- The Oxonian Review - http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp -


Dominic Davies

Writ. Drew Goddard
Exec. Prod. Steven S. DeKnight
Marvel Television, ABC Studios DeKnight Prods and Goddard Textiles
Released on Netflix 10 April 2015

In the past few years, Hollywood has vomited Marvel films: The Incredible Hulk, the Iron Man trilogy, the Captain America films, the Thor and X-Men series, Guardians of the Galaxy, and most recently, the new Avengers movies. The “superhero” formula fulfils a number of the industry’s somehow increasingly monotonous criteria: big explosions, endless and increasingly complex CGI action sequences, perilous attempts to destroy the earth (though really just Manhattan), love stories that mostly disempower women and remain redundant subplots, and countless cringe-worthy, one-liner puns uttered by heroes mid-fight. However, these films have been some of the highest grossing productions of recent years and the formula appears to work. Mining the Marvel franchise further guarantees Hollywood masses of accompanying merchandise and innumerable sequels, all of which add to the profits. In turn, and as Dan Hassler-Forest has shown in his book-length study, Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (2012), they propagate a twenty-first century neoliberal ideology, encouraging viewers to “sympathise with powerful but all-too-human billionaires.” The portrayal of multi-millionaires such as Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Tony Stark (Iron Man), with their determination to save rather than profit from mankind, serves to “legitimise the power of the Berlusconis and Rupert Murdochs of the world.” Simplistically and unoriginally put, Hollywood both feeds and feeds off the capitalist world-system as its primary superstructural producer.

What is more, these films overlook the often insightful social commentary that informs the original Marvel comics, whilst exacerbating their most proto-capitalist aspects. They exchange the rough-edged predicaments of their dark and morally nuanced storylines for brightly coloured costumes and the above-mentioned simplistic formulae. Capitalism sees profits in Marvel’s numerous artistic and narrative productions of the late-twentieth century and plunders them, cleverly dissolving the often implicit social and political critiques they contain to serve its own ideological ends. Perhaps the exception to the rule was the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen (originally produced not by Marvel but DC Comics), which retained these deeper thematic explorations and that actually concluded with the nuclear annihilation of New York. The film version of Daredevil, released back in 2003 and starring Ben Affleck as its superhero protagonist, perhaps dodged the ridiculous standardisation to which Marvel films have since fallen victim, but it nevertheless pre-empted some of these familiar criteria.

However, the new television series of Daredevil, released in its entirety (13 hour-long episodes) on Netflix a little over a month ago, rejects Hollywood’s framework outright, resulting instead in a carefully orchestrated interrogation of some of capitalism’s most voracious aspects. It critiques capitalism’s rampant urban development by documenting the visceral and unglamorous violence that accompanies these processes (and resistance to them), at times questioning the whole notion of “the superhero” altogether. The result is a programme that is of a par with those other gems of the “boxset” genre, such as HBO’s The Wire or Mad Men, and that other excellent series to be released on Netflix all in one go, House of Cards. The politics implicit in these shows are nuanced, carefully developed and refreshingly explorative. That this new television series of Daredevil throws the caricatured simplification of its filmic counterparts into relief is perhaps, then, enabled primarily by the genre. The destruction of the world—the kind of disaster mentality that has gone hand-in-hand with the neoliberal age, as Naomi Klein and many others have shown—does not have to be posited and overcome in the space of a 120 minute movie. Rather, the day-to-day local violence of capitalism can be represented at a more even pace, and the lower budgets of these productions mean that CGI and the inevitable ongoing actions sequences that it allows are forced to take a backseat. Indeed, as film critic Jason Wilson has pointed out, a number of actors are now taking roles in trashy action and romance flicks in order to fund their more creative roles in these longer, lower-budget series: Hollywood veterans Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell have, for example, recently been given key roles in the forthcoming second series of the terrific HBO series True Detective.

Daredevil’s overarching plot revolves around the ascendency of the wealthy proto-capitalist Wilson Fisk, immediately subverting the narrative trajectories of Batman and Ironman as critiqued by Hassler-Forest. It charts Fisk’s determination to monopolise on New York’s urban gentrification, as he attempts to infiltrate one of its remaining undeveloped corners, Hell’s Kitchen. He seeks to achieve his profit-yielding enterprise by engaging in underhand dealings with heroin-peddling gangs and corrupt finance capitalists alike, a project that runs counter to his public image as a benevolent figure seeking to improve living standards for the city’s working class. Only Matt Murdock/Daredevil, a non-profit lawyer by day and crime-fighter by night, sees through his progressive rhetoric, and sets about sabotaging Fisk’s ruthless redevelopment projects, both legally and physically. By viewing Fisk’s violence from the perspective of Murdock, the series asks its audience to think seriously about the ethics of the uneven and increasingly unequal urban development that is happening all around them. That Daredevil’s “superhero” powers stem from the fact that he is blind, and has thus developed other heightened senses to defeat his opponents (such as his hearing and touch), again points to the whole series’ thematic engagement with the reconceptualisation, if not re-viewing, of the sociopolitical commentary that remains overlooked in other screen adaptations of the Marvel franchise.

This is just one of Daredevil’s brilliant alignments of a “superhero” aesthetics with an anti-capitalist politics, and the series is loaded with a set of powerful symbolic and thematic tropes that weave together into a complex narrative. Though the second series has yet to be confirmed, viewers should hope that the rich artistic potential of Marvel comics continues to be realised in this way, if only to counterbalance the continuing onslaught of the several more Hollywood-Marvel film adaptations that are already due to be released in the coming year.

Dominic Davies [1] has just completed his DPhil in English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.