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Hollywood vs. Netflix: Dawn of the Series

Dominic Davies


Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Dir. Zack Snyder
Warner Bros. Pictures
Released 19 March 2016

Daredevil: Season 2
Writ. Drew Goddard
Dir. Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez
Marvel Television and ABC Studios
Released on Netflix 18 March 2016

 

 

 

 

You definitely don’t need another review to tell you how indescribably awful Warner Bros. Pictures’ latest offering, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, really, honestly, unbelievably is. It is often inadvisable to quote other reviews in one’s own, but on this occasion it’s just too tempting. Some of the best comments from across the internet include: “a stink bucket of disappointment, a sad and unnecessary PG-13 orphan fight“; “Lex Luther [looks] like a gibbering refugee from a Wes Anderson film“; “The Incredibles without the fun“; “It should really be called Batman and Superman v the Audience“. The Guardian have actually compiled a longer list of these and published it on their website as an article in its own right. Clearly, then, you don’t need another review. Maybe if we stopped talking about Hollywood’s mindless obsession with superhero films, which is growing faster than an acne-riddled, testosterone-fuelled group of greasy boys in their mid-teens and looks a bit like them too, then it will go away. To be honest, though, film critics probably enjoy ripping up these films, and the resulting tirades are often fun to read. If you aren’t aware of Mark Kermode’s review of Sex and the City 2, then you’ve got an enjoyable ten minutes in store.

 

However, there is something rather snobby about all this negative commentary; no matter what they all say, Batman vs. Superman has already made $600 million worldwide, so there must still be an audience for this sort of treatment. Superhero films somehow resolve a gaping crevice in our cultural consciousness; bereft of a good vs. bad narrative in today’s muddily complex world, we consume their simplistic formula with gusto. In a review of the first season of Daredevil written last year for the Oxonian Review, I pointed readers in the direction of Dan Hassler-Forests excellent book, Capitalist Superheroes: Cape Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (2012), which shows how superheroes propagate a twenty-first century neoliberal ideology. Though published back in 2012, his book was clearly on the money. In an inexplicably excitable half hour build-up documentary to the film’s release, which was bizarrely put together by the BBC, Batman vs. Superman director Zack Snyder actually claimed his film was an allegorical narrative of the U.S. Empire, in which Superman is an agent of America’s invasions in Vietnam and the like, whilst Batman is more cynical of these dubious foreign policies. Despite the film being so flat that it doesn’t even merit this kind of facile sociopolitical reading, there’s clearly a synergy between late capitalism and the superhero story.
In many ways, ABC Studios decision to team up with Marvel and produce the first season of Daredevil last year should be seen as an admirable attempt to take Hollywood head-on. ABC Studios cleverly exploits the cultural capital that the plethora of superhero blockbusters have generated, whilst leaving them trailing in the dust when it comes to visual and narrative quality, despite the fact that they created 13 hours of television for a tiny fraction of the cost. That Daredevil now enters its second season is testament to the first’s success; and indeed, it had a lot to live up to. Rather than the sickly, multi-coloured, CGI-ridden, apocalyptic destructions of New York, Daredevil’s first season was concerned with the much slower urban decay of a Manhattan backwater by the real-life structural forces of a power-hungry capitalism. It carefully weaved its way through the tense political contestations that shape the neoliberal city without ever settling comfortably into one simplistic ideological cushion. In continuing the exploration of these themes, this second season builds on the brilliance of the first; by switching between superbly choreographed fight sequences and compelling court scenes, Daredevil now surpasses itself.

 

Because Matt Murdoch, the day-to-day name of the series’ titular hero, is a lawyer, the notion of legality and justice emerge as a central theme. The tension implicit in the fact that Murdoch attempts to enforce justice legally by day and illegally (as a vigilante) by night allows Daredevil to prod at the tender membrane of the law, exposing its hypocrisies, failures and limitations.This theme is overlaid by another, more philosophical concern: the basic concepts of good and evil, routed here through the notion of the hero. Like Batman vs. Superman, Daredevil is not the only character with super-fighting skills to appear in this series. Other comic book favourites such as The Punisher and Elektra have central roles and fight both alongside and against Daredevil at various stages. Unlike Batman vs. Superman, however, Daredevil rejects outright the simplistic binaries that are embedded in that film’s title. By bringing more crime-fighting characters into the fray, the season doesn’t reinforce a balanced dichotomy of good and evil, but rather relativises them. With the absence of crime boss Wilson Fisk—Daredevil’s arch-enemy in season one—from the first half of season two, deciding who needs to be defeated now becomes an elusive process contingent on social and political context. Sometimes The Punisher and Elektra are seen as dangerous, law-breaking terrorists that Daredevil has to tackle head-on, whilst at others they become allies and agents of justice. The resulting relativisation of Daredevil’s agenda forces him to confess his own ideology to both himself and the audience, a confrontation that reveals the crevices embedded in nothing less than the idea of the “hero” itself. Given that Daredevil: Season Two and Batman vs. Superman were released within a day of one another, it is a fair to read the former as an active critique of the latter, one that tears gaping holes in the weak ideological resolutions Hollywood’s superhero films try to force down our throats.
And as if Daredevil’s intricate web of moral tension were not enough, it is punctuated by visually stunning fight scenes that reference a long tradition of martial arts cinema. Episode Three of Season One features a superbly choreographed fight scene in which Daredevil works his way down a gauntlet-style hallway filled with goons. In Episode Three of Season Two, a similar fight scene takes place (you can watch it in full on youtube here), but this time along a hallway, down a stairwell, into another hallway, all filmed in one long sweeping take that lasts almost five minutes. Unlike every fight scene in Batman vs. Superman, when one wonders if any real actors were ever actually used in the making of the film, Daredevil completely avoids the use of CGI; instead, it revels in the physical stamina and acrobatic athleticism of its stuntmen. Furthermore, in part because there are no cuts, the reality of the situation is brutally, but also beautifully, foregrounded. Firstly, because Daredevil’s directors know that their superhero can’t knock everyone out with one blow, we see opponents that have already been dispatched slowly recovering in the background, picking themselves up, and coming after him once more. Secondly, and perhaps more impressively, Daredevil gets tired: after fighting intensely for a couple of minutes, when he gets a break between opponents he begins to fall against the wall, out of breath, presumably because the stuntman himself is, genuinely, exhausted. This technique references the South Korean neo-noir film Oldboy (2003), which won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and that, in turn, is a homage to Korean cinema and its gradual perfection of the ninja fight sequence. It is this kind of artistic attention to detail, which is evident even during what one might presume to be Daredevil’s more mindless sections, that shows how fraudulent, dishonest and lazy films like Batman vs. Superman really are.
So maybe, given that you can watch all twenty-six hours of Daredevil for a ¬£5.95 subscription to Netflix, just over half of the inflated price that cinema tickets go for nowadays, Hollywood’s proliferation of superhero films and franchises are an act of desperation that might be read as an indication of its imminent death. Its cultural hegemony, which has dominated cinema globally for at least the last half-century, may now be breaking up, and breaking down. With the dawn of the series, which gives writers and directors the time to create more complex narratives that actually confront the sociopolitical nuances of the neoliberal world, cinema needs to spend some time thinking through exactly what its form can offer, and this reviewer believes that Hollywood, so obsessed with profit, does not have the intellectual space to do so.

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Dominic Davies is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in English at the University of Oxford, where he also completed his DPhil in March 2015.