Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 2

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This MVU show premiered on Netflix in March of 2016, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez serving as showrunners. Principal stars are Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Élodie Yung as Elektra Natchios, Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/Punisher, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. This review contains spoilers.

The Kingpin’s fall has left a vacuum, and local crime escalates in Hell’s Kitchen as various gangs and new vigilantes fight for turf. Confronting one of the vigilantes, Matt is shot in the head. His Daredevil helmet saves his life, but he is down and out for a while until his hearing recovers. When Matt encounters the vigilante again, the Punisher captures him and ties him up, offers him the chance to either kill an informant or Castle himself. Matt chooses to escape instead. Castle kills his informant, but eventually turns himself in to the police through the firm Nelson and Murdock. Matt starts a budding romance with Karen, but his nighttime activities have attracted the attention of his old martial arts instructor Stick and his old college flame Elektra Natchios. They both turn up and try to draft him into a war against a nebulous Japanese cult called the Hand (Hand of Darkness in Japanese) bent on reanimating corpses and taking over large swaths of Manhattan for unknown purposes. Castle refuses the plea deal Nelson and Murdock negotiate for him and they have to go to trial. Matt has a ragged attendance and Foggy and Karen do most of the work, almost swaying the jury, but Castle admits to his crimes on the witness stand and is sentenced to prison, where he makes a deal with Fisk to get at the man who killed his family and then escape. Foggy uses the exposure he’s gotten at the Castle trial to find a high-paid job at another law firm, leaving Nelson and Murdock. At a final great battle against the Hand, Daredevil and Elektra are faced with overwhelming odds. She dies, but with Frank Castle’s help, Matt and Stick prevail. Unknown to them, the Hand steals her body to resurrect her. Unwilling to lie to Karen any longer, Matt reveals to her that he is Daredevil.

This season has a lot of moving parts, with Castle, Elektra, the Hand and the Iron Fist legion of ninja warriors taking up huge amounts of air time. Matt’s life pretty much falls apart, as he is unable to keep up with his job as an attorney while fighting in the war Elektra and Stick have going on with the Hand. The constant siege on his moral system provides the main theme here, as Castle, Elektra and Stick try to use Daredevil as a weapon, encouraging him to kill, while Foggy still insists on the rule of law. Elektra, especially, is a huge temptation to Matt, as she enjoys killing, and in fact, seems to be the great champion the dark Hand is expecting. In the final episode, Matt tells Elektra that the experience he’s living has freed him, and he’s willing to leave his old life to go with her—effectively giving up on his belief system. When she dies, he is left in a sort of emotional limbo.

I consider this the weakest of the three seasons, although the action crowd will likely prefer it because it launches the Punisher and Iron Fist shows and provides a lot of amazing stunt work in the battles with the Hand. Minor annoyance: all the native English speakers mispronounce yakuza, while all the native Japanese speakers get it right. Couldn’t they have gotten together on this somehow? Events that set up the plot in season 3: Fisk’s deal with Castle in the prison leaves Fisk in control of it. Looking for information, Matt visits Fisk/Kingpin in prison, where Fisk attacks him. Fisk is a really big man who kills people with his bare hands, but once he’s had his hands on Matt, he knows there’s something wrong. This is going to mean trouble down the road.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 1

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This MCU show premiered on Netflix in April of 2015, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, DeKnight Productions and Goddard Textiles. Steven S. DeKnight served as the showrunner. Principal stars are Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. This review contains spoilers.

