Season 3 of Daredevil did a lot of amazing things, but it really missed the mark with its treatment of Bullseye and mental illness. While the season overall was a masterpiece of television, its poorly developed antagonist and inconclusive grasp of mental health problems is what weakened it.
To be clear, I absolutely loved season 3. I thought it was amazing, and if Marvel cancels this show I will absolutely riot. Seeing Matt go from “I’d rather die as the devil than live as Matt Murdock” to moving back into Matt Murdock’s apartment because he has “a better life-work balance” was transcendent. Nelson and Murdock back together nearly made me cry. Sister Maggie is my hero.
But for all the season’s high notes, the lingering discomfort over how the show handled Bullseye and mental illness stopped me from being able to fully immerse myself in the story. It was disappointing to see such an amazing show drop the ball there, especially when we know Marvel can do better and they have showcased that.
Bullseye And Mental Illness In Daredevil Season 3
While the primary antagonist of season 3 was Daredevil’s classic Wilson Fisk as the Kingpin, a subsidiary villain appeared in Special Agent Ben Poindexter. “Dex” was an off-kilter FBI agent whose interactions with Fisk slowly corrupted him from a disturbed, but trying to be better, man into a fully-fledged villain.
Although Bullseye in the comics has used the name Benjamin Poindexter before, it’s unclear if that’s his real name since the villain isn’t given much of a solid backstory. He is a mysterious force… but no longer. Season 3 gives us a thorough glimpse at how Dex became Daredevil’s most dedicated foe.
We see Dex’s past through a series of flashbacks as Fisk learns about Dex’s past in an attempt to corrupt him — an attempt that will prove successful. Dex apparently lost his parents at a young age, which scarred his young conscience. He is a skilled baseball player, but when his coach removes him from a game, young Dex guiltlessly murders the coach with a well-thrown ball.
Dex then goes through years of therapy to help him learn empathy and overcome his violent impulses. His therapist Dr. Mercer becomes a grounding point for him, and Dex improves over time. However, when Dr. Mercer dies, Dex threatens to become unhinged. Luckily, she anticipated this and set up some guides for him: keep a tidy workspace, find a routine, and listen to tapes of their therapy sessions.
For a time, this works. Dex becomes a federal agent, and the strict schedule of the job keeps him on track. But when he is put under investigation for excessive violence, Fisk finds a way into his psyche. Fisk becomes Dex’s new guiding star, and the federal agent soon finds himself corrupted beyond all repair.
So What’s The Problem?
I’m not upset that Bullseye has been given a new background; as someone who doesn’t really read comics, I’m not attached to any one particular version of the character (and anything has to be better than Colin Farrell’s version). What bothers me is how the show chooses to reinvent the villain. The build-up of Bullseye and mental illness as his motivation feels lazy and cheap.
I know that, in general, many comics villains have “mental illness” as a motivation. Think of how many of Batman’s iconic nemeses end up in Arkham Asylum. The type of person who wears a specific costume and sets out to oppose a specific hero and has a specific shtick like the Riddler — that does sound a little crazy.
But there’s a difference between comics and television, especially with shows so grounded like the Marvel Netflix ones. And Bullseye here isn’t wearing his onesie and bull’s-eye cap, gleefully chasing Daredevil around New York and causing mayhem. This is a real person with real motivations. And those motivations are, apparently, vaguely inconsistent mental illness.
Bullseye And Mental Illness — But What Mental Illness?
The characterization of Dex’s mental health problems is inconsistent and relies on a lot of stereotyping. Surface level ideas about mental health conditions are used in the place of deep, accurate reporting.
Dex’s first “diagnosis” comes in the flashbacks to his sessions with Dr. Mercer. She writes on a notepad that Dex likely suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. This doesn’t necessarily not fit Dex, as BPD patients “may experience mood swings and display uncertainty about how they see themselves and their role in the world,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
It is a little odd to see this come so quickly in Mercer’s judgment, but one could use suspension of disbelief and say that this is an extreme case, as Dex has already killed a man at this point. And, after all, a note on a notepad doesn’t equal an official diagnosis. But things go downhill from there. When Dex reveals that he intentionally killed his coach, Mercer frantically scrawls out “psychopathic tendencies.”
Psychopathy is such a vague and misunderstood term that its use is problematic. It’s used in pop culture contexts to represent someone who is criminally insane, to the point of violence and aggression. But psychopathy does not necessarily mean violence; it refers to a person who is manipulative and lacks empathy. While Mercer does work on Dex’s empathy, this feels more like a cheap reference.
