[Content Warning: Spoilers, descriptions of physical violence, examinations of violence against women and children, and images of fictional violence]
An unarmed, incapacitated man is repeatedly punched in the face. An unseen attacker pulls a man off his feet with a wire, choking him with it. A torture victim is thrown from the top of a five-story building. Taken out of context, these sound like the actions of a sinister movie villain, don’t they? Rather than some ne’er-do-well, these are all actions performed by the titular hero of Netflix’s Marvel series, Daredevil. We often find ourselves even cheering for these actions, as Daredevil takes down vicious thugs on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. This series, like most action movies and television shows, persuades us to rationalize, justify, and sometimes even enjoy the violence of our hero through a well-established cinematic language of tropes and psychological tricks that allow us to legitimize his violence.
Before I dive in, I should be clear that I love Netflix’s Daredevil. It has complex, interesting characters that struggle with the ethics of their choices. The lighting, sound, and cinematography is gorgeous, and far richer than most shows. Not to mention it stars a superhero protagonist who is truly “differently-abled” rather than just “disabled.” That said, the show still regularly relies upon violence to resolve conflicts like most superhero cinema. The way violence is portrayed in this genre often embodies a form of what Johann Galtung (1990) calls cultural violence, which is the symbolic elements in our social life that legitimize or justify direct and structural violence. This isn’t to say that these stories aren’t enjoyable or worthwhile, but we need to acknowledge the role they play in our collective imaginations, justifying violence as a response to social problems.
There are at least three main sets of tropes and tricks that we see used extensively in Season 1 of Daredevil: Asymmetries, Dehumanization, and Efficacy. So that we’re on the same page, let’s review the overall plot of the season in case you haven’t seen it or need a refresher.
Discovering the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen
Matthew Murdock is a newly-minted lawyer, who happens to be blind. He also happens to moonlight as a masked crimefighter, which the underworld and newspapers call the “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen,” and eventually, “Daredevil.” Thanks to his heightened senses of hearing, smell, taste, and touch, and extensive martial arts training, he can navigate the shadows and take down organized crime in the streets of New York City. The first season revolves around his efforts to take down a criminal network run by Wilson Fisk, also known as the Kingpin. He works his way through this network, fighting a Russian mafia gang, Chinese drug traffickers, Japanese Yakuza, and American criminals of all stripes. Eventually, through legal channels during the daytime and masked vigilantism at night, he and a group of civilians, including his friends Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, as well as the investigative reporter Ben Urich and nurse Claire Temple, take down Wilson Fisk’s criminal empire as Fisk is arrested and taken away to face justice.
One of the plot elements of this series that I enjoy is that Matt regularly reflects upon whether violence is the right approach, and will often attempt to use the rule of law instead to hold criminals accountable. There is also a poignant foil in Fisk throughout the series, as Fisk too originated in Hell’s Kitchen and has the same desire to make the city a better place – he just has no qualms about what methods he uses, resulting in him pursuing a takeover of the criminal underworld in order to bring the city under his control. In Season 2, we see other foils in the characters of Punisher, Elektra, and Stick, which is one of the reasons I will likely return to the series again in future essays concerning questions of violence. For now, let us consider, why do we, as the audience, feel like Daredevil’s violence is justified or legitimate, while Fisk’s violence is criminal and evil?
The first set of tropes that are regularly employed to enable us to root for Daredevil as he battles his way through the underworld is what I will call “asymmetries of violence.” This represents the many different ways that we are encouraged by the storytellers to think that Daredevil’s violence and the violence of criminals just isn’t the same. By drawing these contrasts before or during almost every battle we witness in the show, we are constantly being told, “It’s okay because Daredevil isn’t the same as these dangerous bad guys.”
Armed vs. Unarmed
One important asymmetry that we see frequently in the first season is that the criminals often use weapons, especially guns, while Daredevil enters many of these battles completely unarmed and never uses guns. This appears to place Daredevil in the position of the underdog in these fights, and American audiences have long been socialized to cheer for the underdog. There also appears to be the implication that while criminal violence has no limits, Daredevil’s violence is restrained and controlled, making it less threatening. Additionally, given Daredevil’s almost-supernatural fighting skills, the asymmetry of him being unarmed while his enemies are armed ensures that we see him as courageously fighting, rather than just a superhuman beating up normal people in an unfair way.
In many fights, even when his opponent starts without a weapon, they will often acquire a weapon during the course of the fight. An example of this comes at the end of the 3rd episode, during Daredevil’s fight with an assassin named Healy. Daredevil begins the fight, stalking and attacking Healy after he has been acquitted of murder, due to Matt’s own closing arguments in Healy’s defense as his attorney earlier that day. Healy doesn’t begin with a weapon, but picks up both a lead pipe and a broken piece of glass to defend himself during the fight. Interestingly, when Daredevil manages to pin Healy down, he turns the broken piece of glass against him using an armlock, meaning that Daredevil is able to threaten Healy with a weapon without actually holding the weapon. While it makes for a cool move in a fight scene, it also shows the lengths the storytellers will go to ensure we still see Daredevil on the unarmed side of this asymmetry.
