Columns > Published on May 1st, 2015

How Daredevil Does Dark and Gritty Right

Let’s talk about two of the most abused buzzwords in recent memory. If you’ve consumed any media at all over the last decade you have no doubt heard them so much, tacked on to the front of so many pitches and titles, that they have become white noise. You would think they’ve been overused enough to lose their potency, and yet we still get excited every time we’re promised “dark and gritty” versions of everything from Batman to the Lone Ranger, only to be endlessly underwhelmed. Thankfully the new Daredevil series on Netflix has come along to remind us all what those words really mean. Major spoilers for the show ahead, so if you haven’t watched it, now would be a good time.

This pair of terms gained traction in popular culture as descriptors for the works of authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, as well as the noir films they inspired. They told tales of morally ambiguous antiheroes struggling (and often failing) to make a difference in a hostile world. Audiences really connected with this genre, perhaps because these stories seemed more realistic than the happily-ever-afters. As with all things popular, creators and producers have been imitating it ever since with varying degrees of success. Now the majority of Hollywood labors are under the misconception that all they need to do to make something dark and gritty is change the filter on the camera and throw in some more cuss words and violence. But those are merely some of the ingredients, and they have to be combined in the right way to get the dish you want. Just because you have some vegetables and a can of broth does not automatically mean you have a bowl of soup. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three ways Daredevil cooks up the darkest, grittiest soup on TV.

Dark and gritty is not about black and white, but what happens when the line between them blurs into a gray smear.

Keeping it Real

Despite being about the adventures of a blind ninja with superhuman senses fighting crime, Daredevil is brutally realistic. While the fight scenes are well-choreographed and highly stylized, they are refreshingly honest in their depiction of violence and its consequences. The bad guys don’t stay down after a few punches—the fights judder forward, starting and stopping as the combatants catch their breath between exchanges, fall and get up again. Unlike Batman, Daredevil feels the affects of the many injuries he sustains, limping and wincing his way through battle as the series progresses, most notably in the much lauded single-shot hallway fight at the end of the second episode.

Although New York was recently devastated by an alien invasion (see Avengers), it is rarely mentioned, and spoken of as if it were just another natural disaster. Though confronted with definitive proof that there is life on other planets and it wants to kill us, to most New Yorkers this only means plummeting real estate prices and more hassle getting across town. The city has faced countless real disasters, from riots to terrorist attacks, with a similar attitude. Daredevil also doesn’t fight any aliens, monsters or other superhumans like the rest of Marvel’s heroes. The most comic-bookish threat he faces is a ninja, whose red pajamas hopefully foreshadow the arrival of the Hand Clan in season two. Other than that, he’s beating up street thugs and hired guns as he tries to dismantle the organized crime that has a stranglehold on Hell’s Kitchen. His nemesis is not a mad genius bent on world domination, but a “legitimate” businessman getting rich off construction contracts by gentrifying the old neighborhoods. Daredevil is literally fighting against progress and is viewed as a dangerous psychopath by the very people he is trying to protect. Much like The Wire, the true villain of Daredevil is society.

The Question of Killing

When a storyteller aims to explore the darker aspects of humanity, violence is an almost unavoidable topic. Killing presents an intriguing quandary for any narrative, one that has vexed us since the dawn of conscious thought. Taking a life is one of the most awful things a person can do, but we also acknowledge that in some situations it may be the only option. Who wouldn’t kill to protect themselves or a loved one? That’s the easy one. Truly dark and gritty stories ask the tougher questions: would you kill for your nation, for the truth, to vanquish evil, or for revenge? How do you make that decision, and how do you live with the consequences? What if you kill someone because you thought you had no other choice, only to discover there was another way, or that you killed the wrong person? We learn the most about ourselves when we find the line and discover what, if anything, can make us cross it.

