Daredevil Is The Catholic Guilt Superhero Marvel NeedsPosted: April 20, 2015
Despite my overall (and usually enthusiastic) fandom for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the one area where my attention has been lacking is their television shows. With apologies to Agents Carter and of SHIELD, I’ve just never been able to arrest my attention on either of them for any real length of time, and I know I’ve missed out on some great narrative developments for the universe as a whole. I took a step towards rectifying that by marathoning all of Marvel’s Daredevil not too long ago. While the series is markedly different than anything in the MCU so far, I also think it makes for a very good addition to the world, a great expansion of the mythos, and a damn good story in its own right. It’s taken me awhile to actually organize my thoughts on this show enough to put together a post about it, mostly because on a thematic, emotional level, it makes for a very murky and uncertain story, but in a way that is fully earned by its leads. Ultimately, what makes the series stand out from its Marvel brethren and provides new thematic layers to the universe overall all come down to the characters of Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, and the Catholic-style guilt/righteousness that defines them.
The differences between the man now known as Daredevil and the Avengers are clear right from the get-go, and not just in terms of scale. Matt Murdock is much more uncertain and much more conflicted about his actions than any of the major Marvel heroes we’ve seen so far. Even Bruce Banner has made peace with his powers and what he is capable of in a way that Matt has not. Throughout the series there is much hand-wringing by Matt and his supporting cast over his level of force, and even the morality of his actions in general, which seems absurd compared to the unapologetic violence the Avengers have collectively performed over the years.
However, this all takes on a much different flavor when you consider Matt’s Catholicism, something that is not regularly highlighted by the show but is always present in its themes and tones. While Matt seems mostly certain that fighting evil is the right thing for him to do with his abilities, he also feels guilt for the violence he performs in service of that goal, which in turn makes him feel guilty about the goal itself. The arc of the series is about Matt finding that balance between unequivocal force and moral righteousness, and as frustrating as his lack of costume and moniker is through most of the series it also symbolizes that internal struggle. In the end, he decides to embrace the fear he has of his own failings and hopes to personify that for those criminals that don’t feel that way but should. Matt hopes to be the devil that drives people towards the light, just as his perceived inner darkness does for him throughout the show.
This struggle of Matt’s is contrasted by Wilson Fisk, who winds up having the opposite arc of our Man Without Fear. While Matt needs to convince himself of his own righteousness so he can recognize the virtue of his actions, Fisk’s journey is to recognize the inherent evil of his actions and come to terms with the criminal warlord he truly is. Fisk’s recognition of his true nature in the finale (represented in a terrific Jules Winnfield-esque monologue about the Good Samaritan story) is chilling. Fisk was dangerous enough when he thought he was a good man, who knows what he will be capable of when he has fully embraced his darkness? And yet this doesn’t keep the writers from humanizing Fisk beautifully, portraying him as a damaged man, empowered by the woman he loves while also shackled by the traumas of his childhood. The new Kingpin makes for a very compelling and identifiable antagonist, on the same level as Loki in the MCU, and highlights the shades of gray inherent in the sorts of street-level battles that the Avengers do not face.
Beyond the personal stakes of Murdock and Fisk, the arc of the season also lays the groundwork for the themes that will define the MCU over the next year, particularly in Captain America: Civil War. The way I see it, the mistrust of the “Masked Man” and the anxiety Matt and his friends have over his actions are indicative of the sort of growing mistrust of superheroes in the MCU overall. Daredevil takes place in the shadow of the Battle of New York; Hell’s Kitchen’s current shithole state is in no small part due to the havoc wreaked by this massive superhuman battle, and it seems that association has colored the public’s reaction to the idea of a masked crimefighter in their neighborhood. While the Avengers are obliquely referenced a few times throughout the show, it is never in the expressly glowing terms that one might expect, given our view of them as an audience. It also doesn’t help that the line between good and bad is much less certain on the streets, as personified by Wilson Fisk. The moral ambiguity and uncertainty of Daredevil might feel like a huge change of pace for the MCU, but it’s an important expansion of the universe. With this side of the universe in mind, it should make the ideological divide of Civil War more understandable and effective.
These were the most effective and impactful parts of Daredevil for me, the ones based in character and world-building. There is a lot more I could say about the show outside of these boundaries, but those are things I’m less passionate about and honestly I just wanted to get this article out there already. While I don’t think Daredevil was a perfect effort from Marvel, I do think that it adds some important nuance and difficulty to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Just because a world has heroes like Captain America and villains like Hydra in it doesn’t mean that people like Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk can’t or wouldn’t exist. Just because there are some battles with absolute right or wrong sides doesn’t mean there isn’t moral ambiguity. Daredevil exposes the more difficult and painful sides of the superhero question, and does so in a way that supplements the more black-and-white world Marvel has already built while keeping it grounded in two emotional and complex characters that are as good as Marvel has ever done. This is the way it should be done, and I’m sure that will continue in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the foreseeable future.