Finally, Dex’s adult life and the symptoms we see him struggle with as he descends into Fisk’s orbit are unclear. His obsessive fixation on order, seen through his apartment, is reminiscent of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or at least the pop culture variety thereof. The buzzing noise that signals his distress is a sensory processing issue, usually associated with autism or anxiety disorders.
But it’s not just the inconsistent nature of Dex’s diagnosis that makes the usage of Bullseye and mental illness problematic. There’s also the issue that, by depicting a person with mental illness as a violent and unstable villain, Daredevil is furthering stigma surrounding mental health issues.
There’s an idea that “crazy people” are violent and dangerous and must be removed from society before they hurt others. This is wildly inaccurate and hurts mental illness patients, who are in fact more likely to be the victim of a crime than neurotypical people. Dex’s portrayal furthers this idea that mental health patients are dangerous and only waiting for the right moment to snap.
Before, Bullseye’s origins were vague enough that we couldn’t say for certain why he did what he did. Now, by giving Dex that specific background, we know why, or we are supposed to know. Dex became the villain Bullseye because his mental illness leads him to be more inherently violent and incapable of living a normal life.
This is not ideal. People with mental illness shouldn’t have to see themselves reflected in villains on TV. This most likely causes them great distress — it certainly caused me distress — and makes them more likely to face stigma and stereotyping in their lives. To be fair, Dex was manipulated by Fisk. But the final scenes of the show hint that he’ll be back and worse than ever before.
People with mental illness are not evil, inherently violent, or scary. They are suffering, and deserve compassion and care, not stereotypical depictions. Borderline Personality Disorder doesn’t mean someone is going to become a violent villain. So why do we rely on that cheap characterization?
Marvel Can Do Better
The worst part of this is that we have already seen Marvel do a better job handling mental health issues. Even limiting ourselves to the Marvel Netflix ‘verse, these shows have done a surprisingly nuanced job tackling sensitive issues before. So why did Daredevil miss the mark so badly?
Jessica Jones gave us our first example of a hero with mental illness (while Matt clearly has some issues, this is never addressed and he never seeks treatment or acknowledges a problem, meaning I can’t in good conscience call him a hero with mental illness).
The first season of Jessica Jones showed Jess dealing with lingering PTSD from her time with Kilgrave. Jess uses actual therapeutic techniques to deal with her symptoms, and is able to overcome the crippling effects. Notably, though, she is not “magically” cured and will deal with these problems for a long time. This is a far more accurate, and sensitive, portrayal.
Then, Iron Fist really stepped up the game with the nuanced depiction of Mary Walker, who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Walker is an antagonist, not a hero, but she is given a much more layered depiction than Bullseye. Her mental illness is given depth and fair treatment, and she is inherently sympathetic. Iron Fist also stayed truer to what DID actually is, rather than relying on stereotypes.
I for one never expected Iron Fist to sensitively and deeply tackle a serious mental health disorder, but the treatment of Mary Walker was one of the high points of a stellar second season. It pains me to say that Iron Fist did something better than Daredevil, but there we are.
Step Up Your Game, Daredevil
It’s shameful that Iron Fist, whose first season was easily one of the worst things in the modern MCU, did a better job tackling a nuanced and serious issue than Daredevil, easily one of the best things in the MCU. But it’s not too late to fix it.
Obviously, I don’t expect Marvel to re-do season 3. That would be absurd. But it seems that, barring another mysterious cancellation, Bullseye will be back in the next season of Daredevil. So let’s do him justice.
If you want to keep the whole “Bullseye and mental illness” narrative, do a better job of it. Show Dex’s descent into the madness of Bullseye with compassion and sensitivity. Bring in mental health professionals to consult on the matter. Stop relying on cheap, stereotypical shorthand to get the point across.
And maybe, just maybe, let Matt get some help. Showing another hero get treatment for mental illness will go a long way to canceling out the negative stigma of yet another “crazy” villain. If Jessica Jones can do it, there’s no reason Matt Murdock can’t. And he has a lot of motivation now, with returning to his normal life and his reunion with friends and family.
Fans with mental health issues deserved better than Daredevil’s weak portrayal of Bullseye and mental illness. But there’s still time to give us what we deserve. Show more nuance. Be more sensitive. And please, stop relying on the “villains are crazy people” characterization. There’s a lot more to go with.
There was a lot of great material in Daredevil season 3. Moving forward, focus more on that. Focus less on Bullseye and mental illness and cheap characterization. If Bullseye continues, give him another shot. Give us the great material we expect from Daredevil.