Daredevil and Punisher; Sensitivity and Strength

Image result for daredevil punisher

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 ┬áhave 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

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.

Punisher

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.

LOST: Fantasy and Fairy Tale

I need to think about more of this, but I think that not only did LOST end up being a story about life after death after all, not only a fantasy story and not science-fiction, I think it might also be better understood as a fairy tale…within a fairy tale.
There is the first fairy tale of the cast being dropped on the most messed-up island ever; that is their excursion out of the real world, and while in the “faerie” realm of the island, they have larger-than-life adventures, grow as people, some of them learn wisdom, etc. Ultimately, they all die, and that is the second fairy tale – the excursion into the alternate reality that they can all inhabit so that they meet each other again, after they have all died at the various times they died, so that they can meet up one more time before they go on to whatever comes next.
I have to admit that even with all of the unanswered questions from the show (apparently we’re supposed to buy the blu-ray to get more answers, which is predictable), it has me thinking more than most tv-show finales do. For all it’s flaws, there was a lot good about LOST, and I find that it is sticking with me.
In his essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien describes four benefits of fairy stories: fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation. I’d like to look at the LOST finale and see if, in my experience and opinion, it provides any of these benefits as a fairy tale.
Do you think fairy tale fits for LOST? Or is it best described as something else?

Freaks and Geeks


I finally got the chance to watch the complete first – and sadly only – season of Freaks and Geeks. In the third installment of reviews of things I think are excellent in every way, I offer this sadly defunct television show. It is now available in a DVD boxed set, and I recommend it very highly.

The basic premise of the show centers around one primary family in the early 1980s. The younger brother in the family is the ‘geek’, so to speak, while the older sister is just beginning to rebel and do stereotypical teenager stuff. I suppose she’s the ‘freak’. Each moves in their social stratum at the same high school, one of junior and senior burnouts and rebels and the other of freshmen geeks and social outcasts. The two groups intermingle as stories unfold, and all of the characters develop and change over time in sometimes very surprising ways. As the show progresses, you learn more about each of the other people in their lives, and things remain interesting.

This show does a lot of things that almost no shows do anymore. One of them is to be persistently understated. On TV, most shows seem to be trying desperately to present every vapid teenage dilemma in epic terms, as if it was actually somehow of tremendous importance whether absurdly attractive teen #1 breaks up with absurdly attractive teen #2, both played by thirty-year-olds. This show never tries to break out of the scale of story that it has allotted itself.

That being said, you get a lot more genuine emotional connection with the characters in this show – I think for the specific reason that everything happens in such a believable way. There aren’t a lot of over-the-top absurd comedic scenes that I am starting to find so trite now. When its funny, its funny in exactly the way that my life is funny, or your life is funny. When it is sad, its sad on that scale. When there are surprises, or uncomfortable scenes, they exist on a very believable level.

The skill behind the show is best demonstrated by this understatement, I think. Periodically the fact that you’re watching a television show almost disappears. It documents without the usual tropes of a documentary. It entertains without the usual melodramatic crap presented as entertainment. Its simple without being stupid. Its funny without being slapstick or raunchy.

In some ways, it was a relief not to be watching a show that seems to be working to overwhelm you with every scene. After going through a lot of episodes of shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica recently (the first I like and the second I love), that’s a welcome respite.

A second major thing that this show does is it demonstrates a lot of honesty. Issues like drug addiction and sex and even being born with ambiguous genitalia are all handled in the show without turning into MTV Real Life or an infomercial. The characters respond to difficult situations in believable ways while still surprising you. The characters are also allowed to make mistakes, and they make many of them. Things aren’t resolved at the end of each episode – well, not too much. This was for television after all. But you get to watch characters you like and identify with make sometimes serious mistakes with their lives. Other times, they surprise you by doing the right thing. Just like real people.

I heard about this show a lot and I’m really glad I finally watched it. Its yet another show that got canceled, as far as I can tell, for being excellent. That’s just the punishment you get I suppose when you artfully tell a good story.

