This article contains minor spoilers for the first half of Daredevil season 2.
He hangs there, as broken and processed as all the other slabs of meat in the refrigerator. But whereas the chunks of cow surrounding him are made up of poor, deceased beasts, this tenderized cut is much more imminently raw. An apparent member of a Mexican drug cartel, he is the man with a hook in his back and a pound of flesh missing from his side. And he breathes still when the masked vigilante known as the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen finds him dangling there.
All of this occurs within a moment in the very first episode of Daredevil season 2, and it is just one of the many scenes where a superhero from the Netflix and Marvel Television stable admires the handiwork of another would-be do-gooder. For when Daredevil and the Punisher face off, the shiny Marvel Cinematic Universe that features Captain America and Iron Man cracking wise with a show tune-loving supervillain all of a sudden seems infinitely darker.
But that is not why these Netflix shows are so good.
To be sure, both seasons of Daredevil, and our first introduction to Jessica Jones last year, have been very good, as well as the best adaptations of a superhero world ever put on the small screen. Dealing with elements like crime and corruption in law enforcement during Daredevil, and surviving rape and living with PTSD in Jessica Jones, each series crawled into some dark corners with nary a thought about turning on a light.
Now, with the most recent batch of Daredevil, this has meant a narrative in which Jon Bernthal was introduced as Frank Castle, a bundle of damaged goods whose initial comic book origins were once as thin as their Dirty Harry influences. Yet, this background was expanded with great sophistication and delicacy into a 13-episode long character study about a man who suffered through irrevocable horrors in the Afghan War, and who now at the very least seems to be a candidate for the “Sympathetic Storming” mental condition.
This is all to explain why he spray paints a skull on his shirt and then pulls the trigger on bad men. But understanding the broken man in a way that is far more nuanced than what even most comic fans are accustomed to is what really elevates the material—not the violence. Rather, such forethought and even tact proves necessary to make the “dark and gritty” thing more than a simple window dressing.
Increasingly, it seems most mainstream superhero movies are boxing themselves into one style or another. Marvel Studios is having undeniable (and seemingly unending) success with popcorn entertainments that are lighter than air, while most movies released under that umbrella maintain a similar visual and tonal aesthetic of humor and whiz-bang silliness.
But now DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. appear to be attempting a contrast since the DC superhero brand is being sold as dark and foreboding. At the moment, I will not spoil a single scene from Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but I’ll just say that our critic Don Kaye was being extremely charitable in his fair review, and that the movie is every bit the grim affair about Batman and Superman “going to war!” as the marketing implies. And it is also just as numbing to experience as the last hour of Snyder’s dour Man of Steel (though BvS makes that 2013 effort look like Richard Donner in comparison).
All of this is to say that the movie is supposed to be about two titans of comic book lore duking it out (not unlike Daredevil season 2), yet it falls flat when Jesse Eisenberg espouses, “Black and blue, man vs. god, day vs. night!” Can Superman really symbolize the optimism of “day” or sunshine when he is perpetually flying in gray, overcast skies with the weight of death on his hands? Not in this movie.
Indeed, the mere presence of Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an immediate reaction to Man of Steel’s underperformance at the international box office. That movie opened in June 2013 and by the very next month, Snyder stood at San Diego Comic-Con’s Hall H with Harry Lennix to announce the sequel would feature the Dark Knight by reading from Frank Miller’s ominous words about Batman having his hands around Superman’s throat. Ever since then it has been a veritable journey into the Heart of Darkness for DC Entertainment with an Old Man Bruce Wayne apparently representing the horror envisioned by Col. Kurtz.
As Chris Roven, a producer on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, told Empire, Ben Affleck’s upcoming Batman “is not giving people a chance. He has become not only the cop, if you will, he has also become the jury and executioner… he’s been darkened by it, he’s tougher, he’s angrier, I guess.” Apparently, the powers at be have decided Christian Bale’s Batman was too much rainbow and sunshine in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy.
And rest assured that in BvS, Bruce Wayne has a body count. A big one.
Thus therein lies the insidious trap for the superhero genre. To justify the genre’s popularity, and their decision to work on something so commercial, filmmakers are increasingly attempting to align with the oft-repeated buzzwords of “dark” and “gritty,” without necessarily knowing why. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were certainly dark and grounded in a violent verisimilitude that made them touch a national nerve with American audiences.
Nolan also used comic book iconography to explore Western fears about terrorism and societal collapse with first bearded ideologues living in caves in Batman Begins and then with the threat of homegrown and incomprehensible nihilists that just want to watch the world (and people) burn in The Dark Knight. With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan even got out ahead of anxieties about class warfare before Occupy Wall Street existed, and personified social destruction in images of armed militias dragging bodies through the street with false promises of “liberation.”
These chilling echoes were meant to evoke situations of true terror for modern American audiences, and they all informed a power fantasy in which a righteous superhero could fix these problems—yet Nolan’s Batman did this while staying true to the character’s generally accepted goodness. He did not kill, he did not aspire to inflict political opinions on his potential allies, and he wasn’t “angry” to the point of being comical.
Batman’s mythology lends itself as easily to the crime dramas that informed The Dark Knight as the grand Hollywood epics that serve to underpin Richard Donner’s legendary approach to Superman in 1978. Batman makes for darker superhero movies because that is a natural fit for the character. In comparison, Superman is “day,” for much the same reason. When Man of Steel made a walking Christ metaphor torture himself over the snapping of villains’ necks and experience the ruins of 9/11 x 1000 in a third act of countless collapsing buildings, the intention was to replicate Nolan’s approach but with little of the social insight of The Dark Knight, and with a character that made the experience entirely unrelenting in its dreariness.
This tone deaf problem was not fixed in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
If one must chase after those dark shadows, be it with Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, perhaps looking also at Netflix and Marvel Television’s cunning use of the Daredevil and Jessica Jones characters could be illuminating. After all, “gritty” and “violent” should be more than just affectations.
In the case of Daredevil season 2, the contrast between ol’ horn head and the Punisher allows the series to pile on the dark elements since one superhero is notorious for fighting mobsters with his fists and the other is best known for shooting them. Still, it benefits the television show to seriously contrast their ideologies and worldviews without it turning into so much machismo and pissing.
Indeed, the best subplot of the entire season is that while Charlie Cox’s vigilante recognizes Punisher as a danger to New York, he still sympathizes with him and tries to understand his choices even after the Punisher is apprehended. He then defends him in court as blind lawyer Matt Murdock, determined to stop him from being thrown to the media wolves of mob rule since the Punisher has been built up as a Son of Sam styled newspaper personality.
This contrast between a belief in an inadequate justice system and black-and-white gunslinger does not just play out in fisticuffs, but on an intellectual level in first a measured rooftop tête-à-tête and then in a courtroom that humanizes both characters—including their hypocrisies—and thus makes the scenes where they later suit up and fight crime mean more than just so many collapsing buildings or gnashing teeth.
Daredevil earns its grit and has fun with it, because running toward the shadows should never feel oh, so gloomy or exhausting.