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Daredevil and the Devil

There’s endless speculation about the religious affiliations of superheroes. Why on earth would that be?

Well, because Superman, Batman, the Hulk, and the rest fight evil. This is why they’re heroes, although to a man, they’re troubled by the violence their battles entail. This is also is why there’s no superhero called the Negotiator or the Orator. . .or the Editorialist. Words are unconvincing weapons; the pen is not mightier than the sword. Superheroes are not arguments; they end arguments.

Clark Kent is a Methodist (or Lutheran); Bruce Wayne is a Catholic (or a High-Church Episcopalian); Bruce Banner is Catholic. But when the capes come out (or Banner transforms into a green goliath) – when the battle is on – the hero’s religion is war, and violence is his liturgy.

The creators and marketers of superheroes are usually coy on questions of faith. Wayne may be Catholic, but we never see him at Mass. And as a group, the whole lot of superheroes is apparently lapsed with regard to the practice of faith.

But there is one gritty superhero who goes to church a lot, and his name is Matt Murdock. He’s a bit like Bruce Wayne, except without the eleven-figure trust fund. He has no otherworldly powers, no x-ray vision; he can’t fly; he doesn’t transform; isn’t a mutant. When he takes to the streets to clean up Hell’s Kitchen, he often goes without a weapon, although like the founders of karate – fourteenth-century Okinawans who turned their fists and farm tools into armaments to fight Japanese invaders – Murdock employs whatever he finds in the alleys of Manhattan’s Midtown West to compliment the martial-arts skills he has been perfecting since he was blinded in childhood.

He calls himself Daredevil, and he takes Catholic guilt to rare levels. But he takes this guilt and anguish to the Church, for conversations with a priest – in and out of Confession. An article at Slate.com (a website not known for its theism) makes the point as plainly as possible: “Daredevil’s Greatest Superpower is His Catholicism”

I said that Murdock possesses no otherworldly powers, but that’s true too of Wayne and Banner. The billionaire Wayne (much like Tony Stark, aka Ironman) can afford to make himself all but invulnerable with really cool gadgets, the better to expiate the boyhood trauma of witnessing the murder of his parents. Banner, a victim of child abuse, finds his rage multiplied exponentially after a close encounter with a “gamma bomb,” much as Peter Parker became the Web-Warrior after a spider bite. For Matt Murdock, it was a car accident in childhood that took his vision but heightened his other senses, giving him second sight.

Matt Murdock (Mr. Cox) with Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie)
Matt Murdock (Mr. Cox) with Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie)

As the editors at Imagine Games Network put it: “Some of the best superhero stories in the medium have involved the Man Without Fear. There’s just something deeply appealing about a man whose Catholic guilt forces him to don red tights and venture out into the streets each night to battle ninjas and psychopaths.”

            Daredevil was created in 1964 by comic-book legend Stan Lee and illustrated by Bill Everett. Lee, a Bronx Jewish kid (no kidding: 92 today, Lee took over Timely Comics – which would become Marvel – as editor-in-chief at the age of 19), has long been known as the creator of superheroes “who could have bad tempers, fits of melancholy, and vanity; they bickered amongst themselves, worried about paying their bills and impressing girlfriends, got bored or even were sometimes physically ill.”

Frank Miller, whose comic-book, graphic-novel, and movie credits include the “reimagined” Dark Knight series of (very Catholic) Batman stories, plus Ronin, The Spirit, Sin City, and 300, is an Irish-Catholic kid out of Maryland and Vermont, who took over the Daredevil opus in the 1980s and gave it its more theologically focused – and darker – identity.

The most recent version of the Matt Murdock/Daredevil saga is now available on Netflix. Charlie Cox (There Be Dragons), a fine English actor, plays Murdock as a man so driven to fighting injustice as to seem almost suicidal – very much in the spirit of Miller’s Daredevil. At least that’s the way series creator Drew Goddard and a host of writers and directors have portrayed him over the course of thirteen episodes.

Mr. Cox is a bit short on the sort of muscle the cartoon character has, but that was true – in costume anyway – of Bruce Lee when he played Kato in the 60’s live-action TV series, The Green Hornet. But Lee – whose own Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist) forms the basis of much of the fighting seen in the new Daredevil TV series – taught that power is directly related to speed and precision. And that makes the lean Charlie Cox the most convincing Daredevil so far. (Ben Affleck played the role in a 2004 movie, about which enough said.) We’ll see if the character is “fleshed out” in Season Two (2016).

This is a TV experience very much worthwhile for TCT’s readers, although don’t imagine you’ll be getting larger lessons in Catholicism. Daredevil features just one sacrament: Penance. Still, confession is good for the soul, and I very much enjoyed Murdock’s conversations with the priest at his parish church. A typical exchange:

Matt Murdock: Do you believe in the Devil, Father?

Father Lantom: You mean . . . as a concept?

Murdock: No. Do you believe he exists? In this world, among us.

Lantom: You want the short answer or the long one?

Murdock: Just the truth.

Lantom relates the story of time he spent as a missionary in Rwanda, concluding: “I saw the Devil. So yes, Matthew. . .I believe he walks among us. . .taking many forms.”

The series features fine performances from Vincent D’Onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll, and Eldon Hensen. Daredevil is rated TV-MA for violence and some scenes of post-coital affection among unmarried people.

Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is available on audio.