A final amazing show that this show avoids – working the expected 80s tropes for laughs. Of course there’s significant nostalgia factor in a show like this, but this show is set in the 80s like The Lord of the Rings was set in Middle Earth. You’re there. Its convincing. There are no little nods or asides when the kids are playing Space Invaders on their new Atari or when someone listens to a cassette tape. It isn’t That 70s Show at all. They even get a lot of touchstones right. When the kids are at lunch, they’re drinking from those plastic barrel thingies with colored fluid in them. When they play D&D, they are using the crappy plastic dice that actually came with the game. (They even reference the art in the Deities and Demigods supplement! Sigh…) Watching relatively closely, they really get most of these details exactly right as far as I can tell.

And thank the freakin’ Jesus, its not reality TV. Crap like The Apprentice or American Idol, Flavor of Love or Moment of Truth make me want to put a gun in my mouth. And not just for the taste either.

Storytelling Lessons from "Heroes"

I just got the Heroes Season One boxed set as a gift, and in re-watching the series with my wife, I go to thinking about how I as a gamer can derive some advice from Heroes. The series itself is absurdly good, and in watching it a second time, it is easier to see how tightly everything fits together and how much craft went into developing such a complicated story with multiple principal characters and multiple interlocking storylines that draw together and also change as the series progresses.

Anyway, here are some things that I can take to heart from Heroes that I can apply to games that I run in the future.

1. There are many leads but no read herrings

I’m pretty sure this is a true statement. I don’t recall any false leads. There are plenty of things that don’t turn out the way you’d expect, but nothing that is presented as important is later revealed to be worthless. Tabletop roleplaying games take place in a collective imaginative space, but that space is imperfect. Its really easy to misunderstand, to miss something important, and so on, especially in a ‘traditional’ game where the GM or DM is in charge of the storyline. False leads are just frustrating. Leads that change and surprise you over the course of the game are exciting and cool.

In my own game-running style, I tend more toward not having specific leads a lot of the time. This has worked well in the past and has also been frustrating in the past, depending on the group. In the future, I’ll have a lot more tools to bring to bear in running games, one of which will be to discuss this ahead of time. Do the players like going around and figuring out what the ‘plot’ is, or do they want the plot to be, for the most part, a given, or do they want to collectively put together a plot?

2. The principal characters are densely interconnected

This is especially important in a game where the main characters don’t begin as part of a single organization or with other kinds of close ties from family or back-story. For example, in a game like Vampire (the Masquerade especially, or the Requiem), you might start out as Vampires from different clans who have never met before the first session, when you’re presented to the Prince of the city, for example, or when your Sabbat indoctrination begins. Having other connections worked out, which reveal themselves early and continuously, helps all of the players justify working together.

On the other hand, I’ve often said that you can “justify” your character doing anything, so you might as well justify your character doing things that are interesting, cool, and move the story forward. It doesn’t hurt to have a push in that direction, though, where appropriate.

3. Scenes are all there to tell you something new and important

I haven’t played games with powerful scene-framing mechanics for the most part, so I can’t say as much here as I’d like to. But scene should always serve a purpose, and something should be revealed, or be at stake, in a given scene. This is also a weakness with some of my games – I like scenes that are just RP between characters and NPCs, and I sometimes forget to include something important about the scene itself outside of the interaction. This can devolve as often as it is fruitful for the game. Putting something at stake in the scene could be a way to help drive things forward in interesting ways.

On the other hand, as a player I enjoy a situation where every scene isn’t another intense conflict. So sometimes what is revealed can be something about another player-character, or my own character. I have yet to play it, but Luke Crane describes a mechanic in Burning Empires for just this purpose – defining different kinds of scenes when they are framed so that the group knows what is going on and can define what kind of scene they want.

4. The main storyline is introduced in Episode 1

This only occurred to me when I watched it again, but it struck me that most of the major themes and storylines of the show are introduced from the first episode. This is really cool. It isn’t clear at first – you’re busy wondering what’s going on, who these people are, how are they connected, and so on. But there in the background, even in the foreground, are the main thematic elements, most of the major characters, and the looming threat from the get-go. When these things emerge later on in more detail, they are already unconsciously familiar.

This would be an awesome way to kick off games – include the big things that will come later without making it obvious.

This could also reflect a collective storytelling system, where the first session or the first few sessions are where the group defines what the game will be about, establishing theme and facts and so on. It would have a very different ‘feel’ from watching Heroes, but would perhaps be similar to the experience of writing Heroes, which is at least as cool for many of us.