I recently responded to the disappointment of Iron Fist by watching Daredevil season 1 again. And, having finished season 1, Netflix helpfully offered up season 2 as my next choice, and choose I did. Watching these two seasons of Daredevil, featuring the Punisher in the second season, got me thinking about superheroes, the supernatural, and game design, and a whole lot of things. Here’s a start.
Sensitivity Versus Strength
Normally, in the United States, sensitivity and strength are seen as oppositional aspects of a person. If someone is overly sensitive, we are concerned that they are vulnerable to the harshness of the world, and would expect them to be weak, to be a “snowflake”, to require trigger warnings on a regular basis. Right now, in fact, I would say that a sensitive person is subject to more ridicule than I’ve seen in a long time. Our society has no idea what to do with sensitive people, in fact – it’s either bitter mockery or ironclad defensiveness, it seems.
On the other hand, I think we assume that a strong person is insensitive. They are tough, thick-skinned. They have a hard exterior. We respect toughness, the ability to take punishment and continue. “Even so, she persisted.” The capacity to grit one’s teeth and persist despite pain and privation and opposition.
It is like there is a sliding scale, with Sensitive on one end and Strong on the other, and everyone is somewhere between the two. More of one is less of the other. And there are plenty of examples we might think of, of sensitive people who do not seem to be very resilient, and strong people who are callous and unfeeling, or at least seem that way.
Daredevil is a really interesting superhero, for me at least, because his strength comes explicitly from his sensitivity. He is formidable because he is sensitive. He is blind, but his other perceptions are so acute that he has superhuman perceptions of the world around him. He can echo-locate, and he’s a lie-detector, and he can perceive what is in the next room without opening the door. He has superhuman agility and balance – all of this because of his sensitivity. He’s like Zatoichi, or a blindfolded Zen archer – yes, a fictional trope, but also an interesting take on strength in a genre where it is normal for bullets to bounce off the hero.
In the Daredevil show on Netflix, they make a lot of his moral sensitivity, especially in contrast to the Punisher. He has his interactions with his priest, Father Lantom – who as an aside is one of the few good portrayals of clergy in media – and these interactions show another side of his sensitivity, and another way in which that sensitivity gives him strength. There his interactions with Claire Temple, who continually nurses him back from death’s door after a particularly bad beating, and more than one episode is spent while he is limping and stitched together, frustrated by the limits of his body and its vulnerability.
The Punisher is obviously a superb foil for Daredevil. For him, Daredevil is a “half measure” – a guy who can’t get the job done, who can’t do the ‘necessary’ thing and kill the criminals he opposes. In contrast to Daredevil, if the Punisher has any supernatural ability, it is his ability to take damage. He spends the entire show with his face and body brutalized, but is never slowed very much by his injuries. He is a personification of hardness and strength, an implacable killing machine.
Of course, the core of Frank Castle’s story, what makes him the Punisher, is pain and loss. This is, again, part of the tough guy trope – he is driven to become an unfeeling killing machine because, underneath it all, he feels so deeply. But not in a way that causes him to reflect much on his actions, like Daredevil does, nor in a way that makes him something other than a killing machine.
Interlude: Yes, I Know
Yes, both of these are supremacist power fantasies. Daredevil is the power fantasy that even if I lose something of myself, even if I am hurt, it will only make me stronger. I can turn my hurt, my vulnerability, into yet more strength, and use that strength to punch criminals in the face all night long. Punisher is the power fantasy of empowering victimization. I am hurt deeply once, and that one hurt justifies every hurt I inflict on the world around me. His is the logic of every war, every retaliation, of Trump’s MAGA uprising, and the particular male fantasy that if you pushed me too far, or hurt my family, I’d become a killing machine too. All of that true, but that’s not where I’m going here.
To Be Formidable
What if sensitivity is strength? What if the are the same thing? Not in a Daredevil since, where his senses are so sensitive and acute except when he is pummeling his foes into submission, and not in the Punisher way, where his deep hurt at the loss of his family is what fuels his bottomless murderous rage. But in an everyday way, the way that a child can demonstrate better than a superhero.
It doesn’t require any strength, any resilience, to be insensitive. You’re not tough, you’re just numb. Maybe you numb yourself with substances or other behaviors, or maybe you’re just a little numb by nature. If the world hurts you less, toughing it out is no great feat. Maybe you get used to numbing yourself, or maybe you get used to coasting through trouble. Life just requires less of you.
Just as it requires less of me to live a white-hetero-male-privileged life. I might be hurt by the world, but overall, the world hurts me less than others with less privilege. (Imagine how quickly a Black Daredevil or Punisher would be caught or murdered by police) It certainly is not easy, but it is in a sense on “Easy Mode” as John Scalzi calls it. My baseline life requires less strength.
What requires strength is to live in the world and remain sensitive. It requires so much strength, in fact, that humans flock to addiction and various kinds of anesthesia to avoid doing just that. We want stories of tough, impervious heroes; of victorious, immortal gods. We trade liberty for security, offering it up before we are even asked, and thanking our leaders for the privilege of losing who we might have been. Build the wall! Take my data, please!
The truly formidable person is the one whose strength and sensitivity flow together. She who feels more, sees more, and knows more must also endure more. And the more we feel, the more we see, the more we know and care, the more we must endure. The stronger we must be, and the more formidable we become. But even if that is not the kind of strength that many of us seek out, nor the kind of strength that makes it into our stories very often, it is just that kind of strength that we need right now.