The Paradox of Daredevil, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Sophie’s new piece on Daredevil, the Marvel series on Netflix, is getting some good reader feedback, so I compiled a representative sample below, followed by Sophie’s response. Our first reader concurs with her main contention:

I wholeheartedly agree; the level of violence on Daredevil is so astonishing as to be distracting. [CB note: One of the less gory scenes is embedded above.] I’m no prude, and I can stomach depictions of blood/gore if in service to a story. But on Daredevil (and even on Jessica Jones, to some extent), the directors seem to go out of their way to include as many cheap gross-out shots as possible, as if to signal to viewers that the show is supposed to have dramatic “weight.” You know, it is possible to tell a good story without resorting to cheap shock tactics, but god forbid a superhero story every attempt that.

This reader dissents:

This article really missed the mark. I agree that the amount of violence in our entertainment is disturbing, but adding graphic sex to that isn’t going to help. To be honest, I think it’s refreshing that a show isn’t using women’s bodies as a way of attracting viewers. Just because it doesn’t feature massive amounts of T&A doesn’t mean that sex is “taboo” ... it’s just not the show’s focus.

One of the main themes of this season is that Daredevil is taking over Matt Murdoch. If he doesn’t have time to have friends or a job, it would follow that he doesn’t have much of a dating life. The “painfully chaste” scene makes sense when you’re dealing with a person who a) has heightened senses and b) is reluctant to get involved with a coworker/friend. There’s a lot of variety in the world and not everything has to be porn in order to be realistic.

I think it’s strange that a female writer is complaining because one show in the world doesn't feature hyper-sexualized, objectified women. Jessica Jones was good, too, but this isn’t a competition. Both shows have their own points of focus.

Another reader looks beyond both shows:

I really don’t see why we need to insult one of these shows to state our case for the other. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones have been excellent so far, both at least 15 times better than any other superhero TV show ever made (apart from perhaps Agent Carter, which just about barely matches them in terms of entertainment and production values if not in artistic ones). And in fact I find them both to be better, more profound and less pulpy than 90 percent of the endless procession of recycled superhero *movies* out there at the moment, Marvel or otherwise.

One more reader zooms out even further:

This article is pretty over the top about its gender issues, but it alludes to the general dumbness of Daredevil pretty well. Comic books are simplistic stories aimed at pre-adolescents and geeks. Movies/TV shows based on comic books are even worse. A good comic book movie is still well below the standards of an actual good movie, but thanks to all the fanboys/girls it still ends up being considered similarly.

The worst part is the so-called mythology of these series, which is shockingly amateurish. Immortal ancient evil ninjas who fight with bows and knives? Wtf? Mythology of fantasy books and shows like the Thrones series, Malazan books, or the Cosmere series are nuanced and brilliant so it can be done right, with a palpable sense of mystery and discovery. But those are aimed at adults while comic books aren’t. Even Nolan’s supposedly amazing Batman series has one decent movie (The Dark Knight), one dumb movie (Begins) and one horrid movie (Returns). But the standards are so low that even marginally not-terrible productions end up being considered Great (like Daredevil).

Jessica Jones, even though long and dragged out and possessing myriad flaws, ends up showing a rare amount of self-awareness and nuance. It’s probably the best comic book production ever. But it covers NO new ground that Buffy didn’t already manage to cover 10-something years ago. Pause on that a little. It is said that there is child hiding among all of us, which is honestly the only reason for the absurd popularity of this entire preposterously inane genre. Maybe it is time to grow up a little.

Here’s Sophie’s response, first addressing the dissenting reader:

To be clear, I don’t think I was advocating anywhere in the article for more “graphic sex,” or “hyper-sexualized, objectified women.” I’m as tired as anyone of shows that gratuitously use naked bodies to draw in viewers without any narrative reason to do so. But I think the disparity between the standards for sex and violence in Daredevil is extraordinarily telling. As I wrote in my piece, it’s fascinating that Marvel bans nudity and the word “fuck” in its shows but has no qualms about showing a man’s organs spilling out of his body, or a character being tortured with an electric drill, or another character tortured by having metal rods pushed into his fingers.