Matt Murdock is the blind, orphan son of a dead boxer in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, and Foggy Nelson is the son of a local butcher. Matt and Foggy graduate from law school together, form a partnership and set up a law practice on their old home turf. One of their first cases is defending a woman named Karen Page from murder charges, as she has been found in her apartment covered with blood, leaning over a dead co-worker. They are later approached by a man named Wesley to defend another questionable client, and with info from this case and from Karen about bookkeeping at the company Union Allied, they start to make connections about local organized crime. They hire Page as an office manager/legal assistant and begin investigating. Matt was blinded by a toxic waste spill in a car accident when he was a child, and after his father was killed by organized crime, the orphanage staff brought in an old martial arts expert, also blind, to help him cope. Matt learned how to compensate with unusually sharp senses, and unknown to Foggy and Karen, starts to work as a vigilante at night to take care of problems the law can’t reach. Local residents begin calling him the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. When Foggy finds out about the extralegal activity, the two have a huge fight that endangers the practice, but they manage to bring down crime boss Fisk regardless.

The strongest of Marvel’s superheroes are that way because of how Marvel creators connect with the murky symbolism of the ID. That’s one of the things that makes Daredevil hard to carry off, but also makes it resonate. Matt’s blindness and his search for a moral compass in a complex world where good and evil intertwine is the heart of this show. He channels his rage at the world’s injustice into his nightly endeavors, while seeking the counsel of his local priest by day.

This show looks expensive because it is—the creators have been given artistic license. It spends huge amounts of time in character development and suspense, as we watch Fisk linger over his morning omelet and follow Matt’s difficult childhood. There is also a constant stream of imagery featuring blood, fire, hell and the devil. The award-winning opening sequence paints blind justice, the city and Daredevil’s mask all with red. Matt is constantly scarred and bloodied by his encounters with the world’s realities; the yakuza call him “fire demon,” and he sees the world in burning flames instead of black. His priest Father Lantom provides us with philosophical discussions about the nature of Satan and how good and evil reside within all of us—trying to help Matt sort it out.

The show isn’t for the faint of heart because of the violence, and it may seem to move slowly for the action-oriented because of the time spent in suspense and character development. Matt wore black for most of his nightly activities in this season. The Daredevil costume debuted toward the end of it and was criticized as pretty ugly. The first season made the show 7th most popular on TV, and it was nominated for a slew of awards. Cox was honored for his portrayal of the blind Matt Murdock at the American Foundation for the Blind’s 19th Annual Helen Keller Achievement Awards. He deserved the honor.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Congrats to the World Fantasy Winners!

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As usual, I’m running behind on this. The winners seemed to run heavily to dark work and horror, as was suggested by the list of nominees. For diversity, fiction winners include African American, Asian, LGBTQ and Jewish writers, plus the international Theodoridou. Special congrats to Tachyon, a smaller publisher which has done very well recently in the awards cycles.

NOVEL Winner (Tie): The Changeling by Victor LaValle (Spiegal & Grau) and Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit)

LONG FICTION Winner: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages (Tor.com)

SHORT FICTION Winner: “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou (Strange Horizons, Dec. 18, 2017)

ANTHOLOGY Winner: The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman (Tachyon Publications)

COLLECTION Winner: The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen (Tachyon Publications)
ARTIST Winner: Gregory Manchess

SPECIAL AWARD – PROFESSIONAL Winner: Harry Brockway, Patrick McGrath, and Danel Olson for Writing Madness (Centipede Press)

SPECIAL AWARD – NON-PROFESSIONAL Winner: Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, for FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction

LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS: Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Wollheim

Should writers be ready to present a pedigree?

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Recently I mentioned a friend whose literary agent told her major US publishers are no longer interested in books about black characters written by white writers. Is this a paradigm shift in the marketplace—publishers backing off prior requests for diversity of characters because of concerns about authenticity and cultural appropriation (i.e. members of a dominant culture taking cultural elements from an oppressed minority to use in their work)? It could be a market trend toward segregation by ethnic heritage.

So, assuming we’re headed in that direction, how are we going to define it? In the larger culture, there’s been a movement toward more strict definitions of ethnic heritage because of questions about affirmative action benefits. Recent examples include Nkechi Diallo (a.k.a. Rachel Dolezal) who is accused of falsifying African American heritage and Elizabeth Warren, accused of fabricating Native American heritage. The discussion about Warren’s status is especially interesting. She recently released DNA results that indicated native heritage somewhere along the line, but this was met by jeers that one ancestor didn’t entitle her to call herself Native American—that she had to show tribal membership in order to be a “true” Native American.

