Marvel’s Daredevil is proof that we, unlike the show’s title character, don’t have an ethical code of conduct when it comes to our entertainment
by Daven Mathies
Disclaimer: this contains spoilers for Daredevil. If you have not seen the show and plan on doing so, I advise stopping here. Come back when you’ve watched it; it should take you 24 hours or so to binge your way through both seasons on Netflix. (Only slightly kidding.)
Daredevil, the superhero alter-ego of soft-spoken, visually-impaired lawyer, Matt Murdock, is a vigilante who cares about his enemies. That is to say, he doesn’t kill them. Despite spending his nights fighting the crime that NY’s finest can’t stop, he still believes in the justice system. He doesn’t mind handing over an incapacitated baddie to his detective friend and letting him take the credit.
And if Mr. Murdock can represent said baddie in court later, all the better. Wait, that’s not really a code of ethics so much as it is a vertically-integrated business strategy. Whatever, that’s another topic for another time, I guess.
As for Daredevil not killing his enemies, though, this poses two major problems for a television show that sells itself on kung-fu action sequences and mature-audiences-only levels of violence.
The first is elementary: a code of conduct that doesn’t allow for murder but does allow for repeated face-kicking, occasional light torture, scare tactics, death threats, et cetera, isn’t really an ethical code, is it?
Like, okay, I didn’t kill you, but now you have irreversible brain damage. I’m probably still a bad guy in that situation. The defense, “Hey, I could have killed you, but I didn’t!” won’t really hold up.
Of course, the show doesn’t bother to explore the long-term negative effects of being beaten to a pulp by the Daredevil (can anyone say spinoff?), so we are left to believe that his enemies (victims?) simply wake up from a deep sleep sometime later, pop a few aspirin, and choose to lead better lives. Or maybe they wake up in jail. Either way, justice has been served, and that’s all there is to that.
The show actually does a decent job of asking what happens to all these bad guys once they’re back on the streets, and Daredevil himself questions the efficacy of his actions — but he always stands firm in his code.
And here lies the second issue: that code just isn’t satisfying for viewers. The show gives us incredibly violent enemies, and we want to witness incredible violence being done against them in return. Daredevil may not want blood, but we certainly do. We are not bound by a code. We willingly gaze on in voyeuristic anticipation of the next kill.
Hence, the Punisher. Hence, Elektra. Hence, Stick — all “good guys” who are willing to kill. Oh sure, Daredevil objects to their methods by whining to them for a moment, but it’s an argument he always loses — he loses it with Stick in season 1, he loses it with the Punisher and Elektra in season 2. Every time he tries to argue his case, he rolls over. In fact, in season 2’s climactic final battle, I’d say he’s even warmed up to the idea of his friends killing people because, you know what, it really helps him out, and it’s not like he changed at all. He’s still not killing people.
Here’s what I believe: Punisher is a crutch. Elektra is a crutch. Stick is a crutch (and has a fitting name for it). They are a toolset the writers can call on when they want to treat the viewers to the glory of gore, to justice unrestrained, Boondock Saints style. It’s how they give us what we really wanted in the first place. And it allows them to do it without sacrificing the core ethical code of the their title character and, in turn, the core ethical code of the show itself.
Of course, a code that restrains the protagonist but lets the supporting characters go to town isn’t really an ethical code, is it?
But look, the issue is not that the show is violent. Like I said, we want violence, it’s what we signed up for. But there’s just something off, dishonest even, about letting the worst violence take place only on the periphery of your main character. It’s like the show’s creators are afraid of acknowledging the reality of the world they’ve made, and the hard questions that might arise if Daredevil was let loose.
But do they really think they’re protecting him? Do they think they’re protecting their show? Do they think people won’t like Daredevil if he kills, even in self-defense?
Because let me tell you, right now, we’re all practically in love with the Punisher. And Elektra. And of course Stick, who gave us a collective orgasm when he showed up unexpectedly and cut Nobu’s head off in the season 2 finale.
Daredevil, the character, can continue to pretend he follows an ethical code, but let’s stop pretending that Daredevil, the show, abides by any such thing. We, the audience, won’t allow it to. We’re out for blood.