We’re getting ready for Daredevil’s second season, and since it’s a safe bet that the show’s obsession with Matt Murdock’s working-class Catholicism isn’t going anywhere (in fact, given these posters, it looks like they’re doubling down?) we think it’s an excellent time to revisit the moral arc of the show’s first season!
One of the things initial reviewers commented on is Daredevil’s unexpected grittiness. The violence is real, and the consequences of that violence are also real. When Matt Murdock snaps a man’s arm, the femur ulna? bone breaks through the skin. When Karen Page is choked with a sheet, the welt shows on her neck for several episodes afterwards. People make their choices, and then they face the consequences. This realism quickly made Daredevil one of my favorite entries the MCU.
The other thing that I love is how the show’s brutal world is informed by the particularly Catholic morality of its hero. There have been a few conversations online about whether this show gives us an accurate portrayal of Matt’s religion, and I would argue not only that it does, but that by taking his religious beliefs seriously, and weaving Catholicism into the fabric of the show, Netflix has given us the deepest, most emotionally resonant version of Daredevil we’ve ever had.
Warning: this post comes with SPOILERS for the FIRST SEASON.
Tony Isabella made Murdock’s Catholic faith explicit; Frank Miller brought it to the forefront when he, ah, resurrected the character in the 1980s; and Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev referenced it in their run in the early 2000s. But I’d say it generally remained more of an affect than a central part of Matt’s character—Matt’s long-lost mom is a nun! Bendis sets a five-issue arc in a church basement support group!—It’s window dressing that’s been adding an interesting check box to the character, not informing his actions.
The 2003 Ben Affleck film, like some of the comics, made half-hearted attempts to ground Matt’s dual nature in his religious beliefs—some of its fight scenes are set in a church!—but none of these really deal with the fact that Matt’s moral beliefs fuel his life as a hero, and how his particular belief system would set him apart from other heroes. I should probably mention here that I unabashedly love this film, because it has my favorite moment of dialogue in any superhero movie ever:
Daredevil: Hey, that light? At the end of the tunnel? Guess what? That’s not heaven… That’s the C train!
It’s such a great specific West Side reference, it’s so horrifyingly cheesy, Affleck delivers it with such conviction, and best of all, it’s extra hilarious ’cause when I moved to New York the C train was NEVER on time. You could stand on the platform threatening a rapist for hours, and you’d never get to kill them.
The Netflix series has chosen to make religion a foundational aspect of Matt’s character, expressing his struggles with his faith through his actions, and weaving that inner turmoil with outer drama to build him into a hero. Because the show is infused with Catholicism—and actually enacts a specific type of theology, as opposed to simply utilizing well-known imagery and shallow references—it’s able to create an interplay between the fictional world of the show and the real world of Catholic faith in a way that I haven’t seen on television…well, ever?
Catholicism is unique among Christian denominations in that one can be culturally Catholic without believing in the dogma; one can still define oneself by or against the religion, years after they last went to church. (I’ve never seen a “Recovering Methodist” t-shirt.) It’s also very easy to slap the label “Irish Catholic” on something, and rely on people’s familiarity with cultural stereotypes to fill in the rest of the character. At first, I thought that’s what Marvel’s Daredevil was doing. The modern portion of the show starts in the most stereotypical Catholic place, the old school confessional–despite the fact that it’s common now for confession to be a conversation between the priest and parishioner, conducted face-to-face, not through the much-fetishized screen. The scene gives us the easiest trope, a priest who’s willing to sit through five minutes of exposition and backstory instead of telling their parishioner to get to the point and actually confess something. This is consistent with the “priest as sounding board” cliché that shows up in many superhero movies (including the 2003 Ben Affleck debacle). So I assumed that we were just in for the usual shallow treatment of religion, but then the show slowly started incorporating more and more Catholic imagery.
First, the weight of violence is on all of the characters, all the time. In the comics, Matt makes occasional reference to explaining himself to St. Peter, depicted as the gatekeeper of Heaven. In Netflix’s version, he says simply that his soul will be damned if he kills Wilson Fisk. Then he leaves with the intention of doing it anyway, staking his own salvation against saving New York. Karen is the one “good” character who actually murders someone, and rather than waving it off as a necessary act of self-defense, Karen scrubs herself raw in the shower, suffers from nightmares and insomnia seemingly for weeks, and even after Fisk has been put away, harbors such guilt over her actions that Matt senses it. The man she killed was himself a murderer. He told her that he would torture and kill everyone she loved, and she killed him to save her own life. But none of that really matters, Commandment-wise.
