Watching the Watchmen: Part I

(Part II of this post will happen post-Captain America: Civil War. Spoilers for both Daredevil Season 2 and Batman vs Superman going ahead.)

There’s a virtual flood of superhero-related things coming to the visual medium, both in the form of TV shows and movies. I’d barely finished digesting Season 2 of Daredevil before dragging people to a showing of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (or Just Us, if you’d believe this incredibly well edited trailer), and it seems like I’m only going to be waiting  a few more weeks before Captain America comes back with all his blonde-haired, blue-eyed prettiness in Captain America: Civil War.

To me, the glut of superhero sagas can only be a good thing. More epic battles, more eye-Tom-Hiddleston-Loki-Costume-Chest-Shouldercandy prancing about doing noble (and in Loki’s case, not so noble) things on screen, increasingly more women kicking ass (my favourite things about Daredevil and B vs. S were Elektra and Wonder Woman respectively), and energising music. Also, more fodder to compare to others in its category. It’s evident that the three major superhero releases of the first half of the year—the ones I’ve outlined in the para above—share similar themes: not what the individual does with ‘great power’, but how the world around them can (and maybe should?) put a check on it.

Daredevil Season 2

What’s arguably the most oft-quoted line from superhero movies is Spiderman’s Uncle Ben’s homely adage: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ It interests me that instead of focusing so much on individual ‘responsibility’, Daredevil and B vs. S (and the Civil War comics) looks at the broader question of what forms the ‘responsibility’ of the community in which these powers are being used. Daredevil brings this question to gory punisherlife in the figure of the Punisher, a rogue self-designated vigilante who assuages his personal grief and loss by killing off what he sees as ‘scum’ who ‘deserve to die’. Frank Castle, an ex-Marine with a celebrated war record, uses his training and expertise to gun down gang bosses, rapists, murderers, drug pins, child pornography distributors—in short, anyone who threatens the safety and sanctity of Hell’s Kitchen (though Castle’s own house is far off in some suburban outskirt, and he is from Queens). Unlike Daredevil, who uses much less lethal methods, Punisher does not look to reform or rehabilitate his prey. He seems to believe that the system is broken, and given how events play out in the show, he may have a point.

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Daredevil takes it upon himself to stop the Punisher, but in an ironic spin, he finds himself defending him as Matt Murdock, understanding that putting away one vigilante (who, no matter how violent and misguided, was only trying to do the same thing he is) might have serious repercussions on his own actions as the devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Murdock’s willingness to use the law, the very system he skirts around as a vigilante, in order to exonerate Castle, is striking. Throughout the series, Murdock’s actions as a costumed superhero plague him with doubt and guilt, which he looks to the Father at his chosen church to assuage. His stint as a lawyer, and his upbringing as a Catholic combine to give him a load of questions and a need for forgiveness, that forms a complete contrast to the amoral Punisher. Indeed, towards the middle of the series, when things seem to really be spiralling out of control and Murdock sees his hard work unraveling around him, he says, ‘I thought it could work, the law, but it feels so useless. Everything I’ve done just gets undone.’

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Even then, Murdock/Daredevil refuses to go all the way and take up the sheer butchery espoused by the Punisher. ‘You cross over to my side of the line, you can’t come back from that, ever,’ Castle tells him during one of their longer nightly conversations, and Daredevil seems to keep that in mind. Daredevil leaves open-ended the question of supervision of vigilante figures, with the Punisher’s excess almost excused and justified (horrifying as his methods are, there seems to be a general consensus, whether among the ‘heroes’ or the jury members at Castle’s trial, that they are effective), the show moving on quickly to its second storyline with Elektra, but it leaves those questions in viewers’ heads: how much vigilante-ism/power is too much, and who can you trust with it?

B Vs. S

Though it’s opened to largely negative reviews, I quite enjoyed Batman vs Superman. Sure, there were some stupid moments, but it was entertaining, and like I’ve said before, Wonder Woman’s entry was well worth the build-up. I also liked Affleck’s turn as a dour Batman, despite his rather flip-flopping morals when it came to killing people.

batfleckI thought Affleck’s Batman provided a nice parallel to the Punisher. He seems to have no qualms with mowing down people he believes ‘deserve’ it, literally doing so while chasing a shipment of Kryptonite. What’s interesting is that here, the Punisher figure is the one suspicious of the man lauded as a hero, a ‘god’. While it’s a suspicion partly fuelled by what he knows Superman is capable of (destroying an entire city centre is a fair demonstration of his ‘gifts’), it’s also more than a little obvious that Batman’s dislike of Superman is also a product of envy. Though the movie never outright says it, Batman seems to have little going for him personally—shutting himself away from emotional entanglements outside of his taciturn manner with Alfred. Luthor is able to play on his guilt in order to drum up his hatred of Superman—there’s a strong implication that Bruce feels himself responsible not only for his parents’ death, but Robin’s as well. To see someone else being hailed as a hero, when he sees the cost of the man’s powers probably doesn’t do wonders for Batman’s self esteem (hey, no judgement here), and he ends up taking it upon himself to bring him down.

