Daredevil and Agent Carter and Bellerophon

The Daredevil series on Netflix was awesome. I loved it, and it stands alongside Agent Carter as the best (ie, “my favorite”) superhero-related shows on TV. Flash is fun but uneven; Gotham is increasingly mired in flawed characterization; Agents of SHIELD can’t decide what it wants to be or how it wants to get there. Their quality fluctuates so wildly that I have essentially stopped recommending them to people. Daredevil, on the other hand, was tightly written, start to finish, with a clear vision of who its lead was, why we should care, and how best to present that lead in a story and style that brought all its themes together; the same can be said, pretty much word-for-word, for Agent Carter. Both shows were strong ideas executed well. And it’s telling that those shows worked so well while SHIELD continues to fail so shockingly; my guess is that Daredevil and Agent Carter succeed because they’re allowed, if not actually forced, to stand on their own. SHIELD is presented as “the TV version of the MCU,” while Daredevil and Agent Carter are “Marvel stories connected to the MCU.” That’s a key difference. SHIELD has to carry this giant banner and connect all the movies and it’s never allowed to be its own thing, while the peripheral shows can do whatever they need to tell the best story they can.

The other thing Daredevil and Agent Carter have in common, however, is that they started to fall apart at the end, brought down, in part, by weird villains. Yes, I know, I know, Vincent D’onofrio was amazing as Fisk in Daredevil–he’s a great actor who showed us a fascinating, vulnerable, even tragic take on the Kingpin. He was a great character. But he was a really crappy villain. Agent Carter’s ultimate villain, the goofy hypnosis guy, was weird for different reasons, but still didn’t work, and still managed to bring down a show that should have gone out on a much higher note.

Why do the villains matter? Because a hero’s heroism is directly proportional to the obstacles he or she overcomes. The Greek hero Bellerophon is the classic example of this: he was described as the greatest slayer of monsters in the world, primarily because the monster he slew, Chimera, was described as the greatest monster in the world. Bellerophon could have used exactly the same skills and talents and courage and cunning and fortitude to slay a lesser beast, but no one would have cared; he wouldn’t be the Greatest Monster Slayer Ever, he would have been That Guy Who Killed That Goblin.

Agent Carter the show presents us with a number of compelling conflicts for Agent Carter the person: she’s fighting a vast shadow conspiracy of spies and assassins, her colleagues don’t trust her, and (more than anything else) she’s a woman in a society dominated by men. One of the first shots of the series is a crowded street full of identical men in identical gray hats walking away from the camera, with Peggy Carter in vibrant blue and red walking directly toward it. Not only does the framing make the men faceless and ubiquitous, it highlights the idea that Peggy is moving against the current and making her own way. This is one of the greatest visual statements of heroic identity ever made, and the show follows it up with story after story hitting these same beats and themes, over and over again. When Dottie is finally revealed as a villain she fits this idea perfectly–a funhouse-mirror version of Peggy, with all the same skills but controlled by men instead of rebelling against them, and hidden under a veneer of stereotyped, airheaded femininity. This was awesome…and then that hynotist showed up. He didn’t fit the story we’d been told all season because he came out of nowhere, related to Hydra but never a believable crux to their plan; he was brought into the SSR not because Hydra had a brilliant scheme but because Peggy made a series of impulsive, unpredictable decisions, and if Hydra was relying on that to carry off their grand scheme then their plot was doomed from the beginning. More to the point, his powers of super hypnosis came out of left field both narratively and thematically–nothing he did felt like the satisfying culmination of a series arc, he was just a monster-of-the-week who hung on for a few extra weeks and turned out to be the Big Bad. Instead of watching Peggy pull it all together and strike a major blow against the secret organization she’d been fighting, they just personified that organization and let her beat some random guy, using skills that hadn’t mattered to the rest of the season. The climax showed her talking down a hypnosis victim flying a plane, which was a tense scene and a nice callback to her climax in Captain America, but what did it have to do with anything the show had promised us? They teased a Chimera, but delivered a goblin.

Daredevil’s villain problem was, as I said, different, but just as frustrating. Wilson Fisk stayed right in line with the established series themes of Inner Demons and doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, but he failed as a villain because he simply wasn’t villainous enough. His criminal organization ran in circles, accomplishing no crimes aside from a self-eating snake of nested cover-ups, and then slowly imploded just in time for Daredevil to punch it in the face. Matt Murdock didn’t actually defeat him as a vigilante or as a lawyer, he just did flip kicks for twelve episodes while the criminals defeated themselves. Showing Fisk as a damaged little boy was great, and watching him stammer his way through a puppy-love courtship was an audacious choice for a story about a mob boss, but without any real villainy to balance it out he came across as weak and inept. Instead of a terrifying mastermind we saw an incompetent recluse whose super-mob conglomerate started falling apart literally the first time we saw it in action; he had lackeys do all the grunt work, a chief lackey who came up with most of the plans, and then he sat back flirting while his mismanaged empire dissolved around him. His occasional forays into mastermind-hood, like tricking Daredevil and the Hand Ninja into killing each other, were born from anger instead of brilliance, and despite their cleverness never actually strengthened his empire in any way; that one, in particular, started its final destruction. His one and only moment of unfiltered awesomeness came in the last fifteen minutes of the season, when he finally embraced his role as a monster. That makes this season an origin story for Kingpin as well as for Daredevil, which is cool in its own way, but in the process it made them both look pretty useless: Daredevil never had to defeat his Chimera, because the Chimera kept biting off its own heads, and thus Daredevil never became the Bellerophon we wanted him to be. And since the fight choreography, gorgeous as it was, never got back up to the bar it set in episode two, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the anti-climax. The final fight was just two guys punching each other, drained of tension because we knew who was going to win, and devoid of the artistry that had marked most of the earlier fights.

I want to reiterate: I loved Agent Carter, and I loved Daredevil. Even with lackluster finales, they provided the best stories and the boldest visions in our current bumper crop of superhero TV. But they could have been so much more than they were. Going out on a high note has always been a problem for TV shows, and genre TV shows in particular, but those few shining diamonds who’ve pulled it off have shown us that it’s possible. I want every other superhero show out there to learn from Daredevil and Agent Carter and up their game, and then I want Daredevil and Agent Carter, in what I dearly hope will be their second seasons, to pull out all the stops and really fulfill on their promises. If these shows have a chance to live up to their potential, next year’s crop of superhero shows will make this year’s sea of plenty look like a drought.

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