Marvel’s Daredevil series on Netflix quickly gained a reputation of being dark, brooding, and not your usual Marvel Cinematic Universe story. You might expect this series review to explore the story’s themes of confronting evil, but not with the added themes of conquering evil and maintaining one’s idealism. But I’ll argue that Daredevil explores all of these themes as an integral part of the plot.
The series is about idealistic young lawyers Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson. The two want to help their neighborhood — a New York City section informally called “Hell’s Kitchen” — by using their knowledge of the law to aid the residents. It should be noted that Hell’s Kitchen seems to have changed, just as the sections would in real life, but its current state is almost as bad as it was in the original comics many years ago. This is explained in-universe by the Chitauri invasion that occurred during The Avengers film.1
After the invasion, the people of Hell’s Kitchen are trying to rebuild. But the constant corruption controlled by the criminal elements of the city makes this difficult. To combat this, Matt Murdock decides to fight crime on his own, outside the law, in a vigilante disguise. At first he makes some progress in his efforts to clean up the city. Then he bumps into a massive wall.
A shadowy force is manipulating the neighborhood’s underworld, and until he finds a way to stop them, all of his efforts are in vain. The main person controlling these elements is ruthless crime lord Wilson Fisk.2
Speak of the Devil
Newcomers to Daredevil will quickly discover that Matt is blind. So how can he fight crime? The story soon reveals the cause and nature of his blindness and other senses. As a boy, Matt saved an elderly man from an oncoming truck and was doused by chemicals all over his face and eyes — chemicals that stole his sight but increased his other senses. His new abilities allow him to “see” a vague picture that, by itself, leaves him at a disadvantage to others. But Matt can also use his other heightened senses that give him a vast sensory advantage over normal people. He uses these abilities to fight for justice — both in the courtroom as lawyer Matt Murdock, and on the streets as the vigilant who soon becomes known as The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.
As Matt struggles more and more with his desperation to stop the increasingly triumphant Fisk, he considers violating his morals and murdering Fisk. This is a real struggle for him, and he almost makes a grave mistake.
In the midst of this, he consults at times with a priest (Matt is a lifelong Catholic) with whom he speaks about the nature of evil. It turns out the priest, Father Lantom, has already figured out that Matt is “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” or “the man in the mask,” among other names.
Father Lantom discusses with Matt his own past skepticism and theological liberalism — and when Matt quietly snarks about how Lantom doesn’t sound “very Catholic,” the priest has the good grace to admit the strangeness of his past beliefs.
Lantom then goes into a philosophical examination of the origins of the Devil and discusses how in the past, he didn’t believe such a malevolent being existed. Interestingly, he doesn’t use typical arguments, but historical ones about the development of the figure from the Bible. Originally, the Devil was just an “adversary.” He wasn’t known as one mythic figure of evil.
(Of course, Lantom is right. You see, just as with resurrection, the truth of the Devil wasn’t known to the ancient Hebrews. Therefore, the Old Testament Jews recognized him wrongly before the prophets and the revelations of the New Testament showed his true nature and history.)
But when Matt begins to assume Father Lantom doesn’t believe in the existence of the Devil, the tells a story about when he worked with poor people in Rwanda. He once saw a good man whom no one, not even enemy soldiers, wanted to kill. For hours an enemy commander spoke to the good man to learn about the one whom even his own soldiers refused to kill, or asked to kill more mercifully than the warlord wanted. After this talk, the commander brutally murdered the man and his family. When that happened, Father Lantom says, “I saw the Devil. So yes, Matthew, I believe he walks among us.”
Devil in the details
This understanding — that hideous evil does exist — strengthens Matt in his desire to defeat Fisk. But the old priest cautions him not to cross the ultimate line. Perhaps some of his actions can be defended, or perhaps they can not, but do not cross that final line. Do not kill the adversary, or you risk becoming like him.
But Matt can’t see how he can defeat the corrupt Fisk in a non-lethal way. Fisk has already successfully turned most of the city against Matt’s alter ego, has gained media adulation and the praise of Hell’s Kitchen residents — and controls a great deal of the police department and justice system. At this point, Matt honestly believes he must resort to actions that contradict his Catholic beliefs.
