Rediscovering Bodies in Pain on Marvel’s Netflix Shows

Still image from Netflix's Daredevil
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion on “Marvel Entertainment and the Urban Spaces of Superhero Authenticity.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In a 2014 chapter titled “A Eulogy for the Urban Superhero: The Everyday Destruction of Space in the Superhero Film,” I asked why it was that, roughly a decade after 9/11, the cinematic superhero genre suddenly seemed no longer interested in protecting the city.1James N. Gilmore, “A Eulogy of the Urban Superhero: The Everyday Destruction of Space in the Superhero Film,” in Representing 9/11: Trauma, Ideology, and Nationalism in Literature, Film, and Television, Ed. Paul Petrovic (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 53-63 In the years after 9/11, Spider-man, Batman, Superman, and other marquee figures had the climaxes of their respective films staged on elevated trains, in downtown centers, amidst skyscrapers and warehouses. Their project was not just to defeat the villain, but to prevent urban trauma from replaying itself—projecting itself—onto the screen. In a small cycle of films from 2012-13—The Avengers, Man of Steel, and The Dark Knight Rises—the city no longer seemed like a site to be saved.

The climaxes of these films were lengthy, almost numbing catastrophes of bridges and buildings collapsing, fire and ash filling the sky, as superheroes fought off aliens and terrorists alike in a more savage form of spectacle. Of course, because the story of genre is hardly ever finished—and especially so in the case of superheroes, whose franchises are reiterable and reimaginable to fit into nearly every possible cultural and political context—this urban destruction has laid the seeds of other, more juridical conflicts. In Marvel’s franchise films, it took Tony Stark seemingly until Captain America: Civil War (2016) to realize that his heroic pursuits had actually killed people.

The superhero genre, existing as it does in a complicated intermedial and—increasingly—transmedial web of films, television shows, video games, web shorts, and comics that speak to and fill in the gaps of each others’ stories, necessitates that to fully understand what it might be up to as a whole (if that’s even possible), we must trace its major signifiers across these media sites. To get at the full context of superheroes, in other words, requires a bit of detective work. It takes the project of genre criticism and welds it to the task of industry analysis.2For two examples of how this worked in relation to The Avengers, see: Derek Johnson, “Cinematic Destiny: Marvel Studios and the Trade Stories of Industrial Convergence,” Cinema Journal 52, no. 1 (2012): 1-24; and Matthias Stork, “Assembling the Avengers: Reframing the Superhero Movie through Marvel’s Cinematic Universe,” in Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital, eds. James N Gilmore and Matthias Stork (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014): 77-96

I wrote of that 2012-13 cycle of film’s depiction of disaster and catastrophe that, “the wreckage here is architectural, not biological.” Hardly anyone in these films were shown to be hurt or killed. This is especially so in Marvel’s The Avengers, where all the citizens of New York City are scuttled away and protected almost matter-of-factly. The Avengers offers a resoundingly urban spectacle, one that thrives on the geometry, glass, and concrete of a major city center. As scholars such as Scott Bukatman have discussed, this urban poetry is a key feature of the superhero genre.3Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003

Netflix’s trio of Marvel superheroes—Daredevil (2015-Present), Jessica Jones (2015), and Luke Cage (2016)—take an almost antithetical approach to their depiction of New York City, and of the relationship to bodies in the city. Instead of looking down from the vantage point of Tony Stark’s suit or Hulk’s smash, the heroes of these shows stay on the ground, hardly ever bothering to look up. To borrow from Michel de Certeau’s analysis of urban space, these are stories of tactical walkers, not stories of structures.4Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984 The Netflix shows allow Marvel to rearticulate these characters into the present conjuncture, a moment rife with discussions not only of terrorism, but of which lives “matter.” More than that, though, they allow the urban dimensions of the superpower to attend to dimensions that have gone otherwise underdeveloped in the company’s so-called Cinematic Universe.

Specifically, each of these shows emphasizes how different forms of bodies relate to urban space—blindness in Daredevil, women in Jessica Jones, and African Americans in Luke Cage. Each of those shows offers the opportunity to think about the experience of urban space through the distinctions of these characters. More than that, though, these are characters who recognize and feel the pain of others. Daredevil’s hyper-sensitive hearing, Jessica Jones’s extra-sensory perception, and even Luke Cage’s own apparent indestructability offer pathways for how these people relate to other bodies and to the spaces in which they live.

