“Daredevil” and the Problem of the Not Bad

May 5, 2016   •   By Aaron Bady

THE SECOND SEASON of Daredevil is ferociously bad. It’s rambling, incoherent, inconsistent, and somehow, even though it’s drenched with violence and action and melodrama, it’s actually kind of boring. The characters make no sense, the plot makes no sense, the stakes are weird and nonsensical, and all of that non-sense-making happens at triple speed.

I would speculate that, at least on some level, the writers realized that they were flogging a dead horse, and tried to solve the problem by beating it twice as hard and twice as fast and also with ninjas. But it stays dead.

What do you say about a show that dies? That it was beautiful and brilliant? That it loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me? That in the absence of a compelling story, it substituted video-game violence and pained superhero growling and every comic cliché it could find? I’m sort of confounded. It’s not a good season of television is what I’m getting at. But what can you say about that? How can one criticize not badness, but not-goodness?

I’ll find a way to say a few things, I suspect. But as I was experiencing my mildly negative response to Daredevil, I was also watching critics go to town on Batman v. Superman — I’ll admit, somewhat enviously. They were having such a very nice time hating it, at great and glorious and creative length. In case you haven’t heard: They hated it! They hated it so much! They hated it so much that the “sad Ben Affleck” meme was born. People know what to say about a movie that is not only no good, but in fact very bad.

But even as critics adopted a scorched-earth forward policy toward Batman v. Superman, making a game of trying to one-up one another with the creativity and viciousness of their take-downs, it’s also true that a ton of people went to see the movie and that it made hundreds of millions of dollars. The movie’s box office success made critics’ unanimous opinion pretty irrelevant. One begins to wonder if it were actually designed — Trump-like — to make money not in spite but because of its badness

But Daredevil is not merely not good. The stakes of its not-goodness are also very different. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was also fairly roundly panned, and critics had low expectations for its successor. After a solid and interesting first season and a solid and even more interesting season of its fellow Marvel-Netflix co-production Jessica Jones, however, I expected interesting and solid. So I was disappointed. I actually had to rewatch parts of the first season to be sure that it hadn’t always been this bad, and that something unfortunate really had happened to this series. It had. The first season has a freshness and vitality to it. The characters are given room to breathe and grow and change, and lots of stuff actually seems to be at stake. Matt Murdock is an interestingly limited character. Like Jessica Jones, his powers are less “super” than special, and the fact that he is far from omnipotent informs all of his moral dilemmas. The first season also features much better character writing: Murdock’s scenes with his partner Foggy Nelson are sweet and believable, his interplay with the villain Wilson Fisk is tense and brisk and smart, and in general the various traumatized characters deal with their trauma in believably vexed and complex ways. The show feels real. Repeated references to the alien attack that took place in the first Avengers movie aside, its version of Hell’s Kitchen seems like a real place filled with actual people — many of whom have lines and/or interact with Our Heroes — trying to get by. All of which is to say, there’s a gentleness to the story, an intimacy. Wilson Fisk’s villainy is both about love gone wrong and something larger. Moreover, if it almost becomes an ambitious parable about gentrification and capitalism, it still roots that macro-economic narrative in the micro-economics of ordinary New Yorkers’ struggles to get by and pay the rent.

You might not call season one of Daredevil an artistic masterpiece, but it at least features interesting and competent and original storytelling.

The easy explanation for why the second season goes wrong is, basically, that it substitutes the narrative principle AND NOW, MOAR NINJAS for everything I’ve just mentioned. Instead of delving into the quiet struggles of an only half-romanticized working class, it shamelessly pilfers a variety of tortured-vigilante-with-a-conscience beats from Batman comics, in the process mostly ruining the integrity of its working-class milieu. And, well, everything else: Matt and Foggy have zero chemistry (and spend most of their screen-time being painfully self-righteous to each other), the “love” story is the usual “Will He Choose The Good Blond or The Evil Brunette?” in which nothing very surprising happens, and the stakes are a clichéd variation on evil is gonna evil so we gotta, you know, stop it from evilling. Along the way, a lot of old characters return — disappointingly — and too many villains pop up for any of them to become interesting or scary (or even comprehensible). In terms of flow and vision, everything goes out of focus. On one hand, the season feels compressed, and arcs and conflicts that might have become compelling if they were given space to develop across several episodes are introduced and completed within a single one. On the other, the scope of the threat grows much too large for the neighborhood-ness of Hell’s Kitchen to survive. For reasons that never become clear (or interesting), Hell’s Kitchen seems to have become the site for an ancient war between ninja clans for the fate of the universe and, rather literally, seems to have a Hellmouth under it or something? I guess? What the hell is that hole the ninja-guys have dug or discovered or something? Who really cares?