Later in the season, Daredevil acquires his signature batons, which he does wield as a weapon. In these cases though, the asymmetry is often maintained by ensuring that his opponents have firearms and that there are a large number of them, or he is paired with a supernaturally skilled martial artist.
Who do we see strike first?
Upon rewatching season 1, I noticed an interesting choice by the directors: daredevil is almost never seen striking first or without warning. This is an asymmetry because it implicitly tricks us into thinking that, even when Daredevil plans out and starts a fight, he is more honorable because he didn’t throw the first punch or attack someone from behind. There are many different battles where he does strike first when an opponent’s back is turned, such as episode 2 where he assaults a Russian mafia hideout in order to rescue a kidnapped boy or when he rescues Claire from the Veles Taxi station in episode 4. In the case of the former, the shot pans back to the hallway after we see Daredevil burst through the door into a room of mobsters, so we never see him strike first. In the case of the latter, he is attacking from the shadows and we never actually see him as one henchman after another is taken down with their backs turned to him, until he finally emerges to engage in a final series of even fistfights.
This is even done with split-second timing in certain scenes. For example, when he attacks Healy in episode 3, Healy sees him in the reflection of the back window of his car, allowing him to turn and fight back right before Daredevil strikes. A scene where we do see him clearly strike first is in the first fight of the series, when he attacks Turk and a group of Russian human traffickers. Interestingly though, this scene employs many other tricks and tropes to rationalize it. First, he doesn’t strike Turk while his back is turned, but waits until Turk sees him. Second, we see Turk and the Russians abusing unarmed, kidnapped women beforehand, a form of the “kick the dog” trope we’ll talk about momentarily. Third, the asymmetry of weapons happens again, with the possible rationalization that Daredevil has to strike first because they are well-armed.
Minimizing vs. Maximizing Consequences
The third asymmetry I want to examine is the difference in how the directors, costume designers, and make-up artists chose to portray the consequences of the violence different people engage in. This asymmetry comes with the injuries suffered from Daredevil’s acts of violence being verbally and visually minimized, while the injuries caused by mobsters, Fisk, and other villains are explicitly shown and bloody.
The consequences of Daredevil’s actions are constantly minimized throughout the series. Almost every time he defeats a mobster or henchman in a fight, they are shown without much blood or visible injury, and we are either shown them moving slightly, getting up, or are told that they are alive in some other way. This minimizes the effects of the injuries these people sustain. Importantly, we know that if you are knocked unconscious by a blow to the head, this often will result in at least a concussion, and potentially a traumatic brain injury, which may lead to long-term impairment or disability, if not a coma or death. This is especially true if you are exposed to multiple concussions on the head, which Daredevil undoubtedly causes for some of his opponents.
This is visually contrasted with the violence committed by Daredevil’s enemies. We witness Healy, at the beginning of episode 3, shatter a man’s arm so that the bone is sticking out and then he is sprayed with blood from smashing in the man’s head with a bowling ball. Fisk is shown brutally beating Anatoly, one of the Russian mob bosses, into unconsciousness and then explicitly decapitating him by repeatedly smashing his head with a car door. Even the consequences of the attacks upon Daredevil, Claire, and Karen are maximized, with all of them having bloody wounds that need treatment afterward. We are also shown them suffering the pain of their injuries, whereas most of the henchmen Daredevil beats up are never seen again.
An interesting exception to this is Semyon, who Daredevil tortures and puts in a coma after throwing him off a building. First, we see Daredevil cut Semyon with a knife to torture him for information, which is minimized beforehand when Claire instructs him to do it (relieving him of some of the responsibility) and after she reassures us that it will be painful, but not lethal. Second, after Daredevil throws him off the building, the consequences are minimized in other ways. We are verbally reassured after the ac by Daredevil stating that he can hear Semyon’s heartbeat so he knows he’s alive. Additionally, Claire tells Daredevil and the audience that she doesn’t believe he enjoys the violence he engages in but does it out of necessity. Matt also expresses remorse about the consequences of this action in a later episode, something we rarely are allowed to see with villains. Finally, in the scene that allows us to see Semyon in the hospital, he dies after Anatoly and Vladimir wake him up with an injection, removing any lingering responsibility Daredevil has.
