Heroes and Villains and Daredevil

In superhero shows, the hero is generally more boring than the villains. The villains are all manner of interesting or eccentric, while the hero has to play the boring, morally good foil for their absurdity. Along this same line, the interesting heroes are the ones who flit along the morally grey area. Batman instead of Superman; Wolverine instead of Cyclops. Yet one of the commonalities in the waves of superhero films and shows, the tendency is to dedicate the overwhelming majority of the screen time to the good guys–in a story of heroes and villains, it wouldn’t do to heroize the villains (there are other media for that). The villain, still often the more interesting character, appears enough to establish that s/he is evil and to advance the plot, but the focus is on the hero. The hero has his or her origin story, the various training sequences, the humanizing moments, and, ultimately, solving the mystery or problem that the villain lays out. I am generalizing here, of course, and it helps when the hero is attractive, charismatic, and all-around engaging, both as the alter-ego and in persona–and this is best accomplished with good writing and casting.

Recently, I have taken to watching the superhero shows as the come up on Netflix, including Arrow, Daredevil, and Agents of Shield. Each show has its own strengths and weaknesses and scope, with Agents of Shield being the most ambitious in terms of placing its narrative within a broader universe, both because it is set to work in conjunction with the second Avengers movie and because it has the largest cast of heroes whose stories we are following, but it rarely derives conflict from the tension between the person and the secret identity. There are betrayals, yes, but the tension is from the interpersonal conflicts. In contrast, the ego/alter-ego tension is exactly where Arrow gets most of its conflict and, in turn, the focus on the villains is how they are conspiratorial and menacing.

But the inspiration for these musings is Daredevil, which spends nearly as much time telling the stories of the villains as it does the hero. In the first few episodes, that screen time is dedicated to telling Matt Murdock’s origin story–his relationship with his dad, how he became blind–but that particularly story arc falls away quickly. Instead of focusing on his training or even his relationships (it is fairly exceptional for him to spend time with his law partner), much of the time is dedicated to developing the villains and their enterprises. The irony here is that these same criminals are generally mean and lacking in criminal charms. The show tries to find a balance between heroes who save people by amoral means and villains who hurt people, some for money, others who claim to do so in order to improve the world. So far, Daredevil seems to be trying to capture a noir ambiance, with all characters being human and flawed, but the villains frankly aren’t very interesting.

There is more to Daredevil than how the screen time is divvied up, of course, and the split pushes the show away from being a character study. (I heard one complaint that the show moves along slowly and, while the ambiance tends to be sluggish and deliberate, the plot moves pretty quickly in my opinion because the plot–and requisite action scenes–is all there is.) I have watched the first six episodes of Daredevil at this point and would characterize it as watchable, but not exceptional beyond this particular quirk of its construction.

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