Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, the titular hero of the first of Marvel’s Netflix original series, is a man of complex contradictions. Blinded in an accident as a child, he has enhanced senses, including a sonar-like “radar sense” that allows him 360° awareness of his surroundings. A lawyer specializing in defending the innocent, he wears a mask to confront criminals as “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen,” acting as an outlaw vigilante. In doing so, he also breaks a promise to his dying father – a boxer killed by a crime boss for refusing to throw a fight – to use his brains, rather than his fists to solve problems. Matt’s rationalization is that he is following the letter of the promise by way of his dual identities. And, finally, he is a devout Catholic who dresses up every night like the aforementioned Devil, to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.
Using those contradictions as a starting point, the creators of the TV series are able to contrast Matt Murdock with Wilson Fisk, a physically-imposing figure (known in the comics as “the Kingpin”) who, like Matt, came from humble and violent beginnings to become what he believes is a figure for good. Fisk’s rationalization is one common to authoritarian strong men – that he knows what is right, that violence is a necessary tool of the strong to achieve their ends, and that doing what is good and necessary sometimes necessitates operating outside the law, or exploiting and subverting that law, if possible. Any comparisons the show draws to a certain egotistical and authoritarian President are entirely unintentional, however apt and prescient. As is the use of a villain who is a follically-challenged, billionaire, real estate developer, man-child with daddy issues whose ultimate scheme involves consolidating power and enriching himself through questionable entanglements with foreign interests. No, really. What I think the series tapped into was the growing inevitability of a Trump-like figure – and he, like Fisk, is the robber baron of old writ large – in our increasingly coarse and money-influenced political system.
Framing this just as “See! Trump IS a villain!” would be too simplistic a reading. What is interesting is the way the show allows us to approach our recent political catastrophe in which we were presented with what were (to some) two similarly corrupt individuals aspiring to a position of power (beyond that which their wealth and privilege already afforded them). At the same time, current events offer a new perspective on the series. Daredevil presents two figures battling for, essentially, control of Hell’s Kitchen, each using the institutions of the church, the law, and the press to achieve their ends – albeit, with lots of kick-ass fight scenes along the way. In a world of superheroes, particularly as a genre, things are usually more black and white than in the real world. Daredevil is ultimately the good guy, even if his “white” is more of a light-ish grey, and Wilson Fisk is the bad guy.
The complexity of the themes in the series stems from the questions it raises. What is the line between organized religion as a foundation of morality and a mechanism to excuse and forgive transgressions? What is the purpose of the law if not the pursuit of justice? To what extent can we trust the press/media to inform us of the truth? And do these institutions have any meaning when they can be so easily manipulated or ignored by “good” men like Matt Murdock, let alone monsters like Wilson Fisk? The reality is that all of these institutions are made up of, and controlled by, people. Fisk knows this, and is able to exploit that vulnerability by playing on people’s greed and fear. What allows Matt to triumph is the understanding that the strength of those institutions lies in the ideals they represent – justice, truth, and hope.
The key, I believe, is in realizing that, at best, we are Matt Murdock. Not in the idealistic, “male power fantasy” (and that’s a phrase that has a lot of implications) way, but in recognizing that we’re all corrupt and transgressive in a multitude of ways. That, morally-speaking, Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk represent points at either end of a spectrum (which some would argue is horseshoe-shaped, overemphasizing the similarities and de-emphasizing the differences). We lie, we cheat, we steal, and we rationalize to ourselves that if we are doing those things we’re doing them for the greater good. We don’t tell our friends, “Yeah, your party sounds lame” but “I’m sorry, but I’m not feeling well” – even when we’re not sorry and feel fine. We order things on Amazon, and then when we get to the line on our tax form asking if we did so (and, consequently, need to pay more sales taxes) we check “No” and move on. We curate our Facebook page to create perfect echo chambers to support our viewpoints, and we like and share things that pop up that we agree with, even when that means further disseminating misinformation.
What a series such as Daredevil allows us to see, though, is that just because we all do bad things it doesn’t mean that we’re all the bad guy, or even worse that there is no bad guy. The show presents us with a range of morally or ethically problematic figures – from Karen Page, Matt’s secretary and love interest who we discover early on has secrets and transgressions of her own, to his law partner Foggy, who is, if not more eager, at least more open than Matt about his desire to exploit the system for the greater good and enough money to pay the bills – as a way to emphasize that. None of them are bad guys, and so we root for them to succeed. So, where is the line? Well, the devil is in the details (pun, against my better judgment, intended). And, those details amount to a rationalization: Who is hurt by their actions? Matt Murdock’s? Criminals. Karen and Foggy’s? No one, that we’re aware of. Wilson Fisk’s? Well, potentially, people like Karen, as we see in the first episode of the series. Later, there’s a kindly old tenant of one of the buildings Fisk owns who refuses to move, interfering with his plans. And, slight spoiler warning, not everyone you’d like to see safe makes it out of the series alive. Clearly, he’s the bad guy.
And, despite, perhaps, more grey in the real world, there are bad guys here, too. And those bad guys vary in the degree of their badness (despite my comparison, I’m in no way arguing that Hillary Clinton is the Daredevil of the presidential race – particularly if your metric for “bad guy” includes “will drop a crap-ton of bombs on brown people around the world”). What I would argue is that, even if we rarely agree on who the good guy is, we should be able to agree on the bad guy. If anything, that’s the thematic purpose of superhero fiction, and especially when done with the skill and complexity of Daredevil – to define parameters of “good” and “evil” so that we aspire to the former and recognize and oppose the other. What Daredevil does is define those parameters in a way that much more closely aligns with our world than usual.