While there is a rich tradition of ever-escalating violence in cinema and television, few examples of either actually bother exploring the darker side of their antiheroes. In The Dark Knight trilogy Batman adopts a strict no-killing stance after being scolded by his girlfriend for even thinking of it and never wavers. While in the comics the Caped Crusader and his allies have often debated the merits and morality of putting a permanent end to the homicidal maniac known as the Joker, movie Batman doesn’t consider it even as the body count continues to grow. I’m not saying Batman should have killed him, but it would have given us a great deal more insight into the character to see him contemplate a final solution and reach a reasoned decision. The dark and gritty version of Green Arrow adopts a zero-death policy early in the first season of his show, even against superhuman killing machines, and never gives an explanation other than the usual cliches about not being able to come back after crossing that line, which is particularly moot in his case since the line has already been crossed. Zack Snyder probably thought he was plumbing the blackest depths by having Superman kill in Man of Steel, but a truly dark take would be about him deciding to murder Zod on his spaceship before their titanic fistfight destroyed half a city and undoubtedly claimed thousands of lives. Daredevil, on the other hand, claims he is not a killer but is willing to admit that he wants to and the only reason he hasn’t is because he tried and failed. While he is typically a champion for the sanctity of human life, comics Daredevil has crossed that line a few times. Unlike Batman or Superman, Daredevil has limits, and he is most fascinating when pushed past them. In both versions watching his struggle with that decision tells us so much more about his character than another repetitious speech about why murder is bad.

There are no Heroes

The key question of a truly dark and gritty masterpiece concerns whether or not the protagonist is doing the right thing. Even if what he is doing is just, his motivations remain murky at best, and his methods are always questionable. Is he really cleaning up the streets to make the city safer, or is he just looking for acceptable targets to vent his grief on since his loved ones were murdered? Should he turn the bad guy over to the police, or would the world be a better place if the villain was put down for good? No one really asks these questions of Superman or the Avengers, because saving the world from alien annihilation is obviously the right thing to do. Even though the general public turns on Batman in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the audience knows he hasn’t really done anything wrong except catch bad guys without a badge.

Daredevil exists in a grayer area. Although he wants to help people and catch criminals, he doesn’t do a lot of either. Despite his considerable martial prowess, over the course of the first season he only saves three lives. At the end of the first episode he has saved Karen Page (for now), but then we are treated to a montage of beatings, murders and suicides that show his actions have actually made things worse. His vigilantism only escalates the violence he seeks to end, and the body count grows with each subsequent episode. A sweet little old lady is slain just to draw him into a trap. He may not be killing them himself, but he is provoking the people who do and putting everyone close to him in danger without their knowledge or consent. When his law partner and best friend Foggy Nelson asks why, Murdock tells him about the first time he put on the mask—to put a beating on a man who was sexually abusing his daughter. But Daredevil’s origin story doesn’t end with a happily-ever-after for the little girl; instead it concludes with Murdock saying he put a man into a coma and that he’s never slept better. Foggy says maybe he’s just looking for someone to hit, and he kind of has a point.

In that way Murdock is disturbingly similar to his adversary Wilson Fisk (aka the Kingpin): both turned to violence to protect someone, and over time have become quite skilled at hurting people and justifying it to themselves. Fisk simply has a bigger vision, more resources and ambition. He’s trying to help the city by rebuilding it while Murdock is focused on helping the individual citizens. Seen from a different angle, Daredevil is a story about how a self-made man and a pillar of the community willing to do absolutely anything to make his city a better place was brought low by a crazy man in a mask. That perspective is presented as more than just a straw man to be burned down. Both men believe the good they are trying to do will outweigh the terrible things they have done to achieve it. Even as the consequences of their actions bleed over into every other aspect of their lives, they never waver in their dedication to their respective quests until their feud with each other derails them both. The show reserves judgment on them, presenting both characters at their best and at their worst and leaves the audience to ponder which was the lesser evil.

That’s what makes the traditional dark and gritty tale so compelling. It asks hard questions and offers no easy answers. Even the most excessive pulp fiction can resemble real life in that regard. Innocence and ethics can be liabilities in a harsh and unforgiving world. Bad things happen to the just and unjust alike. Hope is only offered so it can be cruelly snatched away. Sometimes our best efforts fail, and everything we do to try and fix things only makes them worse. The protagonist rarely feels like a hero by the end, and the villain usually turns out to be a wounded animal rather than a heartless monster. Dark and gritty is not about black and white, but what happens when the line between them blurs into a gray smear.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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