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In both Daredevil and B vs S then, there’s a sense that people who seek to protect others, when not appointed to do so by the law, must be answerable to it, and their methods ‘approved’ by some sort of governing body. Daredevil is largely able to get away with his hijinks because he does not veer into the territory of taking life— a decision that only ‘God’ can make (he seems to imply as much in one of his tete a tetes with Castle). Superman, who has God-like powers on Earth, must be made accountable to some kind of committee, that seeks to discipline him for his irresponsible use of them, a theme that will be taken up, presumably, in Captain America. Though the Marvel movie (if it stays true to the central conflict of the comics) will take this question one step further: should a community curtail the freedoms of its superheroes/individuals in an effort to protect the many? What does a superhero do when the law says that his actions, even if they be saving a bus full of children from a grisly end, are illegal if he does not submit himself to government-sanctioned registration? It’s interesting that Daredevil, who stands ‘for the law’ (as much as any vigilante can be said to) in the Netflix series takes the side of the rogue heroes led by Captain America in the Civil War comics, becoming, in the process, a criminal.

These are all questions that have a sort of relevance in a world of increasing surveillance, questions of identity and protecting individual rights over those of the community. It’s quite fascinating that superhero movies and shows are doing their bit to answer them, some more and some less satisfyingly.

A love letter to Jessica Jones

Caution: mild spoilers ahead.

Is it the golden age of superhero flicks?

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It may just be. Both Marvel and DC, the superhero homesteads we are most familiar with, have a very impressive line up of films scheduled for the coming years. And Marvel has done one better, teaming up with Netflix, one of the best things about the internet, to create a stunning series of shows. ‘Daredevil’, starring Charlie Cox of Stardust fame was a great hit, and the follow up, Jessica Jones is, dare I say it, even better.

Jessica Jones is the superhero I’ve been waiting for. She is smart, she is strong and she is a woman. She walks around Hell’s Kitchen in practical jeans and tops, donning a leather jacket for the cold. She is a hard drinker (one of her neighbours calls her a ‘lush’), but she doesn’t let it interfere with her work as a private investigator. And she is damn good at her job.

What did I love about her, apart from all the above qualities? She is so amazingly well drawn. Krysten Ritter has really done a remarkable job of portraying the deadpan, tortured woman with a terrible past, one that involves mental and physical violation at the hands of David Tennant’s creepily good Kilgrave. Ritter flits between intense vulnerability, thinking about her days of slavery to the ‘Purple Man’, and a resolute, bitter strength, determined to end the threat he poses to everyone, no matter what it might cost her.

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I was half an episode in when I texted a friend, ‘I love this woman.’ I followed it up with ‘No, I really love her. I am actually sexually attracted to her.’ I watched Jessica Jones’s story with bated breath, hardly able to bring myself to stop, reminding myself that unless I did, I wouldn’t have any more for the next day. Was it the writing? Hell yes, it’s great writing. The acting? Of course. The show is stocked with amazing portrayals—from Mike Coulter as a brooding, tragedy-shadowed Luke Cage to Colby Minifie as the high-strung, extremely eccentric Robyn. The villain who horrified me at the same time that he made me feel his sense of acute isolation? David Tennant is always a treat, and as Kilgrave, he makes you feel for his character, at the same time that you utterly despise him.

But combined with all of that, combined with the great storyline, the drama, the suspense, the score (what an opening sequence), it was the joy of seeing this strong, powerful woman take on the person who had made her most vulnerable. It was seeing her reach out to a best friend, not just at her weaker moments, but all the time—keeping her looped in, knowing jess and trishthat Trish was always there for her when needed. It was the fact that this relationship, not the one between Jessica and Luke, nor even the antagonistic one between her and Kilgrave, but the one between the best friends who grew up with and were always there for each other, that defines the series. Episode 1 shows Jessica running to Trish after a long time away, coming to her as a last resort. The series chronicles the return of their deep bond, an unquestioned sisterhood that truly is the best thing about strong friendships between women.

Maybe this is what made Jessica, for me, a great female superhero. She wasn’t overly sexualized, nor was her love life the focus of attention. She wasn’t wearing impractical clothes (in fact, I was amazingly happy because, I realized, I had the same coat as her. Fangirl moment if  

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there ever was one.) No one slammed her around for being a ‘girl’. She was great at her job, and in fact, she even brought to life the many stereotypes associated with male noir detectives: hard drinking, bitter, wise-cracking. But instead of shutting herself off from help and companionship the way many of those heroes do, she opens herself up to help. And it’s not from a male hero.

From personal experience, I’ve learned that it’s those friendships that really define you, that have saved me when things are going badly. Jessica brought that to life. And for that, among the many, many other things that I’ve breathlessly mentioned here, I am madly in love with her.

Damn you Netflix. Now I have to wait a year to see her again.