I was so excited two weeks ago when I saw the trailer for Daredevil on Netflix. There was so much potential shown in their use of soundscape, lighting and visual angles to suggest an alternative world ‘view’. To put a blind man’s perspective on film was a challenge the directors seemed willing to face. To say I am disappointed is an understatement. (no plot spoilers)
I was excited and interested by the first four episodes, gripped even. There’s a lot to be said about interesting, nuanced and intersectional representations of masculinity in this series. Battlin’ Jack’s (John Patrick Hayden) love for his son, and the wider theme of fatherhood in Daredevil narratives (on screen and on page), deserves it’s own post.
But quickly warning bells were beginning to chime. The representation of Matt Murdock’s (Charlie Cox) daily interaction with the world as a blind man was just not realistic. When Claire (Rosario Dawson) asks personal, potentially painful, questions about his disability – questions that lots of non-normative folk hate and resent – there is no sense of his pain or annoyance. It seems, then, that he is trading information: he allows her questions so that she will feel obligated to answer his. However, the audience are offered no real comparison – only Claire and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) ever get to ask. As anyone travelling through this world as a disabled person will tell you, these questions are a lot more common than that.
We are shown the repetitive emptiness of Wilson Fisk’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) morning routine, but never the repetitive irritation of Matt’s. Within a few episodes, no one any longer asks him intrusive personal questions, makes an assumption, or talks down to him based on their reading of his body as ‘disabled’. Not one client or contact expresses any surprise that a blind man is both self-sufficient and a lawyer. Did the writers think that watching this more realistic theme would bore the audience? Living it bores people who are disabled! It would have been a great, inclusive running theme, potentially wryly humourous, but it’s absent.
And who thinks that Foggy’s (Elden Henson) constant harping on the ‘hotness’ of women is appropriate or funny? (And, while we are on the subject of women… no Bechdel for you!) In a show about a blind man it is constantly reasserted that women’s major value in this world is their looks, their visually judged physical qualities. Lazy and offensive, this assumption goes uncritiqued and unquestioned on screen. Matt’s value structure for attraction, his enjoyment of certain women’s voices for example, is referenced but ultimately discarded. His hyper-sensitive touch does not even get mentioned with regards to skin contact with others. Once again, the show that could be – and should be – foregrounding an alternative model for participation in the world fails put its hero’s own experience front and centre.
By the time I reached episode nine, I realised that the show was no longer the one that I had sat down to watch. Having spent time and effort creating a beautiful, and discombobulating, presentation style to suggest Matt’s perspective to the viewer, the directors abandoned it. As early as episode four, in a gun battle, the muddy, multi-layered soundscape I was so impressed by in the trailer disappears. What is Matt’s experience of machine gun fire? How does it impact his ability to fight, or even to avoid harm? We don’t know – the scene is shot well, but the visuals are now a utilising classic action camera tricks, stylish but stylistically empty. The interesting lighting and visual choices are quickly reduced to a slight blur around a character, a corona of light, a shorthand to suggest Matt’s perspective. Now that we have been shown how Matt does it, how he ‘passes’, apparently we can all go back to pretending he’s ‘normal’. Except for when he’s not.
Moments where Foggy or Karen describe someone’s gestures or the tv pictures to Matt are more necessary for the audience than their hero. We viewers must be reminded every so often that he’s blind or we might forget, because of how seamlessly he blends in. When Claire asks Matt what he sees, I wanted him to answer ‘I don’t.’ Plain and simple. His heightened other senses produce a knowledge of the world for him, like a bat uses sonar perhaps. This is not ‘seeing’ – and it is so lazy to conflate these terms without critique for a majority able-bodied audience, at the expense of an opportunity to really give a disabled hero a true voice. This is assimilationist. To stop trying to integrate the viewer into Matt’s world, to stop working to present his perspective, but to allow the audience to conceptualise his experience through their own. It’s comforting, and ableist, and it’s so very unimaginative and trite.
The directors and writers seem to have gotten bored of the idea that they had a unique perspective to present, to play with, to use to push boundaries. They sublimated the most interesting thing about the character of Matt Murdock and their own stylistic choices so that they could get on with showing the, frankly unimaginative, standard action plot. (ok, minor spoilers) If I want to watch a hero try to save a city from Triads and Bratva, I have Arrow already. If I want to watch super-heroic feats of daring I can take my pick, on small screen and big, right now. Daredevil‘s team don’t seem to know a USP (unique selling point) when they are handed one. Further proof, if any were needed, is that Netflix have failed to provide audio commentary for the series – so it is inaccessible to those with visual impairment. How ironic. You can sign a petition asking for this to be remedied.
Gritty realism? Only when it comes to filming the body in pieces and in pain. In presenting the lived reality of those with a disabled body Daredevil fails us all. Not daring enough it seems.