The next set of tropes and tricks that we should consider are those that use dehumanization in order to decrease our empathy and create emotional distance with the targets of Daredevil’s violence. This is often done by making us see the villains as the Other, someone we have trouble identifying with, like a stranger. Other times this is done by not giving us the opportunity to humanize them or empathize with them. Many of these are well-worn tropes within cinema, being echoed in James Bond movies, almost every 80’s action movie, and most other examples of superhero cinema.
Interchangeable, Anonymous Henchmen
A common way to decrease our empathy with villains is by giving the hero a large number of interchangeable, anonymous henchmen to beat up. These people are not given names or back-stories. We usually don’t even see them on screen long enough to remember their faces. This makes it very hard, if not impossible, to empathize with them. Think of the army of masked stormtroopers from the Star Wars movies – it doesn’t bother us when Luke blows up the Death Star, instantly killing 1.7 million military personnel.
One interesting aspect of the Daredevil series though, is how much time it gives to humanizing the major villains of the show. For example, we spend an entire episode with Fisk looking at art and going out on a date before we ever see him commit violence. Anatoly and Vladimir, the Russian mafia brothers, are shown struggling to escape torture from a Siberian gulag. This is also usually balanced out with visible, brutal violence committed by these characters though, such as Fisk’s decapitation of Anatoly or the brothers breaking off ribs from a corpse to make weapons.
Kick the Women and Children
Kick the Dog is a well-established cinema trope for coding a character as a “bad guy” who we don’t need to bother empathizing with. This is sometimes done by having the character be cruel to a helpless animal, like a dog, or by being violently cruel to other characters who have been coded as vulnerable, such as children. In Daredevil, this is most often done using kidnapped women and children, who are often unarmed and tied up.
This happens before the very first fight scene, with Turk and a group of Russian mobsters shoving, hitting, and using a cattle prod on a group of unarmed women who have been kidnapped. Importantly, these women are shown as fearful, unable to fight back, and vulnerable. By showing us these henchmen committing explicit, unnecessary cruelty, the storytellers communicate to us that we don’t need to know anything more than the fact that these are violent, dangerous people that must be stopped. It’s a form of cinematic shorthand for “These are bad guys.”
We also see this with the faceless henchmen that Daredevil attacks in episode 2, after they kidnap a child. While we don’t see them directly engaging in violence towards the child, we do see them beat his father while they kidnap him screaming in fear. And while we never see the room he is kept in, the locked door and doorway we are shown is dirty and decrepit, suggesting that he is being kept in bad conditions. A kidnapper also brings him food casually and leaves without talking with or caring about the child. Once more, we are cheering for Daredevil as he bashes his way through this gang.
Accents and Ethnicity
Probably the most troubling way that we are made to dehumanize those on the receiving end of Daredevil’s violence in season 1, is the way the storytellers use accents and ethnicity to “other” them to an American audience. When we hear someone speak our own language or in our own accent, it becomes very easy to identify and empathize with them. On the other hand, giving a character a foreign accent, having them only speak in a foreign language without subtitles, or coding them as ethnically different creates more emotional distance between them and (presumably) the target audience of White Americans.
To be honest, I didn’t notice this the first time I watched the show, as the ethnicity of the henchmen and villains is justified within the story. Fisk has brought together a criminal underworld of international mafias and organized crime that traffics people and smuggles goods across borders, so it makes sense when see Daredevil fighting Russian mobsters or Japanese yakuza. But the consistency with which this done, both to signal which group the henchmen belong to and to quickly Other them, is a problem.
The best way to illustrate this is to once more consider Semyon, the man Daredevil tortures. When we first see this character, he comes to the door of the apartment in which Claire is hiding Daredevil from the Russians. He appears like a clean-cut White American detective in a suit, with a badge, who identifies himself as “Detective Foster,” an Anglo-sounding name. He speaks in a formal, but stereotypical New Yorker accent. Later, after Daredevil has knocked him unconscious and tied him up on the roof, all of this changes.
As Daredevil begins his interrogation, Detective Foster is now speaking with a Russian accent out of nowhere. I suspect I didn’t notice this the first time, because we only see him speak briefly during the earlier scene, and we hear him speaking in Russian on the phone before being knocked unconscious, allowing our mind to conflate the two. The fact that he magically develops an accent right before we watch Daredevil begin to torture him for information is telling. Additionally, changes in costume and lighting result in him going from a pale complexion to a darker complexion, as well as suddenly having curly hair.
The reason I say this is one of the most troubling tropes used is that it appears to reinforce a history of racism and ethnocentrism in American cinema, where we dehumanize and justify violence against people of color more easily than white people. I was especially bothered by how easily it flew under my radar, operating in the storytelling without me even taking notice on my first viewing. An equally disturbing message comes from the way the torture Daredevil uses is portrayed.
An important element of how cultural violence functions to enable violence is the narrative it tells us about what violence is capable of. If we believe that violence can work to achieve the result we want, it is easy to begin thinking that the ends justify the means. On the other hand, if we realize that we can make mistakes in who we use violence against or that violence often can’t solve problems, then violence begins to seem a lot less justified.