The season actually starts out with a certain promise. The Punisher arc that shapes the first handful of episodes has its moments. But it’s amazing, in retrospect, to look back at the first few episodes of the season and realize how, after the season is over, all of that might as well not have happened. Those Irish mobsters that the first few episodes are so interested in? The vaguely interesting conversation between Daredevil and The Punisher about who is the real hero and are we really so different after all you and I? The debate about whether law is a real thing that is preferable to vigilante justice? The exploration of the comparative merits of killing bad guys or just beating them up very badly? A show about a version of Batman if Batman were an idealistic working-class dude with a law degree, a disability, and deep roots in his neighborhood would be an interesting one. Daredevil occasionally flirts with being that show.

And then it just totally loses interest. After four decent episodes, the Punisher spends most of the rest of the season being sad and sulky, and loses his defining characteristic, his absolute honesty. The Irish mobsters (all the mobsters, really) turn out to be gigantic anachronistic ginger herrings. And Daredevil resolves his Great Moral Predicament by deciding that, you know, actually, Elektra is hot and cool, and maybe we do have to kill bad guys sometimes, I don’t know?

Ultimately, there’s not much you can say about Daredevil because its not-goodness derives from the fact that it doesn’t have anything to say. This makes it hard to say anything about the way it’s not saying anything. Based on the first season, I would have argued that the show uses the superhero genre to de-familiarize gentrification and the way crime plays into struggles over urban land use. Similarly, I would contend that Jessica Jones uses the superhero-detective genre to de-familiarize trauma and addiction. Coming out — dare I say, being flushed out — of Daredevil season two, I would say that it uses the Batman-genre to re-familiarize the Ninja-genre. And for all the violence it does to its characters and setting, the real problem is this reinvestment in the fetish of ninja violence. The show uses the spectacle of literal violence to render unnecessary the organic narrative flow of people just being people in the world. Instead of the hidden injuries and traumas of class, as they play themselves out across our lives, we get a story of a ninja fighting ninjas because, well, ninjas.

On some level, the problem with superhero comics and movies and television is that they are ultimately about fighting. At its most basic level, fighting is only visually interesting, and only while it’s going on. For a critic, this is a problem. Critics like to ruminate, digest, and discuss. But what do you say about a ninja fight that’s over? That it was interestingly shot, well paced, expertly performed, and narratively complex? That it was balletic, operatic, or musical? That it expressed the interior drama of a character, projected outwards as spectacle? 

Maybe you can say that about other shows. Maybe you can even say it about the frequently discussed hallway fight (clearly indebted to Park Chan-wook’s 2005 Oldboy) from Daredevil’s first season. But in season two, fighting is reduced to its most basic level. It's to be consumed and forgotten, relied on to provide the most visceral version of narrative tension-and-release that cinematic media can provide. To demand that they sustain a conversation, or an analysis, is to miss the kind of product they are designed to be: garbage, a product whose only destiny is to become waste. Once you’ve tuned in and experienced your hours of spectacle, the show is over. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

This isn’t a problem for Batman v. Superman. While you can complain about how bad the movie was, if you enjoy doing that, you can’t really pretend you were misled. It had the label “Zack Snyder” right there on the poster. You knew what you were getting, and so did the critics who afterwards set rhetorical fire to the movie. Of course, that’s the other kind of violence that a moviemaker like Snyder allows us to enjoy, the spectacle of everyone losing their mind at what a steaming pile of crap it is (as if anyone expected otherwise). But maybe the people investing money in this product, and the people being paid to make this product, and the people paying to enjoy this product, maybe they all know this and don’t mind?

Which is why, maybe, just maybe, the real problem with Daredevil is that it won’t even allow us that pleasure. Zack Snyder flaunts his fascist incoherence with the grand comic apathy of a Michael Bay being told that his transformers lack depth and richness and human complexity. (Well, yeah.) But Daredevil won’t do us the courtesy of camping it up and insulting our intelligence, can’t bother to suit up and serve up a truly atrocious and stupid show. Instead, it gives us something that’s just okay. And what do you say about a show that’s just okay?

You say, perhaps, as the Punisher says to Daredevil in episode three, “I think you’re a half-measure. I think you’re a man who can’t finish the job. I think that you’re a coward.”