Jewishness is tricky, too. Because of benefits available to Jews, there are requirements for documentation. DNA testing can identify Jewish markers, but an mitochondrial DNA test is necessary to identify the required matrilineal connection. This is important in Israel, but hardly ever mentioned in the US. People with matrilineal Jewish heritage in the US may know it—but maybe not, as their names may not be traditionally Jewish—while people with traditionally Jewish names may not have the required matrilineal DNA. Confused yet?

Less tricky, the Jim Crow “ one drop” rule means that anyone with any African American heritage at all is considered black in the US. This makes it very easy DNA-wise to be recognized as African American. Many “white” folks who have run their DNA recently have found they actually qualify as non-white under this rule. Sure, there may be squabbles about black culture and not being black enough, but that’s beside the point. A rule is a rule. Right?

So, how are publishers going to sort this out? Do they take the word of writers about their ethnic heritage, or is greater documentation going to be eventually required? If my DNA shows I had an African ancestor somewhere along the line, can I claim that heritage for special consideration from publishers? What if I have a Jewish gene? What if my name is of Latin origin? Or does the fact I look mainly white mean I’m out in the cold?

Several times I’ve hosted arguments in the comments section about whether Larry Correia and Sarah Hoyt qualify as Hispanic and/or minority. Should we also have a conversation about Rebecca Roanhorse, who claims Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and African American heritage? The African American part is easy because of Jim Crow, but is she really a tribal member? A “true” Native American? And should she be writing about Navajo culture and not her own? Or is that cultural appropriation?

Should I start work on documenting a racial heritage pedigree? I don’t want to be left out of the “own voices” paradigm shift. Ah, what to do…

So, what is cultural appropriation, really?

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Since I’ve been discussing cultural appropriation, I had a quick look around to see what kind of opinions are out there on the subject. First, it looks like most commentators are really adamant that cultural “appropriation” is bad, while cultural “appreciation” leading to real cultural exchange is good. The problem is in deciding which is which.

Checking the definition, I found that Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. According to the article, it’s power imbalance, historically caused by colonialism and oppression, that makes something actually cultural appropriation rather than cultural exchange.

Next, how does this work in practice? Well, there are a few issues. Some writers point out that the definition describes what is generally a local or national problem, while things can look very different on a global scale. In the US, the dominant culture is defined as “white” and the oppressed are considered to be minority persons-of-color like African Americans, LatinX and Asians. These writers also note that “white” is really just a social construct used to describe the currently dominant culture in some regions like the US and EU, because the collection of ethnicities within the term is anything but uniform. “White” in the US currently includes Jews, Arabs, North Africans and East Indians, for example, along with previously oppressed groups like Irish and Italian immigrants, who were at one time defined as “non-white.” And what about Polish jokes? Is this an indication that “white” Poles are oppressed in the US the same way they traditionally have been in Europe?

This is a caveat that dominant cultures are not always just “white” as the current knee-jerk reaction assumes, but vary by time period and region. More clearly, what would be considered the dominant culture in the Middle East, for example, South America, Asia or Africa? These areas have a lot of diversity, but the dominant culture could never be defined as “white.” Is all of African culture off limits to “whites” because of colonialism? Or what about Asia? Much of it was never colonized by “white” Europeans at all.

Actually, the definition of “white” can be dangerously misapplied. For example, the 2018 Eurovision contest provided an instance where a “white” woman was vilified for appropriation of Japanese culture. Netta Barzilai performed the song “Toy” while dressed in a kimono and backed by maneki-neko cats. If you assume Barzilai is part of a dominant “white” culture that oppresses the Japanese, then the charges might be accurate. But is this true?

