Netflix’s Daredevil: Superhero with a Real Soul

The unexpected news that Netflix had produced and released 13 episodes of Daredevil filled me with a mixture of nostalgic hope and earned skepticism. I loved the Marvel comic as a kid, but I also dolefully recalled Kevin Smith’s 2003 film, latent with bad Ben Affleck and shallow Hollywoodization of Daredevil’s gritty mythology. I feared this second installment would again sanitize the melancholic beauty of Marvel’s dark morality tale. Upon viewing creator Drew Goddard’s inspired retelling, fear thankfully transformed into appreciation. In a year slammed with CGI-heavy superhero nonsense, Netflix’s Daredevil shines as one of the better dramatizations of a classic comic book in recent years. Many factors contribute to its overall excellence, but none more so than the willingness of the series’ creators to sophisticatedly depict faith and doubt. Indeed, a large part of the success of the series lies in a brave choice to take religion seriously.

I still celebrate the brilliant storytelling of strips like Daredevil. A young genius named Frank Miller drew Daredevil when my 9-year-old self first discovered it on the comic rack of the Oak Park News Arcade in Minot, North Dakota, in 1979. I had no idea who Miller was, nor did most of the pre-Dark Knight/Sin City fan-base when Marvel granted him creative control of the fledgling second-tier comic. In retrospect, I believe that my early love for these comics shaped a storytelling aesthetic that acknowledged moral ambiguity and appreciated the noble burden of remaining good in a fallen world. On a more personal level, Miller’s rich and visual interpretation of Daredevil provided a needed sanctuary from my awkward preteen self during my parents’ divorce. In short, comics nurtured and saved me, and the broodingly dark universe of Hell’s Kitchen – Daredevil’s home – provided me with refuge and hope. Yes, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

A large part of the success of the series lies in a brave choice to take religion seriously.

Daredevil’s origin story fittingly shared my prepubescent angst. A preteen Matt Murdock and I were roughly the same age when he tried to shield an elderly man from a runaway truck on a Manhattan crosswalk. When the truck crashed, leaky canisters of toxic waste braised young Matt’s face, blinding him but also mysteriously intensifying his other senses. Soon thereafter, the mob killed Matt’s boxer father for refusing to throw a fight; the younger Murdock found himself a blind orphan with emerging superpowers in an impossibly confusing world. That Matt eventually overcame his disability to become a Columbia-educated attorney by day and crime-fighting superhero at night only made his improbable victory all the more cool. Yeah, okay – this sounds pretty corny now. But to nerdy, awkward preteens everywhere, a disabled lawyer/superhero absolutely warranted hero-veneration.

RESPONDING TO EVIL

Having efficiently established Daredevil’s origin story, the series moves forward to freely explore its dominant theme: how should good people respond to evil in the world? When we first meet Matt, he has already compromised a bit. Realizing that his noble and selfless service as a lawyer for the oppressed of Hell’s Kitchen will never rid his neighborhood of murderous scoundrels, Matt resorts to beating up bad guys as a masked, midnight vigilante. In one of multiple impressively written exchanges, a Russian mobster named Vladimir portends Daredevil’s looming moral compromise. Vladimir questions the masked man’s uprightness, stating, “You think you are different from me, but you’ll get there soon enough. Men like us always do.” The morally stung Daredevil defends his approach to fighting crime, stating, “I don’t kill people.” Vladimir wisely retorts, “The moment you put on the mask, you got into cage with animals. Animals do not stop fighting until one is dead.” As much as he needs to be stopped, this Russian mobster might be right.

A series of high-stakes conversations between Matt and his parish priest, Father Lantom, provide further meditation on the problem of confronting evil in the world. Raised by nuns in a Hell’s Kitchen orphanage, Matt still takes his Catholicism seriously. First in the confessional and then over a series of lattes in the church kitchen, he confides his unlawful plans to Father Lantom. Torn by the hypocrisy of his double life, Matt seeks absolution from his spiritual leader. The salty, middle-aged vicar of Hell’s Kitchen refuses to offer easy blessings. These pivotal conversations pulse with complex and unresolved tension. As a priest, Father Lantom fears the destructive power of evil in the world and laments his powerlessness to stop it. His practical nature admires Daredevil’s violent efforts to redeem and restore his urban community; his pastoral side fears for the soul of his conflicted parishioner.

As in all good comics, evil becomes manifest in a centralized villain. Daredevil’s Joker/Lex Luther/Green Goblin is Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin, a multimillionaire land developer with a murderous past. The best villains often begin with noble intentions. Fisk genuinely shares Daredevil’s dream of cleaning up Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood in which he suffered in poverty as an outcast child. Whereas Daredevil protects the impoverished citizens of his blighted neighborhood by beating to a pulp criminals who prey upon them, Fisk schemes to rid Hell’s Kitchen of poverty by evicting and/or exterminating the undesirable poor and replacing their squalid dwellings with high-priced condos. Of course these two Machiavellian figures must eventually collide.

Prone to introspection, Fisk admits his desire to believe in something larger than himself. At one point, he admires his mother’s faith in God while acknowledging his own inability to find comfort in religion. He also knows his Bible. In a dazzling sequence near the end of the series, Fisk reinterprets the story of the Good Samaritan with the erudite hermeneutics of a deeply twisted biblical scholar. To guard against spoilers, more should not be said than this: this villain takes God’s word seriously.

NOT FOR EVERYONE

All of this praise should not imply that Netflix’s Daredevil is for everyone. The series’ impressive attempt to take seriously the Fall predictably results in scenes of gritty violence that may disturb sensitive viewers. On a potentially more troubling note, the series arguably shows a cavalier attitude toward the effects of violence. Daredevil’s primary method of deterring crime involves beating up bad guys. Like his punch-drunk boxer father, he sometimes gets the worst of it. While Matt clings to his code that he “does not kill people,” he does not seem to realize or admit that people occasionally die when hit on the head with a billy club or slammed against a brick wall. In a non-comic-book universe – a world where a young man from Baltimore recently died in the back of transport vans after being tackled to the ground by police – Daredevil’s violent methods would likely kill even without intent.

Fortunately, the positives of this excellent new series far outweigh its less responsible depictions. I started binge-watching the episodes shortly after seeing Marvel’s The Avengers at a theater. Certainly, The Avengers will win all box office battles. Netflix’s gritty, low-budget superhero drama is, in my opinion, superior in most meaningful ways. In place of soulless CGI special effects, Daredevil relies on graceful fight choreography featuring the novelty of actual human beings moving in space; in place of celebrities mugging their way through high-profile sequels, Daredevil’s low-profile cast of fine actors portray rich characters navigating complex relationships; instead of ridiculous and incoherent action sequences, the careful plotting of 13 balanced episodes would turn Aristotle into a superhero fan.

Most important, Daredevil does more than provide a platform for one-dimensional super villains to monologue about global domination. Rather, this brooding series takes evil seriously enough to show us a hero who so desperately wants a better neighborhood that he may even dare the devil within himself to get there.

Robert Hubbard teaches theater at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.

Image: Predicta model television 1958-59 DMA by  User:FA2010. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.