spree shooter.
I had a moment of sheer terror when watching a short promotional video for the new season. Among cast interviews, Jon Bernthal said the following:
"it's a character that means a lot to a lot of people...this is a character that's been revered and respected and adopted by members of law enforcement and the military and I look at it as a responsibility."
Holy. Fucking. Shit. You imagine that people who are actually cops respect the sanctity of life and trust the justice system enough that they would at least pretend that it functions to keep people from committing crimes, but in reality, enough law enforcement and military personnel are so ready for blood, are so disgusted by crime, that they idolize a character whose entire ethos is to kill criminals regardless of the veracity of their guilt. To take an entire section of the population out of the equation by killing indiscriminately. It illustrates, with terrifying detail, the moral simplicity of our law enforcement culture, and its itchy trigger finger.
This is, of course, entirely verifiable when perusing any police message board, which are typically full of violently racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist comments on every topic imaginable. There was, for a time, entire blogs dedicated toward screen-caps of police officers wishing they could do what the Punisher does, mass-kill with impunity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that law enforcement and its proponents are wholly willing to kill. This depiction of the Punisher is only a boiling point of these feelings, but his wild popularity among men with severely under-developed senses of moral rectitude overlapping with the population of people we have designated as being people with guns who are allowed to shoot people. One after another, disgusting abuses of this power go uncriticized. Not to mention a wide population who are totally okay with that.
And the betrayal here is to its own narrative. This should have been used as a narrative platform to establish why Daredevil has the right to protect Hell's Kitchen from the forces of evil because he has a well-developed moral compass and system of actually preventing and pursuing the abation of crime. The procedural and character-driven aspects of the show are the perfect way to develop a morally complete character who has complex but thought-out systems for actually administering justice, something he should be intimately familiar with, but instead simply assumes most of his moral self.
The underlying issue is the total rejection of self-discomfort in favor of an uncriticized moral landscape. When we talk about privilege, one the most immediate and basic privileges white men hold fast to, the one that generates non-fault arguments against racism or sexism or even facts about history, is the aversion to self-criticism. The more serious, grim, and "realistic" these stories are, the more these brown-haired white boys believe it, internalize it, and ingratiate themselves to themselves, remain uncriticized, and the underlying causes of phrases like "it's about ethics in game journalism" go unchecked.
And that's why Daredevil season 2 isn't as good as I had expected.