Well, no. Where’s the power imbalance in this case? On a global scale, Barzilia is Jewish and from Israel, a small, perpetually endangered and persecuted country, while Japan has always been a military, cultural and economic juggernaut. The problem is the assumption that light-colored skin automatically means “oppressor” and a darker complexion means “oppressed.” The end result in this case was wide-spread bullying of a light-skinned, oppressed minority woman who actually put on a great show.

Shouldn’t we be paying better attention?

Identifying with Characters Different from You

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Some time back, after reading Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, I wondered in the blog about how deeply readers from different ethnic groups and different cultures identify with the protagonists in stories. This seems like a timely subject, as there’s been a recent movement in the SFF community toward “own voices,” complaints about cultural appropriation and comments about how POC need to be the only ones to write about characters that reflect their own heritage. The scenario in the novel was that Ruff’s (culturally appropriated) Jim Crow era African American characters were represented as enjoying the works of classical SF writers now attacked as racist (Asimov and Bradbury). It’s uncertain whether Ruff meant this as irony, but he writes it dead-pan, as if his characters really are classic era SF geeks.

The novel is quite a mash-up of social taboos, and given the current climate, I’m really surprised there weren’t more complaints about the book being a) published and b) nominated for awards. However, it did raise the interesting question about identifying with characters from other races. I didn’t really get an answer from POC in the comments on my blog, so I went looking. Here’s an interesting perspective from Turkish-American Elif Batuman writing for the New Yorker.

As you might expect, Batuman describes no problems in using 1) suspension of disbelief and 2) imaginative projection to identify with alien characters. For example, to read period works, Batuman says, you have to BE the privileged, upper class male Englishman in Lady Chatterly’s Lover. This means that for the purposes of reading, you have to shift your perspectives of race, gender, social class, religion and whatever other characteristics are present in order to feel what the character is feeling and worry about his or her conflicts. Along the way, you broaden your own horizons and learn about other worldviews, some of them historical, some fantastical, some science fictional, etc. This makes perfectly good sense, and I’m sure it’s been experienced by avid readers everywhere.

Where this breaks down, Batuman says, is when she runs across references to “Turks” in these old books that betray attitudes toward her own ethnic group. This event jars her out of her projection and back to the reality of evaluating “expired social values.” As I read this, mention of Turks is one problem that she snags on, and the other is the insulting quality of the references. Presumably the first really can’t be fixed in contemporary writing, but the second one can.

Everyone is pointing out that the SFF community readership is getting more diverse. So, is “own voices” the solution for problems like this? Will it remove the speed bumps to suspension of disbelief? Or (there’s always the Law of Unintended Consequences to consider) could “own voices” just reduce diversity by segregating the SFF readership into more strictly separate groups?

Diversity versus cultural appropriation—Best current practice?

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Here’s a current report on the subject from professional writers in the field.

Thursday night after Halloween, I went to a program at the local writer’s guild that included African American poets and musicians. Excellent program. Then afterwards, some of us went across the street for a couple of brews and had a great conversation about art and marketing your work. One of the gals in the guild is an established novelist who writes research-based historical-type fiction, and she mentioned that she’s having trouble finding a publisher for her latest work: a story about a civil rights riot that took place in 1919 and includes African American characters.

Far be it from me to judge the racial heritage of others, but the writer looks pretty German. Her agent has told her the problem is the African American characters in her book. According to Agent, major US publishers are no longer interested in works from Caucasian writers that feature African American characters—not just lead characters, mind you, but any kind of prominent characters at all. Presumably this is based on the recent movement to call out cultural appropriation from “privileged” white writers.

So what am I doing today? I’m going back through my marketable works to remove anything that might identify characters by race or ethnic heritage. Sure, that really cuts down on the diversity, but that’s the end result of the cultural appropriation and/or “own voices” movement, isn’t it? A curtailment of ally-ism in support of minority issues (e.g. my friend’s novel on civil rights riots)? Less diversity in the works available for sale? Greater segregation of the market?

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