TV

What Netflix’s Crazy-Bloody Hit ‘Daredevil’ Tells Us About TV’s New Wave Of Ultra-Violence

Marvel’s new TV series is a gore-fest, but it’s not alone.

The April premiere of new comic book series Daredevil on Netflix saw the beginning of Marvel Studios’ second expansion into television. Having conquered the blockbuster market with The Avengers in 2012, Marvel took its first tentative steps into home programming by spinning off that film into the indifferently received Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Another spin-off, Agent Carter, featuring characters from Captain America, followed as a limited series in January.

If Daredevil’s first season is any indication, Marvel is taking advantage of Netflix’s premium cable-style programming standards to branch off in a rather less family-friendly direction. This new show has a gritty edge that’s closer to Game of Thrones than Thor. Daredevil may not have the deluxe budget of Thrones, but it has the same willingness to go to some dark places.

Dark being the operative word here, since Daredevil is both dimly lit and enormously violent. Which is fitting since Daredevil—a.k.a. lawyer Matt Murdock—is both blind and addicted to punishment. Gifted with special heightened senses after a car accident that took his eyesight, Murdock dons ninja gear at night and battles corruption and crime in his beloved Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York City. His antagonist is the huge, bald, secretive real-estate magnet Wilson Fisk (known in the comics as The Kingpin).

That superhero stories have always had a sneaky, fascistic undertone has long been noted.  But there’s something else going on here other than just the vicarious thrill of vigilante justice.  Daredevil represents the latest step in a gradual loosening of restrictions on TV violence. And, along with its cohort of similarly brutal programs like Game of Thrones, it represents a vision of the role of violence in civil society that’s less power-fantasy and more of a through-a-glass-darkly take on the moral authority of political institutions.

A Gory Affair

Take away Murdock’s special radar-sense baloney and his real super power is just being unusually resilient when it comes to getting the crap beaten out of him. The show’s action scenes, of which there are many, mostly take the form of knock-down, drag-out brawls in which Murdock takes on a succession of Fisk’s henchmen and associates, all of whom seem to have had martials arts training.

The MVP of the show is Vincent D’Onofrio, beloved former Detective Goren and legendary weirdo actor, as Fisk.  In D’Onofrio’s hands, The Kingpin is a socially awkward, thin-skinned mama’s boy, and although his grand scheme is basically a plot to gentrify Hell’s Kitchen, he’s still a tough nut to crack. Like his counterpart in the comics, Fisk’s substantial bulk conceals several sumo wrestlers’ worth of brawn, and D’Onofrio is alarming when he’s finally called to wrath. He bellows like a bull, charges head down, and swings his massive arms like pistons, giant-baby head all crinkled up in fury.

 

Daredevil’s writers keep this capacity for violence at a low simmer, until an episode four rampage wherein Fisk decapitates a Russian mobster using only the repeated application of a car door. This gory affair isn’t even the high water mark for brutality on the show. Hell’s Kitchen is like the Wild West on meth. Murdock tortures a guy by stabbing into his brain through his eye, and then dropping him off a building. One henchman, terrified that he has betrayed Fisk, slams his own head down on a spiked fence, driving it into his brain.

Brutalised Bodies And Dismembered Corpses

I see no point in being especially critical about the level of violence in Daredevil—superheroes gotta fight somehow, I guess—but watching the show did solidify for me that there is a new accepted norm for extreme content in television. Like most things in this Golden Age of TV, its origins can probably be traced back to The Sopranos, which carved the path later tread by shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad.

Once we’d seen Tony Soprano strangle a guy while on vacation with his daughter, or—in one of the most unsettling moments ever to occur on TV—seen Ralph Cifaretto beat his pregnant girlfriend to death outside a strip club, it was clear that some kind of dam had broken. Graphic violence (and sexuality) came to be de rigueur for so-called prestige television, along with anti-heroic, morally-tortured male protagonists. But I think the most recent transition came with arrival of Game of Thrones, which took this extended license afforded to extreme content, and transplanted it into an unrepentantly genre setting.

(Via Buzzfeed.)

For all its Realpolitik-ing, Thrones has few pretensions to significance. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and The Wire were, at least, fine-grained character studies, or extended critiques of contemporary society. Thrones has less on its mind, but by taking up the trapping of prestige drama it lent a new weight and heft to genre fun. Its enormous success has meant that extreme violence is now a regular feature in genre products that previously never needed it. And this trend is not restricted to cable television, or to Netflix.