By way of example, consider the Pilot episode of Daredevil. The episode begins with the scene of Matt Murdock’s trauma: a car accident blinds him when toxic waste gets into his eyes. In this version of the event, the show provides a point-of-view shot of Matt’s eyesight dimming at the edges. Throughout the episode, the sound mix turns diegetic noise down in order to amplify a key bit of information Matt hears—a gun being cocked allows him to roll out of the way of a bullet, and a clinking chain allows him to become oriented to a street and take advantage during a fight. This sound mix places the viewers within Matt’s body and perception, asking us to sense both urban space and other bodies at a heightened, intensified level. Most importantly, Matt uses his hearing to listen to the heartbeats of prospective clients in his law practice, discerning their innocence from their biometrics.5Interestingly, the show plays this a kind of “pure” lie detector test, unsullied by machine design. As it does so, it ignores the debates surrounding the adjudicating uses of heart rate. See further Geoffrey C. Bunn, The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012)

The Pilot episode ends at another familiar place: Matt Murdock dressed as Daredevil, standing atop a rooftop. The sound mixes a swirl of urban noises—traffic and crowd noise, mostly—before honing in on a boy screaming “Daddy!” Prior to this moment, a short scene had shown a young boy being kidnapped and his father being beaten. Matt hears, in other words, the situation the viewer has just seen. The episode ends with a dramatic extreme close-up of Matt pulling his Daredevil mask down, presumably headed to save the boy (as he will do in the next episode). The progression of the sound mix here demonstrates that what is most important to Matt is not the noise of the city per se, but the individual pleas of its inhabitants.

So, why might this matter? After all, a character like Daredevil has in some way always been about the way its character relates to urban space through his other senses, and how he is able to intimately hear his environment and other people. Unlike the spectacle of Marvel’s cinematic endeavors, these Netflix-designed shows are perhaps made to accommodate the more intimate scale of the digital distributor. They presume, rightly or wrongly, that viewers engage these shows on tablets and laptops, on television screens in the comfort of their homes. This may offer a distinct mode for engaging superhero texts; a tablet provides a different sort of tactility than the pages of a comic book, and the personalization of digital streaming is a different sort of spectatorship than the cinema screen or broadcast television. Marvel’s unfolding story continues to place bodies and cities in a somewhat dialectic relationship, and the presumed intimacy and personalization of the Netflix experience swings the pendulum of this dialectic back towards the issues facing the bodies which populate urban space.

The Netflix shows mark another “turn” in Marvel’s ever-evolving effort to contain its products in a single transmedial universe. They rearticulate the city not as a site of destruction, but as a site of more bodily conflict. This is not to say the physical status of the city no longer matters; throughout Daredevil’s first season, villain Wilson Fisk tries to buy up and develop a drug empire through Hell’s Kitchen. However, these shows are equally concerned with who has the right to live in these cities, and how superbodies sense, feel, and respond to the pain of others. They are indebted to showing how all sorts of lives matter, at a moment when that question is, quite remarkably, up for grabs.

Notes   [ + ]

1. James N. Gilmore, “A Eulogy of the Urban Superhero: The Everyday Destruction of Space in the Superhero Film,” in Representing 9/11: Trauma, Ideology, and Nationalism in Literature, Film, and Television, Ed. Paul Petrovic (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 53-63
2. For two examples of how this worked in relation to The Avengers, see: Derek Johnson, “Cinematic Destiny: Marvel Studios and the Trade Stories of Industrial Convergence,” Cinema Journal 52, no. 1 (2012): 1-24; and Matthias Stork, “Assembling the Avengers: Reframing the Superhero Movie through Marvel’s Cinematic Universe,” in Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital, eds. James N Gilmore and Matthias Stork (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014): 77-96
3. Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003
4. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984
5. Interestingly, the show plays this a kind of “pure” lie detector test, unsullied by machine design. As it does so, it ignores the debates surrounding the adjudicating uses of heart rate. See further Geoffrey C. Bunn, The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012

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