The show is also not shy about mortification of the flesh. Matt Murdock is a relatively normal guy for the MCU, other than his super senses and his training. He doesn’t have Wolverine’s healing ability. He can’t deflect bullets or turn his skin to metal or flame. So he keeps getting hit, keeps getting wounded. Over the course of the show, we see this process–old wounds reopen, cuts heal slowly, bruises linger, and each fight seems more labored. By the last few episodes, Matt is openly limping and wheezing his way into fights. The point is that he keeps going anyway.
The show makes a point of focusing in on one particular wound, a knife wound to his right side that opens up a couple times over the series. While it’s a fairly obvious reference to the similar wound suffered by Jesus Christ during the crucifixion, it’s significant because it isn’t just lazy stigmata imagery. Jesus’ side was pierced by a spear as a proof of death before he was entombed; each time Matt’s wound begins seeping blood, he’s that much closer to his own death. The more I thought about this, the more I believe I’m right in thinking that we’re never meant to see Matt’s exposed abs purely as eye candy. Even in the first episode, when he sits up shirtless in bed, he’s already bruised from a fight on the docks. Even though the Matt Murdock of the comics is, well, kind of a slut, and even though the show stresses Matt’s charm and attractiveness, there is never a moment when we’re invited to look at him as just a sexual object. He is always in pain.
Another element I find significant, which might just be me reaching, is in the shift in Daredevil’s crimefighting career. If I remember the comics correctly, Matt’s first action as Daredevil—after all the training with Stick—is to hunt down the men who killed his father. But in Netflix’s version, the first time he ever puts on his mask and uses violence as a means to a morally correct end is to stop a pedophile who’s abusing his daughter. He puts the guy in the hospital—only after Child Protective Services fails to help the girl—and decides to keep fighting crime at night when he realizes that intervening has lifted a moral weight from his shoulders. Now this could be just a simple way to make Matt a good guy. Putting a child in a danger that only Matt knows about, and then showing us that the only way to save her is to circumvent the law, immediately puts the audience on his side. But… the same thing could have been accomplished through a bullying arc, or an attempted rape plot, or any other number of crimes with innocent victims. The fact that he strikes back against a pedophile (and later a human trafficking ring), when considered alongside the care he receives in a Catholic orphanage, seems to be a push back against the child abuse controversies that plagued the Church a few years ago.
After a great balance of flashback and present action, some fun worldbuilding, and a couple of instant-classic action sequences, the whole show grinds to a halt in episode 9, “Speak of the Devil”. (I mean this in a good way.) Matt returns to church, and finally takes Father Lantom up on a latte date. What follows is a fairly extraordinary moment, which I think is only possible now, in the era of narrowcasting, streaming TV, and cable drama. Without the fear of offending a sponsor, or alienating any particular religious affiliation, Matt and the priest speak seriously about faith. There is no snark, no irony, no embarrassed backing away from the idea of belief in the modern world.
Matt: Do you believe in the Devil, Father?
Father Lantom: You mean… as a concept?
Matt: No. Do you believe he exists? In this world, among us.
Father Lantom: You want the short answer or the long one?
Matt: Just the truth.
Father Lantom gradually tells him his story. As a seminarian, the priest was a well-trained, intellectual religious academic, who believed that “the devil was inconsequential, a minor figure in the grand scheme.” Since “Satan” only means “adversary” in Hebrew, he believed it was a scare tactic used to “drive people into the church.” We’re not dealing with some pious Bing Crosby figure here. But after witnessing utter horror in Rwanda, he came to believe that the devil was real, and that “he walks among us, taking many forms.” In some corners of the internet, the idea of two grown adults sitting and having a conversation about faith would be laughable. In others, being open to discussing the thornier issues of the nature of evil and a person’s moral obligations would be considered too dark. But here we are, sitting at this table with them, and no one’s laughing.
Matt revisits the church twice over the next two episodes, actually coming inside this time rather than opting for a basement espresso. He comes right up to the edge of telling the priest his plan to murder Fisk, and says that he knows he’ll be damned if he goes through with it. Later on, as Matt and Karen try to deal with Elena’s death, they have a mirror conversation. While Karen isn’t religious, she does believe that Fisk will pay, cosmically speaking, for what he’s done, even if the law can’t touch him. What’s interesting is that Matt, the man of faith, can’t accept that as enough.
