This post discusses the first season of Netflix’s “Daredevil.”
“Money and influence is not enough to usher change on such a scale,” Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a crime lord set on transforming Hell’s Kitchen, says halfway through the first season of “Daredevil,” the first of five Marvel television shows that Netflix has in the works. “Sometimes it requires force.” By the end of the first season, he will be proved right, if not in the way he expected: Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a lawyer who moonlights as a vigilante, will have fought his way through Fisk’s protections and exposed him as a violent thug.
But if “Daredevil’s” focus on gentrification is one of the most successful parts of the show’s first season, it’s also an illustration of some of the limitations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the use of superheroes as a way to examine real-world political problems.
“9/11 affected different neighborhoods in very different ways,” “Daredevil” executive producer Jeph Loeb told IGN’s Roth Cornet shortly before the show premiered. “They were all aware that this had happened, but the further down you got towards that area, the more affected you were by it. So we started with that sort of idea, that if the sky opened up and Chitauri were raining down with giant whales, and the Hulk and the Avengers were there to save the day, that’s really exciting, but how did that affect the people who were six blocks over and three avenues down? That’s the richness of the Marvel Universe.”
It’s also the risk. Now that “The Avengers” and “Daredevil” are part of the same story, shouldn’t Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) be setting up arc reactors to cut the costs of reconstruction and deploying some of his nifty equipment to speed up the recovery efforts? Why isn’t Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) starring in all sorts of super-patriotic ads for charities intended to help the people devastated by Loki’s attack on Manhattan?
Hydra and the Dark Elves are certainly pressing concerns, and the whole point of the Netflix series is tell stories that don’t require the involvement of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s very expensive starring players. But it shades the superheroes who are members of the Avengers a bit, and in ways Marvel may not have intended, to think that they trashed Manhattan and left it to others to clean up the devastation they left in their wake, creating space for criminals such as Fisk to take advantage.
In a piece about “Daredevil’s” treatment of gentrification, critic Jeet Heer singled out a scene where Fisk confronts reporter Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall), with a copy of Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker,” visible over his shoulder.
“Wilson Fisk is Robert Moses re-imagined as a super-villain. Like Moses, a dominant figure in mid-twentieth century urban planning, Fisk is an overbearing visionary whose utopian dream displaced the working poor; both Moses and Fisk embody the hubris of high-modernist urban planning,” Heer writes. “Moses’s zeal to connect the city with parkways and overpasses led to the destruction of many working-class neighborhoods, with African American and Puerto Rican communities bearing the brunt. After running roughshod over New York for decades, Moses famously met his match in the populist activist Jane Jacobs, who fought for urban policies that respected the integrity of existing communities. In ‘Daredevil,’ the Jane Jacobs-stand in wears a mask.”
But the decision to make “Daredevil’s” developers into criminals obscures as much as it clarifies.
Moses and Fisk may share a certain contempt for the neighborhood residents who stand in the way of their plans for transformation. “I’ve done things I’m not proud of, Vanessa,” Fisk tells the gallerist he’s dating (Ayelet Zurer) in the fifth episode of “Daredevil.” “I’ve hurt people. And I’m going to hurt more. It’s impossible to avoid for what I’m trying to do. But I take no pleasure in it, in cruelty. But this city isn’t a caterpillar. It doesn’t spin a cocoon and wake up a butterlfy. A city crumbles and fades. It needs to die before it can be reborn.”
Making Fisk a crook and murderer weaponizes that contempt, stripping away the respectability that protected Moses for so long. Elena Cardenas (Judith Delgado), a tenant who resists Fisk’s effort to clear out her building so he can tear it down, is a real person, rather than an abstraction. Fisk’s plans don’t merely inconvenience her: They result in her violent, lonely death. And while Fisk buys influence, he’s impulsive and vengeful enough to murder Urich for tracking down Fisk’s mother for a story.
But although portraying gentrifiers as violent criminals makes them menacing, it also makes their agenda seem easier to defeat than it actually is. Moses was entrenched in various government agencies for more than four decades, both because he was a savvy political infighter who was prepared to take advantage of opportunities such as the Works Progress Administration and because a series of New York City mayors and officials from other cities trusted and hired him. His ideas had a real constituency.
Fisk manages to manipulate public opinion for a while, and the protection he purchased allows him to escape police custody briefly after he is arrested in the finale. But his coalition is small and fundamentally fairly weak. By the end of the first season of “Daredevil,” Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) has fled the city, Nobu (Peter Shinkoda) has been burned alive after a brutal fight with Daredevil and Fisk has been revealed, even to himself, as a cancer on the city rather than its savior. The events that brought him to that point were bloody and costly, but they were also comparatively quick. Fisk doesn’t come close to transforming Hell’s Kitchen the way Moses did New York.
“You really think that this will change anything? You think one man in a silly little costume will make a difference?” Fisk asks Matt during their final confrontation, shortly before Matt knocks him out. “Daredevil” wants us to believe the man in the silly little costume can do precisely that. But history suggests that men wearing respectable suits and operating in the public eye can be awfully hard to dislodge.