Network television in the United States, which has for so long been conservative in content, has eased into this new accepted norm. Perhaps aided by the popularity of crime shows like CSI and NCIS—which in their own way, have made brutalised bodies and dismembered corpses a familiar sight—network drama is branching out into Thrones-style violence.

Game of Thrones But, You Know, For Kids

At least, that was what occurred to me as I watched the young-adult-ish, sci-fi drama The 100, which airs on The CW in the US, and on Fox8 in Australia. As we devoured the show, my housemates and I took to calling it Game of Thrones Junior. That’s about all the description you need, except that ‘junior’ implies something more innocent, which The 100 is most definitely not. Although it doesn’t have the production values to match HBO’s flagship behemoth, The 100 equals that show in the confidence of its twisty plotting, and in the brutality of events that befall its characters.

Based on a novel by Kass Morgan, The 100 begins in a pretty juvenile mode reminiscent of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. In a dystopian future the final remnants of humanity live on in a rickety old space station orbiting an Earth devastated by nuclear conflict. With the longevity of their space station in doubt, humanity’s leaders decide to send a shuttle full of one hundred teen criminals (adult criminals are summarily executed, natch) down to Earth to see if it can be habitable again.

So far, so very YA. But the show moves fast and has more on its mind than the agonies of adolescence. Once the teens learn, predictably, that Earth is less uninhabited than assumed, the narrative spins out into a gory, stomach-churning drama about different tribes of people fighting for survival in a barbaric setting where might regrettably equals right.

The troubled white male figure is symptomatic of the new era of prestige TV, but preppy blond protagonist Clarke (and other women in the show) more than holds her own in the anti-hero stakes. By the end of season two her moral compass has made several full rotations, and there’s enough blood on her hands to make even Tony Soprano blanch.

Although it is produced for youth-skewing network The CW, The 100 is brutal as hell. There’s a level of explicitness to the violence that exceeds even Daredevil, and which is a far cry from the bland, over-choreographed fight scenes featured in the analogous action shows of my youth, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

By the end of the first episode one recurring character gets a spear in the chest. Later, another gets stabbed in the neck by a prepubescent girl, while another massacres a village of women and children. There’s basically no limit to what a character on The 100 will do for survival, up to and including torture, extra-legal execution, and mass murder.

A State of Violence

Every so often cultural critics like to come along and wring their hands about violence in the media, and what it all means, and what it’s doing to our children. There isn’t always a particularly interesting answer to these sorts of questions, and I’m not totally certain there is one here. Mass audiences change, tastes evolve, and standards shift. That violent TV has been greeted with economic success is maybe all that needs to be said to account for the progression of violence from The Sopranos, to Game of Thrones, to Daredevil and The 100.

But thematic similarities in this new breed of shows also help to explain the escalation of TV violence they embody. In Game of Thrones, extreme violence—the decapitations, throat cuttings, and skull crushings—is used to underline its central thematic thrust: that power in Westeros is entirely depended on the strength and cruelty of those who wield it.

The contest for the Iron Throne is founded on violence and cunning; not on any notions of moral right. In the same way, survival in The 100 is entirely dependent on warfare, and the moral correctness of all the savage acts Clarke and company commit is forgotten when their lives are on the line. In Daredevil, too, Hell’s Kitchen is depicted as its own little fiefdom, where Murdock and Fisk battle for its future using any means necessary. Traditional state power, where it exists, is corrupt, or almost useless – Fisk has many of the police, press, and even a senator on his payroll.

Across Australia and the US, it feels like faith in civil institutions is at a low. Where government is inefficient, unresponsive to public opinion, and unwilling to behave in a morally responsible manner, it’s not surprising that we’d start to see stories that engage with the suspicion that politics is, at bottom, just a racket for the violent and unprincipled. As this suspicion intensifies, so does the brutality of its expression in popular culture.

In Daredevil, Thrones, and The 100, the primitive and brutal mechanisms of power that underwrite state authority are in lurid view. Although these three shows stretch from a fantastic medieval past, to an alternate present, to a science fiction future, in their paroxysms of violence and in their vision of societies organising themselves by the sword, they each reflect back to us a funhouse mirror image of deep political skepticism.

James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas.