- Kimmy Huynh
How are the characters in Marvel’s “Daredevil” Netflix series portrayed as powerful?
The portrayal of power in fictional media often reflects connotations and assumptions made in the real world. By using the theoretical framework of semiology to analyse how Marvel’s Daredevil constructs the notion of power, an insight into what elements audiences see as power and how media creators materialise power in their work can be brought to light. Ideologically, the idea of power has been at the very core of capitalist societies such as the one we live in, it would therefore be insightful to pursue academic research in the area through deconstructing its representation.
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Marvel’s Daredevil series is an origin story created for the on-demand platform of Netflix. As a piece of media that exists within the modern superhero genre, power is a key theme. From a media studies perspective, Daredevil is a noteworthy text for analysis. Much like other Netflix series, its release on the digital platform saw the entire season of Daredevil released at once. This creates a pressure free form of storytelling for the media creators as it allows for characters and other elements of the Daredevil world to develop naturally over time without taking into consideration whether an audience member has watched the show sequentially each week. It would therefore be insightful to analyse how power is developed and represented in this new structure of storytelling.
Methodology (strengths and weaknesses)
In order to analyse the representation of power in the Daredevil show, a semeiotic analysis will be used to answer the question. A semiotic analysis of elements within the episodes will be used in order to deconstruct how power is represented. A semiotic analysis is a form of media research originally coined by the theorists Charles Sanders Pierce and Ferdinand De Saussure in the early twentieth century. Widely meaning the study of signs, Pierce stated that a sign is “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (Pierce 1955: 99) while Saussure describes semiology as “a science that studies the life of signs.” (Saussure 1959: 16)
Media texts, such as television shows, are seen as constructs of meaning. Theorist Stuart Hall (1997) suggests that meanings are encoded within the media by its creators and then decoded by audiences who actively react to it based on personal experiences, lifestyles and social norms at the time of viewing. Fiske describes denotation as being what is photographed and connotation as how the photo has been taken (Fiske, 1990). By deconstructing the representation of power in Daredevil through semiotic analysis, the underlying symbols used by media authors to create power can be brought to light.
To analyse semiotics is to analyse the symbolic meaning of signs in a media text. De Saussure suggested that signs consist of two inseparable aspects: the signifier and signified. The signifier often exists in the material world in the form of letters, objects and images and is interpreted through our senses of touch, sight, sound etc. The signified is the mental concept or meaning attached to the signifier. Essentially, the equation for signs is as follows:
The Signifier + Signified = Sign
The purpose of a semiotic analysis, then, is to understand how meanings are formed by reviewing how texts are constructed by using the above equation. In employing this methodology, it would be beneficial for a researcher to understand the strengths and limitations of semiology. Theorists such as Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress advocate the notion that “semiotics offers…a systematic, comprehensive and coherent study of communications phenomena as a whole” (Hodge & Kress, 1988:1). Furthermore, Semiotics provides scholarly research with conceptual framework and a set of tools and terms to analyse many forms of communication.
On the other hand, semiology is often critiqued as being almost imperialistic, since some theorists see it as being applicable to anything and everything, infringing on almost every theoretical and ideological discipline. As a result of the breadth in which semiology is applied, it is said to be difficult to offer a critique on a theoretical framework that changes so much depending on its application. This is emphasised by John Sturrock in Structuralism (1986) where he illustrates this infringement as a “dramatic extension…” that would “include the whole of culture…” (Sturrock, 1986:89).
Literature surrounding semiotic analysis often suggests that there are not many who work as ‘semioticians’, however it is rational to accept that everyone utilises semiotic methodology to some extent in their everyday lives. In an article written by Arthur Asa Berger, it is suggested in the section titled ‘People Watching and Facial Expression’ that curiosity is a driving force for why people may make a semiotic analysis, stating that “we often watch people [and] scrutinise them” (Berger, 2013:23), he continues to state that semiotic analysis is exercised when a person wonders where someone is going or what they are doing, “…body structure, body language, clothing, brands…” (Berger, 2014:23) are some of the elements that are scrutinised in order to make an informed guess in answering those questions.
While both key thinkers, De Saussure and Ferdinand, did not originally develop semiotics and semiology respectively for analysing media, it has since been a pioneering force in analysing contemporary media texts. In The Consumer’s Stake in Radio and Television, theorist Dallas Smythe suggested that television texts should be analysed as a “group of symbols” that “serve as a medium of exchange between the mass media and the audience” (Smythe, 1954:143), the ideas of semiotics and semiology coincide with Smythe’s statement.
Smythe’s statement can also be applied to genre studies in the sense that genre is essentially a group of symbols that create a medium in which recurring codes and conventions allow a media text to be “classified and organised” (Casey, 2002:135). Listed under the superhero, action and adventure genres on Netflix, Daredevil will inevitably adhere to those specific genre conventions, it can therefore be said that signifiers that link to the signified ideas of superheroes, such as having extraordinary powers, a moral code and a secret identity will be used in the show.
In terms of the ideological stance on power, Marxist literature focuses on the argument that mass media, such as television, is significantly influenced by the needs of the upper class in capitalist society. Marxist theory regarding the base and superstructure reinforces the idea of upper class dominance through mass media (Marx & Engels, 1947). However a more culture orientated Marxist approach to media lies in Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.
In Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (1995), Gramsci rejected ideas of crude materialism and instead offered a more humanist form of Marxism that focused on human subjectivity and the power of media. He used the term hegemony to describe the predominance of one social class over the other (Gramsci, 1995). The media therefore prescribes, through signs, the dominant norms, values and tastes, political practices and social relations. (Sassoon, 1982)
As mentioned before, signifiers often take form in the materialistic world of production. These catalysts for meaning can range from anything in the mise-en-scene, such as performance, lighting and costume, to the cinematographers choice of angles and camera shots. These verbal and visual elements then become the signified in which audiences draw links between an object and an idea. The two major characters in Daredevil, the antagonist and protagonist, will be analysed to understand how the idea of power has been encoded within them.
The characters, Fisk and Murdock, can be seen as mirrors of one another. In literary terms they would be labelled as foils, the term is used to describe two characters that have comparative traits but are contrasted by their actions. Both characters believe they are saving the location of Hell’s Kitchen and exercise their power to do so. Power is therefore denoted in their actions, whether it’s violently interrogating criminals to find out where hostages are being kept or violently making an example of someone in order to keep the criminal underworld in line, both characters use their violent power to achieve their objectives. This is emphasised in Fisk’s dialogue in which he says “I want to save this city, like you. But only on a scale that matters”. This acts as a verbal signifier and indicates his exercise of power, even if innocent lives are lost in the process.
In Episode three, titled Rabbit in a Snow Storm, the audience are introduced to a painting of the same name which symbolically represents more than just a simple painting. On one hand it denotes how the characters get caught up and lost in the bigger picture just as the rabbit is caught in the snowstorm. On the other hand, Fisk’s obsession with this piece of art soon brings out one of the major themes of the entire show: What kind of man or woman do you want to become? Fisk’s power over monetary wealth and the criminal underworld is at the core of this concern and the painting acts as a signifier for this idea.
Moreover, this idea of power and the responsibility that comes with great power is applicable to the character of Murdock. Fisk is repeatedly shown to have struggled with what kind of man he wants to become and this is seen when he stares at the painting over and over again, which in turn signifies his increasing power as different events occur. Conversely, Murdock also struggles with who he is and what he may become as a result of his power. Murdock finds himself in the confession booth seeking guidance from Father Lantom. Through this faith, an iconic signifier which emphasises power is revealed. The juxtaposition between the iconic symbols of the church and Daredevil connotes the power of both good and evil existing within Murdoch. Faith plays a central part in the original Daredevil comic book story and it is what drives him to constantly question his own morality.
The show has been widely praised for its violent and gritty fight scenes, however as a media construct, Murdoch’s fighting prowess in these scenes act as obvious signifiers for him being a powerful character as he is often pitted against insurmountable odds. Another symbol of power is seen through Murdoch’s questioning of his morality, this is seen in episode three where he confronts Fisk’s hired killer. While his own life is at risk, he still struggles with the notion of murder. This also reflects the superhero genre conventions of morality and its idea of killing one villain to save the many innocent.
