Giving The Devil His Due: Diversity in Daredevil Season 1
I intentionally waited out the first two weeks before I signed back up for Netflix to see Marvel’s Daredevil. Turns out this was a wise decision. The show had such extraordinary viewership that for those first two weeks, it was hard to get a stream that didn’t buffer, or that loaded at all.
Unlike most fans, I didn’t binge watch. I just don’t marathon TV like I used to; I have learned to appreciate the delayed gratification. That turned out to be a wise decision as well. Going at two to three episodes at a sitting pace gave me time to settle into the MCU’s version of a character I haven’t been acquainted with in years. It also gave me time to mull over the things about the show that most struck and stuck with me.
Yes, Charlie Cox was by turns compelling, adorable and terrifying in the title role, especially since my greatest acquaintance with him is from Stardust — which is about as far from that role as he could get. Yes, Deborah Ann Woll was pretty and plucky as Karen Page, a distressed damsel turned secretary. Elden Henson was awkwardly charming and goofy as Franklin “Foggy” Nelson. Yes, I saw the foreshadowing for Elektra. But there are other aspects of the show that merit attention.
Kudos to Netflix for making the show accessible to the blind, so that blind people can enjoy a show that represents them. Unfortunately, the stunt and fight work are such that they could not have safely cast a blind actor in the titular role, I don’t think.
Beyond that safety consideration, the showrunner made an effort to do right by New York. It’s not an all white town as portrayed on other New York-centered shows like Friends. The city is home to people of every ethnicity, and the population of the show reflects that. Even the extras vary across the rainbow.
There are black people in the cast; not just one! You can literally count them on two hands: Brett Mahoney, Ben and Doris Urich, Detective Hoffman, Claire Temple (who is also Latina) and Turk Barrett (Rob Morgan). But they were all people with motivations, hopes, and dreams, except for Turk who, though stereotypical, was comic relief. They were also human. Daredevil doesn’t really rub elbows with the stranger or more cosmic characters of the Marvel universe, so black viewers have a show they can watch knowing they will see themselves represented without being obscured by makeup and prosthetics.
Claire (Rosario Dawson) is written as compassionate, savvy, smart, and sweet. She meets Matt because she’s a medical professional who can’t turn away when she sees someone who needs her help, even if it’s a dodgy situation. That compassion turns out to be her weakness, and it’s what brings her into the periphery of Matt’s world. A kid finds him battered but breathing in a dumpster. In the “not my prob” city of New York, many people would’ve shrugged and expected to read all about it in the paper. She couldn’t — or, more to the point, wouldn’t. She took her oath as a medical professional seriously, even against her better judgement. She stood by Matt when he proved to her that he was blind but not without gifts. Even when the violence splashed over onto her, she held her ground. When Matt’s charm began to draw her in, Claire was smart enough to know she couldn’t cope with the emotional risk of falling for him while he was still suiting up to protect his city then coming home battered, cut and torn. It’s very rare that a woman of color is portrayed as strong, brave, and smart enough to deny mutual attraction because she can read the writing on the wall that says THIS WAY LIES DISASTROUS HEARTBREAK. It’s even rarer that a woman of color is treated as worth respecting as well as worth appreciating. It’s almost unheard of that a black woman is treated as desirable. Matt didn’t try to convince her to stay, even though it is fairly obvious both of them find the other attractive. He respects her choices.
Sgt. Brett Mahoney (Royce Johnson) starts off as what seems a barely there bookend of a character. He and Foggy are old frenemies dating back to grade school, and their life choices have brought them into proximity again, since Brett is a cop and Foggy a lawyer. We know very little about Brett beyond that, other than that he faux-resents Foggy enabling his mother’s fondness for Cuban cigars. But the little more we learn about him as the season moves on becomes pivotal. In a precinct drastically compromised by dirty cops on Fisk’s dole, Mahoney is the one clean cop who can be trusted, even though he knows very well that standing against in-precinct corruption could endanger him. (Shades of ripped from the headlines!)
Newspaper reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) gets a race lift from the comics, where he’s a white man. His backstory is poignant in the places where we see him with his wife, Doris, gritty where he walks the street trying to ferret out facts, and solemnly sad where he and Karen Page try to build their big story. The part that most stayed with me was his relationship with his wife. It is a rare and beautiful thing to see a happily married black couple on TV, especially where it is obvious that they are deeply in love. The actors’ chemistry was so piquant that no suspension of disbelief was required.
