Before Daredevil premiered on Netflix in April of last year, the closest Marvel’s Cinematic Universe came to portraying a superhero of faith was Captain America’s line, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that” in The Avengers three years earlier. As much as I like and admire Steve Rogers as a character, however, I’m not sure I’d describe him as a man of faith. Certainly he’s a moral man who believes in God, but his faith doesn’t play a major role that we can see on-screen.
Matt Murdock (played by Charlie Cox), on the other hand, is a character defined by his faith. The way he’s portrayed in the Netflix series leaves no doubt that Matt is a staunch Catholic and that his faith influences every decision he makes. The religious elements don’t make Daredevil any less violent (this is not a show for children or squeamish adults), but the series’ engagement with religious themes does make it one of the most intriguing things on screen right now.
It’s rare to see a character portrayed as unabashedly Christian in today’s culture, at least outside of films produced by a faith-based group such as Sherwood Pictures. It’s even rarer to see a man of faith cast as the hero of a gritty drama. Yet Matt Murdock is a practicing Catholic who proclaims his belief on-screen, as well as a seriously impressive superhero.
Quick note: I’ll be honest, I don’t know all that much about Catholicism. I’ve known Catholics and counted several my friends, read a few books written by Catholic authors (both fiction and non-fiction), and encountered some facts about Catholicism in studying British history, but I wouldn’t really consider myself knowledgeable on the subject. If you’re reading this as a Catholic and I say something stupid, please correct me with love in the comments 🙂
Quicker note: this article contains spoilers for both seasons of Daredevil. Spoilers for Season 2 will be clearly noted.
To Kill, or Not To Kill
Everything about Matt’s choices is influenced by his Catholicism. He won’t kill because he firmly believes it is morally wrong. That is explored strongly in the first season, when we learn Matt refuses to kill his enemies and tries his best to prevent others, including his allies, from killing as well. It’s back again in the second season when
we learn in flashbacks that Matt’s college romance with Electra ended after she asked him to kill the man who murdered his father. A few episodes later, we find out that she has a mission to pull Matt away from the faith that was, in part,why he’s not still fighting alongside Stick. It didn’t work. Matt wasn’t a perfect enough Christian to say no to premarital sex or to leave Electra when she was stealing cars and breaking into people’s houses, but his faith runs too deep for the possibility of murder to not act as a wake-up call.
Unlike Batman, who doesn’t (typically) kill because it’s part of his crime-fighting code, Daredevil doesn’t kill because it’s part of his faith. The only way he would consider breaking the law of God that prohibits murder is if he thinks sacrificing his soul would save enough people to make it worthwhile. That’s why he considers killing Wilson Fisk near the end of Season 1. “I know my soul is damned if I take his life,” Matthew says, “But if I stand idle” people “will suffer and die.”
For most action heroes, there wouldn’t even be a question of what to do — you just go out and kill the bad guys. Matt, however, cares about what taking another person’s life says about him. He doesn’t take this question to his bartender or girlfriend though (as an equally introspective but less religious character might). He takes it to his faith in the form of his priest, Father Lantom, who reminds him, “There is a wide gulf between inaction and murder, Matthew. Another man’s evil does not make you good. … 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?”
A Question of Motive
In the same conversation where Father Lantom talks with Matt about whether or not Matt should kill Fisk, he also says, “Few things are absolute, Matthew. Even Lucifer was once an angel. It’s why judgment and vengeance… are best left to God. Especially when murder is not in your heart.” When Matt asks how Lantom can know what’s in his heart, the priest responds, “You’re here, aren’t you?” The fact that Matt wrestles with how his faith fits into his mission to fight for justice is one thing that proves he’s a good man. Our motivations matter.
Matt works as a lawyer by day trying to right wrongs within the system, then goes out at night as Daredevil trying to bring justice to the people who were overlooked by the law. In the first episode of Season 2, Matt tells Foggy that the woman they helped as lawyers by recommending a battered women’s shelter would have been murdered by her husband before her escape if Daredevil hadn’t put the man in a hospital. Daredevil goes around fixing the problems that Matt Murdock can’t.
An article that appeared on Slade.com last year said Netflix’s Daredevil understands that Matt’s religion is “essential to his identity … which is what makes the show work.” The article continues, “Murdock’s brutal justice is more than his way of taking personal responsibility for the sins of others; it’s his way of atoning for his own. Murdock’s real superpower, and also his biggest foe, is his Catholicism” (from “Daredevil’s Greatest Superpower Is His Catholicism“). Matt’s religion is what drives him to fight for justice, yet it’s also what makes him question himself at every turn.
Guilt and Redemption
Throughout his crusade, Matt punishes himself as much as the people he’s after. In “Daredevil, Catholicism, and the Marvel Moral Universe,” Leah Schnelbach connects this with “mortification of the flesh.”While Matt Murdock does qualify as a powered-person in the MCU, his powers don’t give him fast healing or make him invincible. To fight evil, “He has to keep getting hit, keep 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. … The point is that he keeps going anyway” (click here to read the full article). Matt’s only partly joking when he responds to Claire describing him as “blind vigilante who … can take an unbelievable amount of punishment without one damn complaint” by saying, “The last part’s the Catholicism.”
Mortification of the flesh is a concept very much tied to penance in the Catholic version of Christianity. It’s referenced even more clearly into Daredevil in Season 2, again by Claire (mild spoiler warning). Matt’s beating himself up (metaphorically, this time) for not saving a group of people soon enough. She suggest he take off his “hair shirt” and “start thinking about climbing down off that cross of yours and spending some time with us normal people for a change.” The idea of Matt martyring himself is a theme throughout both seasons.
MAJOR SPOILER WARNING
One of the aspects of Season 2 I found most interesting was the association of Matt with Jesus Christ. He’s not portrayed as a “Christ-figure” per say, but there’s more going on here than just Claire’s overt reference to Matt crucifying himself. Much like I argued when talking about Luke and Vader in Star Wars, we can compare Matt’s insistence that redemption is possible for Electra to God “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9, ASV). While Matt is willing to die for her, what’s more poignant is that he’s willing to sacrifice himself by living for her.
I struggled with this scene in the final episode. Why would Matt give up everything he’s working for in Hell’s Kitchen to run away with such a morally dark character as Electra? Upon further reflection, I realized he didn’t intend to abandon his faith by offering to take this action. While being with Electra does bring out the “devil” side of him, he’s not offering to run off with Electra just so he can be free of responsibility or guilt. He wants to do this because of his stated reason — that she “gets” the part of him that no one else understands — and because of the redemption theme running through this season. He has to believe Electra can be good and he’ll give up his own life to help make that possible.
Matt’s not a perfect Christian or a perfect Catholic. Some might even question whether or not he qualifies as a “good man” after putting so many people (criminals, yes, but still people) in the hospital. Where do we draw the line? and what is the responsibility of a moral man confronted with evils that he can fight, but isn’t sure at what cost? Those are the sort of questions that Marvel’s Daredevil offers for our consideration. It’s not interested in a sanitized version of Christianity that focuses on faultless people living lives of bliss and, quite frankly, I’m not either. And neither’s the Bible, if the struggles of David, Peter, Paul and so many others are any indication. God never tells us our walk with Him will be without wrestling. It’s how we respond to the crises of faith — the moments where we wonder if all this is worth it — that count.