The Brilliant and Profoundly Catholic Daredevil
On November 28, Netflix canceled Daredevil—not only one of the two best shows on its streaming service, but the single best thing currently on the screen, big or small. Netflix announced its decision only two weeks after Daredevil’s show runner had outlined the fourth season of the series.
“We are tremendously proud of the show’s last and final season and although it’s painful for the fans, we feel it best to close this chapter on a high note,” Netflix explained. “We’re thankful to our partners at Marvel, showrunner Erik Oleson, the show’s writers, stellar crew and incredible cast including Charlie Cox as Daredevil himself, and we’re grateful to the fans who have supported the show over the years. While the series on Netflix has ended, the three existing seasons will remain on the service for years to come, while the Daredevil character will live on in future projects for Marvel.”
With those words, the single most positive portrayal of the Catholic Church in our present culture came to a sudden end. Even if Marvel decides to go with another outlet, it will most likely do so with a whole new cast and crew. If nothing else, it’s a timely reminder that excellence is always fleeting in this fallen world.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…”
“Perhaps it would be easier if you’d tell me what you’ve done.”
“I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done, Father. I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.”
Moments later, Matthew Murdock, masked in ninja attire, beats the stuffing out of an entire gang of sex slavers, freeing a number of captive women. Those are the opening few minutes of Netflix’s season one, episode one of Daredevil. It’s intense, brutal, and just.
A child left blind by an act of charity and parentless after a mob hit on his father, Matthew Murdock grows up in a Catholic orphanage in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. Eventually earning a law degree at Columbia University, he eschews corporate America and employs his legal skills to aid the poor through his small-time firm, Nelson and Murdock. Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, his best friend and law partner, aspires to make something of himself (meaning get rich), but Murdock’s charisma and friendship brings out his best.
True to superhero convention, Murdock did not merely lose his sight. He unwittingly traded his normal eyesight for finely honed perceptions in his four remaining senses as well as superior resistance to pain and heightened acrobatic agility. When asked if he “sees,” he replies, and I’m paraphrasing, “somewhat but as though the world is on fire.” When the viewer gets a brief glimpse of what Murdock “sees,” we immediately recognize a medieval vision of the angelic, the sainted, and the holy. Halos appear everywhere.
Throughout the first three seasons of the series, a number of broken people come and go. Karen Page, an aspiring journalist with all the baggage of a broken home, seems at first like a damsel in distress, but she reveals a developed sense of perseverance and intelligence beyond almost any other character in television. Foggy, though bumbling, always knows how to break the tension and bring all things back to perspective. Father Lantom, Matt’s confessor, stands by Matt no matter the cost. A man’s man, Lantom is a refreshingly honest priest—so rarely seen in Hollywood or on the news—who loves to drink and play pool. He’s known Matt since his childhood, raising him as a son in his orphanage. He knows exactly what Murdock does at night in the back alleys of Hell’s Kitchen and recognizes him for what he is—a saint and defender of the poor.
Other allies emerge when necessary. A nurse, Claire Temple (okay, that one’s a bit on the nose), patches up Matt when necessary, as does a nun, Sister Maggie (Magdalene—again, some obvious Catholic symbolism). An old flame, the Asian-Greek Elektra Natchios, complicates Murdock’s life with her support, sexual temptation, and heroic distraction. Murdock, for his part, would do anything to bring her to salvation, but such a commitment will exact a huge toll.
Even Daredevil’s main villain, Wilson Fisk (Kingpin), fascinates the viewer. Plagued by extreme emotions and control issues, Kingpin wants to dominate everything and everyone around him. His deeply intelligent and passionate evil is believable and thus utterly horrifying. He has become—at least in Hell’s Kitchen—a small god, able to see the moves on the chessboard six, seven, and eight turns ahead, outwitting almost everyone around him. And those he can’t outwit he murders.
Stan Lee, Bill Everett, and Jack Kirby first created Daredevil at the beginning of the golden age of Marvel Comics in 1964. Until the late 1970s, though, he remained a second- or third-rate character, usually supporting others, especially Spider-Man. Then Frank Miller took over the art and then the writing in the late 1970s and early 1980s (and, briefly, in the early 1990s). Miller is constitutionally incapable of producing anything but absolute excellence, and his runs on the character raised Daredevil to the top tier of all Marvel and, indeed, all comic book characters. One might readily combine the holy vengeance of Dirty Harry with the social justice of Dorothy Day when looking at Miller’s Daredevil. His only competitor in the world of comics is DC’s Batman.
