Daredevil Lives Here: The Geography of Hell’s Kitchen, Matt Murdock, and his alter-ego, Daredevil, The Man Without Fear.
I finished watching Daredevil on Netflix. My personal opinion is Netflix has issued a giant challenge to any and all studios who desire to migrate comic book characters into TV shows. A challenge of, “Do better than us. We dare-devil you.” The bar has been raised on quality, content, writing, and cinematography with Netflix’s first foray into the comic book genre. I’m not sure how “Jessica Jones” will play out; I’m not familiar enough with her character to be a good referee of what to expect.
Iron Fist and Luke Cage, the final two characters Netflix is developing series for in prelude to a Defenders movie, also a Netflix production, are characters I am familiar with. Based on Daredevil, buy Netflix stock now because when the Luke Cage and Iron Fist series is released network fiber worldwide is going to burn up.
One attractive element of Marvel Comics is the setting of some titles. Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and perhaps Jessica Jones, will all take place in and around New York City. Where does Spider-Man live? New York City. Where is the Fantastic Four office tower? New York City. Avengers? NYC.
A word of advice to Marvel Comics and Disney: New York City may have reached saturation levels for superheroes. Can’t Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Kansas City, or New Orleans have a regional superhero office?
Familiar territory is a great way to hook readers and viewers. Analyzing why I’m not so interested in some DC Comics titles, in fact I would say “most,” is due to the vague geographies DC Comics uses in their stories. I have nothing against Gotham City aka New York City, or Metropolis (an amalgam of Toronto, Ontario, and New York City) but I can’t visit those places. I can’t get online and use Google Maps to plot where action takes place, or map the movements or locations of events. Sure, Metropolis, Illinois is a real place, with a larger than life-size statue of Superman, has a newspaper called, “The Daily Planet,” a place to which I have been a few times, but I cannot plan a trip to visit Gotham or Metropolis, or Central City. Central City is the metropolis in which Arrow and Flash are set.
Central City has its own unique problems with geography. Even DC Comics doesn’t really seem to know where Central City is located. In Flash #228, writers place Central City in the geographic location of Athens, Ohio. In the 1985-1986 “Crisis on Infinite Earths” story arc, Central City appears to be Kansas City, Missouri. One year later (1987) in Flash Volume 2, Issue 2, Central City is shown to be in Florida. In a later book, Green Lantern Hal Jordan referred to Barry Allen as the “Illinois Flash” leading readers to infer Allen was at least from Illinois. Finally, the 2014 Flash airing on CW allegedly shows Flash to be set in Missouri, specifically the episode “The Man in the Yellow Suit.” I haven’t seen the episode, yet, but now I must, at least placate my curiosity in how geography is portrayed on the show.
The use of real geography, real toponyms (place names) is a way to make a connection with an audience. We know where this place is. We know we can visit this place if we want. The place has real landmarks, steel and concrete icons more real than the fictional characters or events. Fictional characters existing in a real place has the benefit of being a one-off representation. By one-off, I mean, “the place is real even if the characters are made-up, are fiction.” DC Comics tend to be two-off; “the place is fictional and the characters are fictional.” Writers must really struggle to overcome the psychological hurdles of disadvantaged geography plus fictional characters. On the other hand, fictional places are easy to build, modify, and destroy as the case may be. Real places really don’t like blown up or being detached from our physical plane and transported to other dimensional planes. Much easy to do this with fictional places. So, there are advantages and disadvantages to using real and fictional places in creative works.
In Netflix’s adaptation of Daredevil, we are treated in every episode to a single place, Hell’s Kitchen. No, Hell’s Kitchen is not in Gordon Ramsey’s house, nor any of his restaurants, nor is Hell’s Kitchen to be found in any layer of Hell, at least I don’t remember reading about any kitchen in Dante’s Inferno.
Hell’s Kitchen is located in the borough of Manhattan. New York City comprises 5 boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. Hell’s Kitchen is one of many neighborhoods in Manhattan, and despite the somewhat unsavory name, has shaken of a history of violence and is now one of the most up-and-coming locations in NYC. Here is a great site for a slideshow tour of Hell’s Kitchen, courtesy of NYCGo.com.
One might ask, “Why “Hell’s Kitchen?” Couldn’t someone think of a better name? Why not, “God’s Flowerbox?” or “Heaven’s Dog Park?” “Hell’s Kitchen” seems like the culinary institute of Lucifer, where all the cuts of meat are people, pets, animals from the Endangered Species list.
Good question. I wish I had a good answer for you. The history of Hell’s Kitchen is far more interesting than I am going to make it sound. In the late 1800’s and into the middle of the 20th century, the neighborhood south of Clinton and north of Chelsea, bounded on the west by the Hudson River, and to the east by downtown, was probably as close to Hell as one could get in America. Crowded, full of new immigrants trying to make a buck, no air conditioning, Hell’s Kitchen was probably like living in the bowels of an angry giant. Irish gangs, the Mafia, and individuals slinging drugs, money, sex, and contraband made Hell’s Kitchen a law enforcement nightmare.