One issue that really caught my attention was how the series makes clear that Matt is not entirely pure. At night he goes out and beats up people — bad people, yes, but human beings with whom the story frequently sympathizes. How does Matt reconcile this with his oaths as a lawyer? Can his crossing of so many moral lines justify his crossing more? Is he good just because Wilson is bad? This moral struggle is encapsulated by a brief exchange between Mattew and his priest.
Matt: I know my soul is damned if I take his life. But if I stand idle, if I, if I let him consume this city, all the people that will suffer and die …
Father Lantom: There is a wide gulf between inaction and murder, Matthew. Another man’s evil does not make you good. Men have used the atrocities of their enemies to justify their own throughout history.
So the question you have to ask yourself is: Are you struggling with the fact that you don’t want to kill this man, but have to? Or that you don’t have to kill him, but want to?
“Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is the righteous man who gives way before the wicked.” Proverbs 25-something. I never can remember.
Matt: Meaning righteous men have a duty to stand up to evil.
Father Lantom: One interpretation. Another is that when the righteous succumb to sin, it is as harmful as if the public well were poisoned. Because the darkness of such an act, of taking a life, will spread to friends, neighbors, the entire community.
During this time of uncertainty, Matt’s success rate is increasingly spotty. He just can’t find the means to defeat Fisk. And indeed, when he tries to cross the line, it doesn’t work. It is only when, with the help of his best friend and partner Foggy (who knows his secret) and his and Foggy’s secretary Karen (who does not know his secret) that Matt finally finds his moral foundation and begins to actually succeed in stopping the villain.
Foggy and Karen are also crucial to this story and its themes. The fact that they are there for him, and he and the two of them forgive each other for their mistakes, is what, along with his faith, helps anchor Matt so that he does the right thing in the end.
If I had more space, I would sing Foggy’s praises, because he is really such an awesome character on the show. Karen is also someone who bravely fights for justice and is very fun. I’ll settle for this exchange in which Foggy pulls Matt from the brink:
Matt: Ben is dead, Foggy! Because he got dragged into this, and now you’re doing the same with your ex.
Foggy: We’re being careful.
Matt: This has to stop. Fisk has to – I have to stop this before there’s no one left to bury.
Foggy: Matt. Matt! Last time you went after Fisk, I found you half-dead. More than half. You go after him in the mask again, he might kill you. Or you might kill him! Which would probably have the same effect on someone as Catholic as you are.
Matt: What am I supposed to do?! How do I stop him?
Foggy: By using the law, Matt, like you told me and Karen to do. That’s how we take him down.
This journey matters. This is just some average “there are some things I can’t do as a hero” concept reflected in many stories about a hero’s reluctance to kill. It is a morally grounded idea that evil exists, and no hero should want to become that evil.
A time to kill?
At the same time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) doesn’t portray all forms of killing as evil. This is Scriptural. The Bible does differentiate between acts and purposes of killing other human beings. It shows that murder, self-defense, accidental killing, and war are all entirely separate acts — not the same action, universally right or wrong, but different actions, though all the result of sin.
In the MCU, the heroes sometimes need to kill bad guys, but they are separate acts of accidental killing, self-defense, or war. But this is not true of Matt, who would do the specific act of murder if he tries stop Fisk outside the law.
Finally, Daredevil like many stories frequently compares its hero and villain. For Matt and Fisk, their motives seem the same: They want to improve Hell’s Kitchen. But ultimately, they choose opposite ways to meet their goals. Matt and Fisk both use morally murky means at times, but in the end, Matt refuses to cross his moral boundary after truly wrestles with his beliefs in a way that Fisk, who rejects religion, never considers. The ends do not necessarily justify the means for Matt, but for Fisk, they do.
You see, evil and good are opposites. In every one of us, they both exist. There are no completely good or evil people, other than Jesus Christ who is completely Good. We all have sin natures, we know right and wrong, and we all have free will. How we as Christians use that free will to act, whether to serve God or not, is our choice, guided by God’s Holy Spirit.
The existence of evil, not giving into that evil impulse ourselves, keeping our idealism and ethics intact, and seeing the incredible choice we all have to make — these are themes Daredevil honors.
- Funnily enough, the characters only refer to said invasion as “the incident.” I guess references to it don’t fit the “gritty” tone of the series. ↩
- It should be noted that I will refer to these men as names other than “Daredevil” for Matt and “Kingpin” for Fisk. This series is essentially the origin story of both men. Though they oppose each other in their respective roles from the beginning, neither man is really his alter-ego until the very end of the series. ↩