Sadly, two major movies starring an effete and cheesy Ben Affleck (Daredevil) and a beautiful Jennifer Garner (Elektra) attempted to put Miller’s characterizations on the big screen. They failed and, in their failure, they put the cinematic future of Daredevil in doubt.
With both the massive success of the Marvel universe in cinema and the rise of Netflix, however, Disney (Marvel’s parent company) allowed for the creation of the Marvel TV universe—all centered around New York and several ground-based characters (as opposed to the heroes who fight cosmic battles such as Thor and Captain America). These include Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, the Iron Fist, and the Punisher. All of them cross repeatedly into the shows of the others, with the mini-series The Defenders explaining their connections to one another. One need not watch them all, however, to enjoy Daredevil. The first two seasons are stories in and of themselves, and season three takes place a few months after the collapse of a massive complex during the series finale of The Defenders.
When the third and final season begins, Murdock wakes up to find himself in the care of the priest and the nuns who had raised him. He, however, has lost his faith. He does not so much fail to believe in God as become convinced that God is a god who manipulates us as puppets for His entertainment. Murdock, who knows his Bible and catechism well, sees only the God who allowed the torture of Job. His loss of faith affects all around him—his neighborhood, his friends, his priest, his nuns, his parish, and even his enemies.
Throughout the third season—only recently released—Murdock’s loss of faith demands the sacrifice of a number of his closest allies, all of whom believe in him, to bring him back to redemption. There’s even a “murder in the cathedral” moment as one of Daredevil’s closet and most trusted allies dies in the name of Murdock’s faith. Throughout the show, people confess, they pray, they talk theology, and they attend Mass. None of it—praise the Good Lord—is forced. The writers, directors, and actors have made it as believable, as complex, and as appealing as life itself.
At this point, let me throw the gauntlet down. Not only is season three of Daredevil the best of the show’s three seasons, it is the best thing to appear on any screen since season one of Stranger Things, and, before that, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.
There are a number of things that make this series and story so compelling. First, every person involved brings her or his absolute best to the show. There’s nothing cheesy about any of this. It’s deadly serious, and the result is a serious work of art. Second, Daredevil as a show never dumbs itself down. It writes for those who care deeply about this world and the next. Third, it allows the art to linger. When a conversation needs 10 minutes, the show gives the characters 10 minutes. There are few of the one-liners or cute quips that so many shows and movies have devolved into, appealing to the tapioca-brain dead mass of those demanding to be entertained.
There are also few sharp camera cuts. Indeed, the 11-minute fight scene during Matthew Murdock’s escape from a prison in episode four of season three is the single finest of its type that this writer has ever witnessed, rivaled only by the failed bank robbery in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). Fans will gush over this and directors will study its 11 minutes for years to come.
Even Murdock’s fighting style is fascinating. He has combined the Irish boxing techniques of his father with a variety of Asian and Asiatic martial arts. When he fights, he fights close. Murdock, it turns out, can only be punched and bruised and cut for so long. Whatever his supernatural powers, invulnerability is not among them.
The Catholicism of Daredevil’s three seasons is not velvet piety of EWTN. Rather, it is gritty, complex, and heroic. There’s nothing that Father Lantom or the nuns do that makes the viewer cringe in embarrassment. This is the genuine Catholicism of the Jesuits entering North America, not the voluptuousness of early 19th-century Vatican Romanitas. Given all that is happening in the Catholic Church at the moment—the corruption, the scandals, the lies, the manipulations, the accusations among much of the clergy and hierarchy—Daredevil demonstrates what a real Catholic does in the face of adversity. He fights, he struggles, and he fights some more. When he questions his faith and goes through “the dark night of the soul,” his friends intervene and pick him back up.
I would love to rage at Netflix for canceling this spectacular series. Yet as my wonderfully Catholic grandmother would tell me, let’s just be glad it ever existed at all. Amen.
Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.