The technical boundaries of Hell’s Kitchen, near as I can discern, limit the neighborhood to a few blocks between 59th and 34th streets and west of 7th Avenue (some say as far east as 9th) to the Hudson River. If this doesn’t seem familiar, it really should. The Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, takes place at the Macy’s on 34th and 7th, the edge of the Kitchen. The musical West Side Story was inspired by life in Hell’s Kitchen.
Details are scant as to who was responsible for the toponym, Hell’s Kitchen, but no one disputes the propriety of the name. One myth surrounding the naming of the neighborhood involves two police officers working the neighborhood in the late 1800’s. The rookie officer voices the sentiment the neighborhood must be like Hell. The seasoned officer responds back with something to the effect, “No, Hell’s climate is still too mild. This is like Hell’s Kitchen.”
“Why “Hell’s Kitchen?” Couldn’t someone think of a better name? Why not, “God’s Flowerbox?” or “Heaven’s Dog Park?”
Hell’s Kitchen is a pale shadow today compared to the rich and storied history of bygone eras. Today, he Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is located here, as well as one of Mario Batali’s finer dining establishments. Visitors can tour the Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier which served the U.S. from the middle of World War II to Vietnam, moored in the Hudson.
Geography seeks to answer two questions. The first question is, “Where is it?” Whatever it is. Usually, this is the easier of the two questions to resolve. The second question is, “Why is it there?” The “why” of something is usually far more interesting and far more complicated than the first question. Describing where something is located is typically fairly trivial. Yes, boundaries might be complex, the processes which cause a situation or phenomenon to arise might not be trivial, but locating and describing a phenomenon is fairly easy. Today’s mapping software and ability to analyze data can help investigators lock down a position.
Readers may also find these questions formed another way. Market analysis, such as endeavors used to find suitable building sites, suitable office locations, or appropriate retail centers will see the same two questions posited as “site” and “situation.” The questions to the effect of, “where is the site?” and “what is the situation?” Again, the site essentially refers to the specific location. For instance, a site may have a street address, certainly has a geographic coordinate, a latitude (y) and a longitude (x), a UTM coordinate, or a State-Plane coordinate.
Above, I have detailed the where, using a map and some cross streets to identify the location of Hell’s Kitchen. The why is better left to historians or good journalism, perhaps. A New York Times article, “Turf of Gangs and Gangsters,” (NYT, 2007) provides a historical backdrop as to why the Kitchen is an appropriate setting for Daredevil.
The showrunner for Daredevil, Steven DeKnight (known for “Spartacus”) wanted to take Daredevil “darker” than the Marvel movies. Using Frank Miller’s vision of Daredevil, Netflix’s Daredevil takes place in a Hell’s Kitchen of today, yet with elements of the late 1970’s and 1980’s intertwined within the atmosphere of one of New York’s most notorious locations. Gangs, drugs, and organized crime infuse the body of Hell’s Kitchen like an infection, like malaria, racking the neighborhood with violent episodes before quieting, convalescing, only to be racked again by death and violence. Hell’s Kitchen was a den of iniquity, the Mos Eisley spaceport of 20th century United States. I am sure if Obi-Wan Kenobi had visited Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s he might have been heard to utter, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
The environment imagined by Frank Miller (“Sin City” and “A Dame To Kill For”) is lousy with organized crime. Not simply the influence peddling of Wilson Fisk who seeks to re-build Hell’s Kitchen in his own image, but truly globalized organized crime. The Russian mafia controls the docks. The Chinese mafia vies for control of portions of the drug trade. The Japanese Yakuza leverages properties and development projects to launder money, engage in human trafficking, and control merchandise. Matt Murdock tries, usually unsuccessfully, to protect small business owners, rent-controlled tenants, and people who have been victimized by the Fisk, his minions, and his allies. What successes he cannot achieve in court in exacts as Daredevil, trying to get across a very important message: “You might win in court, but you’re gonna lose in Life. I might not kill you, but I will certainly cripple you.” As if his enemies will share a commonality, a physical disability or permanent impairment.
In thinking about the impression Daredevil left on me, a though occurred to me. I’ve watched all of the episodes of “Law & Order” with Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin, who is currently starring as Det. Joe West on CW’s “The Flash”). I’ve also seen all of the “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” episodes until Stabler left. Anyone who has ever watched those episodes can remember at least one episode where the killer or molester or rapist was not convicted. Some episodes had some really shady people who were never indicted for anything yet were 99.9% guilty of something, yet Lenny and Ed, or Stabler and Benson were figuratively hand-cuffed by the legal system. Some episodes would simply go to credits, leaving the audience with all of these unresolved questions and feelings.
Daredevil is going to resolve an issue. Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson may resolve a conflict in the courtroom. But, if proceedings go sideways, and Justice is not served according to Matt’s interpretation, Daredevil is going to dangle someone from a building, or toss someone from a rooftop, or break a kitchen sink over their head. And, I think the resolution of watching someone dirty and evil get their just reward by having their shit kicked in provides some emotional and psychological release the Law & Order series didn’t always provide. I also find interesting Wilson Fisk is played by Vincent D’Onofrio, a great actor, also part of the Law & Order cast, playing Det. Robert “Bobby” Goren.
Netflix has produced a great show; I truly enjoy the work of Frank Miller and the vision of Steven DeKnight, and the willingness of Netflix to let this series happen. I look forward immensely to the next three series and the Defenders movie.