Daredevil and Disability Focus

So far, a lot of the posts in this series have focused on superheroes. I want to be more inclusive, and I didn’t intend to focus so much on one genre, but I’m trying to let the series developed organically around the discussions that my posts create.  Part of the reason that superhero stories come to mind so quickly is that they’re one of the few places that consistently show characters with disabilities in prominent roles. That’s a problem in itself, and I plan to address that issue, but since I’ve already talked about Oracle, Professor X, and Iron Man, I think this would be a good time to bring up Daredevil. (the movie.)

Cover of "Daredevil - The Director's Cut ...

Cover via Amazon

Before I start addressing problems, I want to be clear.  I think Marvel should get a lot of credit for trying and should be recognized for the simple fact of having characters like Professor X and Daredevil–not to mention making a movie about a costumed hero with a disability.

Daredevil was created in the 1960s, and like Professor X, he was incredibly progressive for that time period. He first came to my attention in 1989 with a movie called The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. During the 90s, he guest starred on episodes of the Fantastic Four cartoon and Spiderman: The Animated Series. Most non-comic book readers know him from the 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck, and this post focuses on that film.

Overall, I liked the movie. It was fun, reasonably well executed, and it was the first time that the superhero with a disability had been placed center stage in a movie. Those are all good things. It’s also very positive that Daredevil has the kind of physically active costumed identity that I was talking about last time in my post about Oracle and Professor X.

The problem with Daredevil is that everything about him emphasizes his disability.  Villains and even other heroes within the story don’t know that he’s blind.  He’s known within the continuity of the Marvel movieverse as a hero who’s very agile, and…well…a Daredevil.  To audiences, though, he’s very much “the blind superhero.”

In addition, his other senses are all superhuman, and he has such a good memory that his lack of sight becomes basically a non-issue.  The only time that isn’t true is when he suffers from sensory overload, which again makes the disability take center stage.

Daredevil is known for heroically overcoming his physical limitations and being a kick ass hero “in spite of” having a disability. There’s nothing wrong with that, to a point.  It’s important to show that characters with disabilities can do the same jobs as anyone else. The issue I see is that Daredevil represents the opposite extreme of the problems I talked about with Oracle and Professor X. All three of them present disability as a tragedy. For some people, it can be, but that isn’t true of everyone, and Daredevil is the most extreme example I can think of to illustrate the stereotype of the “heroic” and “inspirational” person with a disability who has a big “I can do whatever I want!” sign floating over his head.

Theatrical poster for the live-action movie Da...

Theatrical poster for the live-action movie Daredevil starring Ben Affleck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like Daredevil. I respect Matt Murdoch. There was more to the Daredevil movie than Matt’s blindness.  It’s still a problem that the two most prominent costumed heroes with disabilities are Iron Man (whose movies gloss over a major story point related to the character having a disability at all) and Daredevil (whose disability is his superpower.) I want to see more costumed heroes (or villains? how awesome would that be?) who just happen to have a disability, like Geordi Laforge.

Yes, people with disabilities can do whatever we want.

Yes, there are challenges and struggles that people living with disabilities experience and able-bodied people have no idea about.

When the majority of iconic characters with disabilities are figures whose disability is the biggest story point, it sends the exact OPPOSITE message that I, as a person with a disability, want to see in the media.  There is room for Daredevil.  There also needs to be a counterpoint to him.

Like I said earlier I think Marvel should get credit for trying. Daredevil has been around for a long time. So has Cyclops, and that character presents a somewhat more balanced view of a costumed hero with a disability. (I think Scott is annoying in the X-Men movies, but I liked him in X:TAS, there’s no rule that says characters with disabilities have to be paragons.) There aren’t enough big name characters with disabilities, but in the realm of superhero stories, Marvel’s lineup has consistently had them, and the Marvel Movieverse hasn’t ignored them.

So, again to close with key points.

  • Using superpowers or technology to make a disability a non-issue defeats the purpose of having it there in the first place. It’s basically the same thing as “handwaving” the disability away at the end.
  • When the majority of iconic characters with disabilities are figures whose disability is the biggest story point, it singles the characters out, instead of allowing them to be integrated as equals with their peers.
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