Doris Urich (Adriane Lenox) herself was a tragic figure, placed in the story not only so Ben had love and motivation. She was the reflection of Marlene, the mother of Wilson Fisk. Both women suffered memory loss such that they’d lose the thread of the current moment. But where Marlene was adorably and frustratingly dotty, Doris’ lucid moments revealed not only the woman who Ben loved, but a mind with diamond cutting sharpness. Both women’s minds going was sad, but Doris’ was worse, because we could see glimpses of what she and Ben lost.
Detective Hoffman was compromised and fallen from grace, as one of many cops in Fisk’s pocket, but he was given an emotional core to work from. We got to watch him sweat when he was ordered to kill his partner and friend of 35 years. We got to see him agonize and vacillate between letting his friend live and saving his own skin. We got to see him sink into the emotional mire of cynicism to hide his grief and self-loathing when he made the cowardly choice. We even got to see his remorse, mitigated by the money having been enough to forswear his oath to the NYPD.
The six black characters are not the only non-whites in the series. There were Chinese and Japanese, and Latin@. Unfortunately, they were either Fisk’s partners in crime or victims thereof. Although we have that lamentable casting choice, the show still gets my respect for sharing their languages with the viewers in a more direct fashion than most shows. Claire spoke in Spanish to her neighbors. Elena did as well. Better yet, Matt and Karen spoke Spanish back. Even the subtitles were done respectfully. We got the translation of what was said, as opposed to the lazy and dismissive [speaks Spanish]. The same was true for when we saw people speaking Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, or Russian.
Then there’s the portrayal of women. Karen begins as a meek and terrified victim. She stays afraid, but uses it to fuel her rage at the rich and crooked screwing over the poor and marginalized. She despairs of being able to stand against all the money Fisk’s brought to bear, but it doesn’t stop her from doing what she can. She tries in her clueless, idealistic way to fight back. Like Matt, she sees her goal but doesn’t think through enough what steps need to be taken to get her there. Unlike Matt, she drowns her pain in alcohol, setting the stage for her to possibly go down a path similar to the one of her comic counterpart. The Karen of the comics page ended up a heroin addict.
Elena Cardenas (Judith Delgado), scrappy and irascible, stood her ground, chin held high, against a slumlord and greedy corporations, but when not in fight mode was sweet and motherly to Karen and Foggy. In the end, she was fridged — her death serving only to give angst to Matt, Foggy and Karen, but she was well enough developed that when I saw her death coming, there was a twinge, and I hoped to be wrong.
Marlene Vistain (Phyllis Somerville) née Fisk, Wilson’s mother, was as much a reflection of Elena as she was of Doris. She was motherly and sweet to her son, only becoming hard and tough to protect him. This multifaceted reflective positioning of characters gave the series a significant emotional core. Marlene is also the reason Fisk’s perpetual expression of discomfort softens the tiniest bit when he speaks of his favourite dessert; sharing it was a bonding moment for them.
Marci, Foggy’s ex, and a vicious high-powered lawyer for a prestigious firm, was Karen’s reflection — a woman who let her ideals and her soul drop in exchange for a big paycheck.
On the bad guys’ side of the equation, we have Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), who is unfortunately written as the Inscrutable Oriental trope. But she plays it cagey — she moves slowly and daintily, and she communicates with Fisk mostly through a translator until she chooses to speak with him otherwise. She is unfailingly polite, and how she treats others is based on whether they treat her with discourtesy. She is also one of the few people who is neither disturbed by the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen nor considers him a threat.
Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer) appears early in the series as a jaded but sly art dealer, who soon wins Fisk’s heart. She is curious about Wilson, only to be immediately dubious of his dealings when their date is interrupted. But instead of quailing meekly or simply shutting him out, she demands that he give her both his honesty and a good reason for her to continue allowing him in her presence. Their love story is a little rushed, to be honest, but she is both a strength to Fisk, who is abjectly uncomfortable with what the business world calls “soft skills”; and his greatest weakness, because she brings his emotions to the surface. There’s a quietly powerful scene in which she picks out his clothing for the day, and makes choices dramatically different from the ones he customarily makes. She also encourages him to step in front of the cameras, which helps him keep one step ahead of those trying to expose him for the brutal gangster he is.