In the final scenes of episode thirteen, Daredevil obtains his most symbolic costume from the comic books. Reminiscent of the devil, his attire symbolises his identity as the Daredevil. Murdoch eventually adopts this identity as his alias as it has the power to instil fear. As an iconic sign, the media creators of Daredevil construct this verbal signifier in the dialogue where criminals often call Murdoch “the devil” in fear. Fear is therefore a sign used in representing the character of Murdoch as powerful.
On the other hand, Murdoch’s foil, Fisk is not a character revealed until the third episode. And other characters often state that “we don’t say his name.” Furthermore, characters who end up revealing his name state that “he will find me…and everyone I’ve ever cared about…and make an example”. An element of the mise-en-scene, the performance and dialogue of other characters, are therefore used as verbal signs to imply how powerful the character of Fisk is. This element of fear derives from merely saying the character’s name and again, parallels Murdoch’s use of fear.
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Connotations that represent power are seen in the character of Wilson Fisk through his attire. Episode eight, titled Shadows in the Glass, illustrates this well by beginning with a montage of Wilson Fisk’s typical morning routine. A number of visual signifiers take shape in this opening sequence to connote power. His choice of clothing acts as a symbolic sign, reflecting what society has deemed a stereotypical rich man to look like. His suits, mainly black, therefore symbolise economic wealth and power respectively as the colour of black is widely associated with power and strength. Power is also encoded through the use of non diegetic sound. Classical music is inserted by the media creators in order to reinforce this idea of Fisk being a powerful member of the upper class in which the ‘finer things in life’ such as classical music and Fisk’s skills in the culinary arts as he makes breakfast is underlined.
Politics and media, and more specifically power and media has always had an ambiguous relationship. Gross (1991) suggested that the powerful can often “influence” their own portrayals as well as others. The show takes this idea and illustrates it within episode six, titled Condemned, in a scene where the antagonist coerces the media, police and other public institutions into making the Murdoch the scapegoat for bombings that occur in Hell’s Kitchen, hence the episode name being Condemned. The representation of power is highlighted here as the media is influenced by the antagonist. Fisk’s control over the media is therefore another symbolic sign of him being a powerful character.
A visual signifier for power used effectively throughout the season is body language; the positioning of Fisk often underlines him as a powerful character. The actor casted in the role, Vincent D’Onofrio, stands at 6ft4 and weighs 130kg. While a man of this build already visually connoted as being powerful, the cinematography in Daredevil emphasises this by using low angles. By viewing the character from a low angle, Fisk is positioned above the audience and looks down on them, just as Fisk is framed in such a way that causes the audience to look up at the character, connoting a sense of power as he towers over the viewer.
In closing, the makers of the Daredevil Netflix series evidently employ signifiers that create the idea of power in order to truly illustrate how powerful a character is. A semiotic analysis of the two characters, Murdoch and Fisk, allow for an understanding of what elements have been used in order to create the impression of power a hero or villain. Most notable is the performative element of the mise-en-scene. Just as it is suggested by Berger in his analysis of applied semiotics in Semiotics and Society (2013), “body structure, body language” and facial expressions acts as strong signifiers in Daredevil.
The performance of the actors who play Wilson Fisk and Matthew Murdoch therefore play a major role in creating verbal and visual signifiers for the notion of power. Furthermore, this is empowered by the character foils in which their parallels work to empower their different powers, be it supernatural as Murdoch or economic and coercive as Fisk.
Media texts such as television and film are essentially signs containing other signs, and while some signifiers may not be obvious, a semiotic investigation aims to make these implicit signals, explicit. The employment of a semiotic analysis was insightful in regards to how ideas are constructed. The representation of power corresponds with Marxist ideology in which the powerful, such as Fisk, control the superstructure (Marx & Engels, 1947) in the show. As stated at the beginning of the research report, the idea of power often reflects assumptions made in the real world. It is therefore informative to see how verbal and visual signs in actions, performances and costume present the idea of power to the audience.
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