Daredevil Season 2 Review

This weekend I posted the following Twitter review of Daredevil Season 2, which runs on Netflix:

To which one of my twitter followers responded that it's not gore-porn if the characters who are perpetrating it are someone morally-averse to whatever it is they are doing.  I think this is a bizarre approach to this topic, and so I am going to briefly expand my review and then talk about what "pornography" is, and how it applies to this topic.

First, Daredevil Season 2.  You know: when we watch Agents of SHIELD on Disney/ABC, what we are getting is the worst possible mix of TV mashed up with existing comics canon. The show is based on a concept which, frankly, was dated when it was in its hey-day: the idea that there is a secret security agency which is both obscure and global, high-tech and invisible, which has both airborn cities (Helicarriers) and elusive but effective agents -- and the update is such a mash-up of throw-away Marvel characters and plot lines that it simply has nothing to rise up to or fill in.  What we get from Marvel/Netflix, on the other hand, is something else.

My take from my jaded perch is that Netflix is sort of covering the old "Marvel Knights" line in terms of content and tone, which means the world is ultimately more realistic/noir than the mainstream movies, and more concerned with entertaining people older than 12 with characters and settings that people who have lived past their first teenaged crush can somewhat relate to.  I have absolutely no qualms with this in theory, and I think that the actual plotting of the 2 seasons of DD and the single season of JJ so far have delivered were compelling.  By a long shot, these stories are the most engrossing Marvel storytelling maybe ever -- but DD in particular has been marred by one thing in particular: hyper-violence and graphic depictions of mutilation and injuries.

So for what I have left to write here, let me offer just a few items: a definition, a distinction, a disclaimer, and a direction.

The definition is this: the standard definition of "pornography" is "sexually explicit videos, photographs, writings, or the like, whose purpose is to elicit sexual arousal."  When I co-opt that term to say "gore-porn," I use it to mean "explicitly-violent videos, photographs, writings, or the like, whose purpose is to elicit a cathartic response to violence."  "Gore-porn" is when anyone creates a scene in a movie or TV show which has the obvious purpose to make the violence into a spectacle, and that spectacle has two consequences: an initial gross-out of the audience followed by a desensitizing which causes the audience to want more of the same in more extreme form to get the same response.  There's no narrative reason for the scene to be that explicit -- in fact, the horror the scene creates could be made more poignant but being more subtle.  For example, in the Diner when Frank Castle mutilates a hit man to get information on the Blacksmith, the camera stays on the torture, the punching, the violence -- when the single cut to Karen in the back room listening to the violence and her reaction to it is far more telling than the special effects showing how the man is physically destroyed.  In the scene where Stick is torture by Yakuza, we are forced to watch them use WWII torture techniques on him rather than to merely watch Scott Glenn's face tell us the story in a more personal way.  The story is not advanced by one iota when we are forced to watch the violence, but it s there rather to do something else with the story which, I think, is artistically cheap and morally low.

The distinction I would make here is between the graphic depiction of violence and admitting that violent acts are part of this story.  The one place I would point to in 2 seasons of DD to make this point is in Season 1 when Matt goes into the gang hideout to save the young boy being held hostage and has to fight his way through the final hallway to get to the room the boy is in.

That fight scene is undeniably brutal -- and about half of it happens off camera with sound effects.  Most of the real drama is to see that as the fight progresses, Matt Murdock is clearly spent on the fight -- he gives every ounce of whatever he has to give physically to get to the end of the hall and seek to save the boy.

The difference between that scene and, for example, the scene is season 2 where we look into the mob hang-out that has been shot up by Frank Castle and the establishing shot is made through a large-caliber bullet hole in a victim's corpse ought to be obvious, but I am afraid that it is not to most people.  The violence associated with the Punisher does not merely have a higher death count: it has a far more graphic nature, with more gore and more blood, and human bodies are treated worse than meat.

"Yes, Frank," says the fan of this show who disagrees with me, "but this is actually the point, no? Aren't the showrunners trying to get us to think of the Punisher as a brutal animal who treats his victims are worse than meat?"  Let me say this: we know because of the way Karen Page relates to Frank Castle that this is categorically untrue.  Frank Castle is rather supposed to be a man pressed to the final limit of the human longing for justice, and is willing instead to seek vengeance instead since justice is often too meek for his taste. The way they treat the victims of Frank Castle rather stands in the way of us seeing him the way we finally see him in the final episode as a true enemy of evil.

Having said all that, my disclaimer is this: I am pretty confident that not all violence is naturally excluded from artistic portrayal. (that in itself prolly deserves its own blog post)  All violence is not excluded from art, but let me suggest that it is one thing for us to know that Oedipus has dug out his eyes and another to watch him dig out his eyes.  There is a way to do what ought to be done to advance the story and there are many other ways to stain the story with gratuitous portrayals of violence which do nothing but treat the viewer as if he or she is watching live gladiator combat.

Finally, my direction forward to better art in these Marvel Netflix series is pretty simple: they should try harder to tells the story visually rather than create a spectacle of violence.  The stories themselves are rather complex and interesting without the blood splattering and the open wounds getting the center of the shot for minutes on end.  I admit that some violence is really necessary to tell these stories, but there is a difference between showing the physical cost of the conflict between Matt Murdock and his adversaries and dwelling on the clinic extent of his wounds, as if watching his injuries being sticked up advances the plot or story one iota.


Daniel said...

How did Isaiah put it?

"Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings? He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe,who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he will dwell on the heights; his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks; his bread will be given him; his water will be sure." (cf. Isaiah 33: 14b-16).

I am inclined to conclude that the depiction of gore and brutal violence in a movie falls under the umbrella noted above; even more so since if these are sensationalized and magnified for cinematic effect. Making brutality cool has some brow-raising, Pavlovian undertones. If we refuse to exercise genuine discretion such that our conduct and our confession are not in unity, our conscience will suffer guilt; assuming it isn't already too seared to do so.

I do not comment as though I am perfect either; I've watched all kind of trash in the name of entertainment. But by God's grace I am sensitive to this sort of thing, and I am glad for it.