With one wince-worthy exception, the violence against women on Daredevil — which is an unapologetically, almost gleefully violent show — avoided sexual violence. The one time it did portray sexual violence against a girl, it was entirely offscreen, described only in flashback, and stopping the assailant was one of the first steps in Matt’s journey and realization that the law isn’t always enough to help people in trouble. Several of his non-Fisk-related adventures involve him protecting women from muggers and thieves.
Is Daredevil a perfect show? It’s very good, but no, not perfect. The show couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether Masked Matt and Fisk were coming to blows over the little neighborhood Hell’s Kitchen or all of New York City.
At a meta-level, it was really unfortunate that The Daily Bugle was tied up with Sony Entertainment due to being Spider-Man related. We could’ve had J.K. Simmons back as J. Jonah Jameson, and added Robbie Joe Robertson to boot. Better still, the Ben’s boss scenes in the city room would’ve been that much better.
The good guys still trended white against the multiethnic crew of villains which was led by white Wilson Fisk at the top. The show is a little too enamoured of the beauty of its own fight choreography. There’s spectacular but entirely gratuitous parkour, and one can’t help but wonder if Matt buys his blind walking canes in bulk as often as he just tosses them away when it’s time to be a daring devil. It oversimplifies the duality of gentrification as viewed by the gentrifiers and those shoved out of their homes by it.
Mental illness as a disability was touched on mostly as a symptom of growing old, and inasmuch as it hurt and frustrated the men whose female relatives were diminished by it. The only non-pawn blind person in the show besides Matt was his mentor, Stick — who’s a bit of a Mighty Whitey — a white person, usually a man, who is better than non-whites at disciplines of their own culture. I’ve seen a lot of meta-discussion on whether Wilson Fisk (and his actor, Vincent D’Onofrio) is autistic. I can see that the character might qualify for being coded that way. It’s not exactly real representation.
Matt’s frequent injuries were played off as him being not only blind but an astonishing klutz, which doesn’t sit well, as those “I fell” excuses are usually given by the victims of intimate partner violence. Karen and Foggy’s frequent visits to the bar are played for laughs, despite Karen turning to alcohol more and more frequently over the course of the season. Karen is definitely starting to display signs of both post-traumatic stress and depression. There’s a lot of meta-level discussion and speculation as to whether Fisk is autistic, but there is no mention made of it.
There’s an unfortunate thread of Orientalism that goes through the show involving Nobu’s child trafficking and Gao’s sweatshop heroin operation. As Gao is the inscrutable and also the “Dragon Lady” stereotype, Nobu is the stereotype of the Japanese businessman who is also the Ninja.
Some of this is due to the intertwining nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s shows. The Asian aspects, however unfortunately they are portrayed here, are going to lead directly into Immortal Iron Fist — which we can only hope will do a better job. There were paranatural elements in Daredevil that are obviously going to be too much for the title character to deal with. The Black Sky episode in which Stick shows up used camera trickery to let the viewer know something extraordinary was happening. Gao took a moment to explain to a masked Matt that her employees were all blinded by their own hand after having witnessed something … and further hinted at nonhuman origins by telling Owlsley that her home was “considerably further” away than China. There’s also the fact that this tiny ancient woman did a palm strike that sent Matt flying and left him breathless on the floor.
The one praiseworthy thing that I can say about the Eastern characters in season one is that they all used their English as a second language as an advantage. They (and Fisk) often operated with or through translators when they could speak and understand English fluently. The linguistic ruses were meant by each side to keep the other off-balance or to cause one speaker to underestimate a listener who presumed that without a translator, there was no grasp of what was being said.
As season one wraps up, though, we’ve lost the majority of non-white characters. Nobu has died. Claire has departed (although we know she will show up again either in Daredevil or one of the other MCU shows). Detective Hoffman is in jail. Ben is dead, and Doris will likely not show up again given her failing health was a plot point. Madame Gao has returned to her homeland. Elena Cardenas is dead. Turk is in jail. So if the show is going to keep the good graces of the viewers who appreciate diversity, they will have a lot of gaps to fill with diverse characters in season two.
UPDATE: Added two sentences about the Daily Bugle and its staff being absent due to rights issues that I’d meant to include.