Violence Solves Problems
This series has an inconsistent message about whether or not violence can solve the problems that drive the conflict of the plot forward. For example, in episode 4, Matt expresses regret over the violence and pain he is causing, and acknowledges that it doesn’t seem to be making things any better. But Claire tells him, and us, the audience, that what he is doing saved her life and the life of the kidnapped boy from episode 2. At the same time, Daredevil’s violence leads the criminals he is fighting to become even more violent towards innocent bystanders, such as when they kidnap the boy to bait Daredevil or torture Claire in order to find out more about him.
An interesting aspect to Matt’s double life is that often he only succeeds in taking down the villains of the show, such as Fisk, through a combination of vigilante justice and working as a lawyer within the criminal justice system. This often makes for an ambiguous message, as the plot suggests that both the violent and non-violent tactics he employs are necessary and effective. Of course, this is partially because it helps create dilemmas in the story’s conflict, helping enrich the plot. But we should consider that it might lead the audience to take away the narrative that vigilante violence works and can be a legitimate way to bring criminals to justice.
One of the most egregious cases of this is Semyon’s torture. Daredevil first knocks him unconscious, causing a severe concussion that leaves him bleeding on the floor. Then, Daredevil and Claire tie up Semyon on the roof. Their goal is to find out where the kidnapped boy has been taken so they can rescue him. While Semyon is bound and unable to defend himself, Daredevil beats him and threatens to kill him. Claire tells Daredevil to use a knife to cut Semyon above the temple in order to cause intense pain along a sensitive nerve. When they still don’t get the information they want from him, Daredevil dangles Semyon off the edge of the building, threatening to drop him. Finally, Semyon gives up the location, only for Daredevil to then throw him off the building to fall five stories into a dumpster, putting him in a coma.
This scene reinforces the belief that torture works, despite the fact that many intelligence agencies and armies don’t use torture as a method of interrogation because it is ineffective (Burke, 2017). Often, victims will tell the interrogator anything – including things that aren’t true – in order to make the torture stop. In real life, they often use other tactics that are more effective, such as playing to the target’s ego to get them to brag about the things that you want to know more about. Beyond the question of its efficacy, torture often has many unintended consequences, such as putting other people at risk of similar treatment in retaliation and de-legitimizing one’s own goals in the public eye. So the fact that Daredevil is able to get accurate and actionable information that helps him rescue the boy by using torture sends a dangerous message to the audience, reinforcing similar images from many other movies and shows.
Daredevil is always right
Another feature of Daredevil’s violence is that he is never really wrong in his choice to resort to it. He never accidentally assaults an innocent person, unlike the many innocent bystanders killed each year by police violence (For an example, see: Madhani, 2018). Using his super-senses, he can listen to a person’s heartbeat to know with certainty whether or not they are telling the truth, despite the fact that research has shown using a polygraph to measure heart rate is an unreliable, or even misleading, method of lie detection (American Psychological Association, 2004). Of course, this often serves a useful storytelling role, helping us advance the plot in ways that would be difficult otherwise and allowing us to see Daredevil as consistently heroic. In fact, this is one of the contrasts between Daredevil and the villains he faces, as they sometimes make mistakes in who they use violence against and kill innocent bystanders in pursuit of their goals.
Legitimizing Heroic Violence
The storytelling tools used to legitimize heroic violence should give us pause. It is true that these tricks and tropes are useful parts of the cinematic language that allows us to suspend disbelief and enjoy the heroic fantasy of a superhero story. As these narratives intersect and reinforce each other though, they add up to beliefs that guide our behaviors and our sense of what is a legitimate response to conflict and social problems. If we come to believe that violence by those we perceive as heroes is reliable, efficacious, different than what criminals do, and not as serious in its consequences as it really is, it becomes easy to support and justify violence as an approach to conflict. Worse yet, if cultural violence reinforces habits of thinking that enable us to put emotional distance between us and those that experience violence, systemic violence such as racism and xenophobia become far more palatable.
I wouldn’t want to argue that the makers of this show intentionally are looking to justify and legitimize various forms of violence, as they are as much children of our shared cinematic culture as any of us. Instead, we should revisit violence in our media and reconsider how it might influence the way we see the world. The stories we enjoy influence the stories we tell ourselves about our actions and society, and affect what actions we see as legitimate or justified when faced with a problem. Even Matthew Murdock confesses to his priest that there is a devil inside of him, and maybe we should listen when he tells us he knows there is something problematic with the choices he makes.
[All images are believed to belong to the original copyright holders, including Marvel and Netflix, and are employed here under the belief that they abide by fair use standards for educational purposes.]
Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3), 291-305.