I give Netflix’s Daredevil full credit for depicting interpersonal violence as a far more brutal and filthy activity than most any contemporary mainstream entertainment does. The protagonist Matt Murdock doesn’t KO thugs with one punch in the telegenic and antiseptic fashion one typically sees in action-oriented popular media. He slams guys into walls, knocks them down, then puts a knee in their chests and pounds away at their faces, left-right-left-right, until their noses shatter, their orbitals fracture, and their teeth rattle loose under shredded lips. The show pairs every strike with wet, crunchy Foley-work wincingly suggestive of human flesh and bones becoming pulverized through acute trauma. The camera lingers over the way the blood mingles between the bad guys’ mangled bodies and Murdock’s gore-soaked, ever-skinned knuckles.
As such, this show owns its violence in a way I haven’t seen even within the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let alone the rest of American-produced television, and it earns my respect for that. While I do wish to raise an objection about Daredevil’s violence, the problems I see arise less from the violence itself than from the particular ends towards which the protagonist applies his fists.
Crucially, the victims of Murdock’s wrath stay conscious through all his ministrations, a necessity for his key investigative technique: torturing information out of people. I don’t have any more apt way to describe it. Throughout the whole first season, again and again, once Murdock has cornered his next source, he pounds on them — sometimes maiming their prone bodies and faces with knives as well — until they say what he wants to hear. If he accidentally kills them, our hero CPRs them back to life so that the interview might continue. When it’s finished, he disposes of them; in one case, he drives an interlocutor to immediate suicide, leaving his body for the city to clean up.
Now, to a point, I found this as riveting as I did disturbing. I would love to watch a TV show that takes a more frank look at comic-book-action violence than what we usually get, showing us all the ugliness and repercussions involved, and Daredevil delivers to a surprising degree. That said, I find it hard to overlook the fact that this show so casually vectors the meme that torture works. Everyone Murdock chooses to torture possesses actionable intel of immediate relevance to his current mission. They always divulge it after he applies sufficient pain and harm to their helpless bodies, and it never leads him astray.
Maybe if official representatives of my country hadn’t spent spent a significant portion of the century-so-far illegally detaining and torturing people in real life to absolutely no tactical purpose, whether actual persons of interest or unlucky randoms caught up in battlefield sweeps, I would feel less sensitive to such casual dissemination of this notion. As it is, though, I find the presence of this meme within the MCU, an otherwise intelligent and rewarding Great Work of modern entertainment, extremely disappointing. I don’t think that watching Daredevil will compel viewers to start torturing people themselves, or anything so crass at that. But I do assert that it offers real-world succor to a fascistic, extrajudicial aspect of culture that should have died in America with the end of the last Bush presidency. I firmly believe that media which perpetuate this meme directly assist it in staying alive within our culture, and I find that irresponsible and gross.
(A perhaps necessary aside: In the fiction of Daredevil, Murdock possesses a flawless lie detector due to his preternatural ability to read the emotional state of anyone nearby through hearing and interpreting their heartbeats. Thus, he can afford to just keep whaling away on a given interview subject until their heart rate matches that of a truth-teller. This works as a concept only if, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, human circulatory physiology works in such a way that someone’s heart rate will remain at unelevated levels so long as they utter truthful statements — even if an enraged costumed gentleman is actively engaged in smashing their ribs with a club. I can’t buy this, and can only beg the pardon of those for whom Murdock’s super-hearing provides adequate explanation for his ability to torture with perfect efficiency.)
In one of the first season’s latter episodes — I tell you, I did watch and enjoy the whole thing, poison pill and all — Murdock decides to invest in body armor of some sort. A rational goal, given his hobbies, but his next steps towards it defy reason a bit: he suspects that his nemesis, Fisk, wears armor under his clothes, so he proceeds to find some random schmuck on the nearest rooftop and thrash him while demanding that he reveal the secret of Fisk’s custom tailoring. The flunky saves himself from being hurled off the roof by shouting “Body armor! Yeah! I can tell you about that!”
Now, this would have been the perfect time to have Murdock learn a lesson about the unreliability of information gained under duress. I would have forgiven much of the earlier-season ugliness had the show taken this tack, sending Murdock on a fruitless hunt based on the desperate ramblings of the rooftop guy, who, like literally every torture victim ever in the real world, just said whatever he thought his torturer wanted to hear in order to save himself from more pain. Instead, one scene later, Murdock immediately finds the guy responsible for Fisk’s armor, and beats him until he agrees to make a suit of armor for Murdock as well. And I found that quite a let-down.
So, Daredevil: I liked it, on balance. I really did find fascination in its uniquely unpretty portrayal of one man punching another man in the head, arguably among the most important and irreducable core actions of typical superhero fiction. The show also contains some surprisingly subtle acting and rich characterization. I just find deep misfortune that all this must come paired with a utter failure to own up to its embrace of a pro-torture meme provably incorrect on both factual and moral grounds.