The violence in Daredevil almost always has a sexual subtext. It’s all about weapons being inserted into people in various ways—the aforementioned drills and metal rods, as well as swords, bullets, ninja arrows, knives. At one point the Punisher sews a razor blade inside his own wrist. It’s an incredibly gory show: one that I as an adult viewer found really hard to watch on multiple occasions. Violence like this, rendered in comic books, feels necessarily cartoonish thanks to the medium, but portrayed on television it’s something else entirely. My question is why the producers of Daredevil think it’s necessary, and whether they think it’s responsible to inform their legions of young viewers that nudity is much more alarming and unconscionable than graphic torture scenes.

In regards to the third comment, I’d argue it’s my job to compare Marvel’s Netflix offerings when writing about them. If I’d written about Daredevil without mentioning Jessica Jones, I’m sure people would have complained that I was ignoring a huge part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jessica Jones had graphic violence, too, but I thought it was rendered in a psychological rather than needlessly gory way that made it much more effective, and I think it’s a much more sophisticated show that proves what Daredevil has the potential to be.

As for why I sometimes consider gender issues when writing about culture, it’s because, frankly, this is a crucial failing of the entertainment industry. When TV shows or movies or comic-book series consist only of male voices, they limit themselves. They run the risk of alienating 50 percent of viewers, for one thing, but they also miss out on developing intriguing characters who can make stories richer. I’d argue that Daredevil would be a much better, more compelling, more insightful show if there were more women in the writer’s room. For many reasons, but one is that they might point out that female characters can be more than subservient helpmeets or (spoiler) the most powerful killing machines in human history.

If you have any additional thoughts about Daredevil, Jessica Jones, or Marvel adaptations more generally, drop us an email. Update from a reader:

I’ve been seeing the “it’s so violent but so sexless” complaint levied at Daredevil in the wake of Jessica Jones, but I think there’s something a little strange about it. Not everyone is terribly interested in sex, and it’s exceedingly rare that a fictional examination of sex and romance reflects what I’ve experienced personally. I’ve met plenty of people who would rather dedicate themselves to any number of activities, and sexuality is far down on their list of priorities. Matt Murdock doesn't seem any more immature than, say, my father, except that he’s replaced “working on various projects with every second of free time” with “punching criminals in the face.”

And that’s the real immaturity of comic books: they don’t deal with problems in realistic ways. Daredevil wouldn’t work in real life for reasons that go far beyond the fact that he’d likely be shot and killed shortly into his career. And a real-life rape victim is unlikely to be literally mind-controlled by her assailant or able to literally break his neck as in Jessica Jones. At best, comic book properties provide entertaining metaphors for real issues.

Perhaps the issue with Daredevil is that it doesn’t work as a metaphor for our times. Jessica Jones is about the all-too-real problems women face, particularly from sexually predatory men. If Daredevil is trying to similarly offer a masculine perspective, what is the modern masculine perspective? If simply punching bad guys isn’t enough to justify the grim and serious tone of the series, what would elevate the subject matter? If everything else was well-executed, would the show still be lesser if it ignored the sexual side of its title character?

Of course, the series could also be a letdown on the sexual side of things simply because so much fictional sexuality is rote. Attractive man meets attractive woman, they fall in love because they are the designated love interests in the obligatory love story, audience falls asleep because this is the tenth time today they’ve seen a story with this subplot. Perhaps the writers of Daredevil just wanted to make a show about a guy punching crooks and they’re as disinterested in TV romance as I am by this point but obligated to put it in because, hey, that's what you do in fiction, and Frank Miller kind of tied their hands with Elektra, and Marvel properties aren’t going to spin-off by themselves.