This ends up being the true turning point of the show–the final four episodes are all fallout from Matt’s decision to go against his morality and try to kill Fisk. After he’s nearly killed by Nobu, Claire comes and patches him up again, and tells him that the only thing she remembers from Sunday School is that “martyrs, saints, and saviors all end up bloody and alone” and leaves. Foggy feels so betrayed by Matt’s lies that he quits the law firm for a while, and they’re both too preoccupied with their own drama to help Karen, who ends up facing Wesley alone and inadvertently causing Ben’s death.
In the original Daredevil movie, Matt uses a priest as a sounding board rather than a source of actual moral guidance. In Man of Steel, Clark stops in to a local church for shelter, and asks some rhetorical-sounding questions of a (Protestant?) minister we’ve never seen before. The man gives vague answers, and mostly affirms things that Pa Kent already said—again, he basically just acts as a sounding board. By contrast, the priest in Netflix’s Daredevil is a fully-realized character. He was an academic in seminary, the type of nerd who studies the etymology of the Hebrew word for “Adversary” and then gleefully tells his fellow students why his studies prove Satan doesn’t exist. He’s comfortable admitting that the medieval Church used scare tactics against its flock. And then we learn that he worked in Rwanda, not as some sheltered missionary stereotype but seemingly to help people during the genocides. Now, 20 years later, he’s working in a church in Hell’s Kitchen, which, in the show’s reality at least, is still a pretty rough neighborhood. This is not the stereotype of a moralistic prude, or a religious zealot, or someone who would abuse a kid, or scare people with vision of hell. He genuinely wants to help people.
The role he plays becomes even more important during his fourth conversation with Matt. They talk about the Devil again. Matt is exhausted from his fight with Nobu and Fisk, and at a loss about how he should go forward. Now that he knows he was willing, but unable, to murder, can he still be a hero? How can he defeat Fisk without losing his soul? He asks Lantom if he still believes that God made everyone with a purpose, then “why did he put the devil in me? Clawing to get out?” Lantom muses that maybe it was God who invented the devil as a warning “to tread the path of the righteous.” Matt thinks this over, and while we don’t quite get the Sherlock epiphany moment, it soon becomes clear that this is where his superhero persona is fully realized. Matt decides that he needs to become a symbol, and since there isn’t much of a bat population in Hell’s Kitchen, he instead goes with the Devil.
Here, Daredevil is literally born in a church, during a heart-to-heart conversation with a priest. It’s also worth noting that only after this does he refer to Father Lantom as “my priest” when he tells Foggy about him. So over the course of the 13 episodes Matt has gone from saying that his grandmother was the Catholic in the family to considering himself a member of Father Lantom’s flock.
And, as though to prove that Fisk and Murdock are mirrors of each other, Wilson’s own language becomes overtly religious over the course of the first season. After Vanessa is poisoned, he sits by her bedside, and tells her that while he once attempted an imitation of faith, he does not know how to pray, “so I can’t pray for you. All I can do is make a promise, one that not even god can prevent me from keeping—the people that did this to you, they will suffer.” He later compares Ben’s faith in human nature to Christ’s, and finally becomes the Kingpin not through a grand statement of power, or a bloodbath, or a crime spree, but through a retelling of the story of the Good Samaritan:
I always thought I was the Samaritan in that story. I’m not. I’m not the priest, or the Levite, or the Samaritan. I am the ill intent that set upon the traveler when he was a on a road that he should not have been on.
It’s a little on the nose, but it’s also thrilling: here we have a villain who is consciously choosing to be an agent of evil. Much like Nolan’s Joker, who considers himself an embodiment of chaos, Fisk has just elevated himself from a mere underworld boss to a true adversary.
See, this is the question I’m always asking myself: how would the sudden appearance of superheroes change society? When Mjolnir, a weapon out of ancient mythology, suddenly pops up in the desert, what does that do to people’s assumptions about other mythologies they’ve learned, and the beliefs that guide them now? Cap, Iron Man, and the Hulk can all be explained with SCIENCE, but Norse gods? Aliens crushing New York? If they’re out there, what else might be out there?
If we limit ourselves to the MCU, the Iron Man trilogy brushes up against this when Tony says that he thinks he lived “for a reason.” The first Avengers movie features a few scenes of Natasha describing Loki as a god, and talking about an idea of moral balance. But we don’t really get to see the man on the street aspect—the droves of people turning to their religions for help, or turning away from them in horror, now that everything they thought about the universe has been proven wrong. The people who realize that the stakes of good and evil might be higher than they thought, and might try to become heroes or villains on a grander scale than ever before. Daredevil is the first MCU work that’s tackled it, and they did it by taking Matt Murdock’s Catholic worldview and running with it.
An earlier version of this article was originally published April 22, 2015.