Daredevil's Irish Catholic Guilt Will Be His Superpower Against the Punisher
The devil of Hell's Kitchen will have his faith tested in Season Two.
The season two teaser for Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix, about blind attorney Matt Murdock who moonlights as the vigilante Daredevil in Hell’s Kitchen, gets heavy on Catholic symbolism. Really heavy.
In it, scenes from the first season are stylized as stained glass windows and paintings as if Raphael himself had spent the weekend binge-watching. The teaser is loaded with soundbites that perfect for dissecting Murdock’s reconciliation of his conflicting identity and values.
“Father,” he asks his pastor. “Why do I feel so guilty?”
Any Daredevil fan worth their salt knows the character references Catholic themes so often. But what about his Catholicism makes Daredevil such a unique superhero? Why does he have faith in a world populated by Norse Gods and intergalactic beings? And how will that faith stand against Punisher?
Though Matt Murdock gained his powers in a chemical accident that made him lose sight, he didn’t become a scientist or a genius playboy. He stayed a city boy with a blue collar dad and grew into a midtown lawyer. This atypical superhero occupation (so often scientists, businessmen, or journalists) proves fruitful for the character’s philosophies. He’s literally blind justice.
In the 1960s American comic books were smack dab in the Silver Age, a period remembered for comics featuring more superheroes, sci-fi, and mining the pop art movement for design. Marvel Comics were hitting its stride with books like The Fantastic Four, X-Men, and The Incredible Hulk, which were sometimes whimsical, sometimes harrowing tales of superheroes with scientific origins. But in 1964, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Bill Everett wrote and published Daredevil #1, which presented a left turn for the House of Ideas.
In The Men Without Fear, a documentary included in the DVD of the 2003 Daredevil starring Ben Affleck, Stan Lee explained he only wanted to make another flawed superhero. Imperfect heroes were the rage at Marvel at the time, but Lee saw blindness as the flaw he was looking for. But he worried it would offend people. “I felt they would feel, ‘What’s this guy trying to do? We can’t do things like that. Is this some sort of a parody?’ I was nervous about it.”
Turns out the blind community were fine and loved Daredevil. But renowned scribe Frank Miller, known for his revolutionary reinterpretation of Batman in The Dark Knight Rises and comics like 300 and Sin City, held the pen for Daredevil in the ‘80s and dwelled on blindness as a theme. Not a trait. He emphasized Murdock’s Catholicism, because “only a Catholic could be a vigilante and an attorney at the same time.”
“Religion and politics have a profound relation to comics,” Miller breaks down Daredevil The Men Without Fear, “because cartooning is taking reality and making it moreso.”
During his Daredevil run, Miller unleashed his personal frustrations onto Murdock. “Matt’s been the character I punish for all my mistakes and sins. Because he really is a flawed hero, he’s a man who intends to do good and causes much damage.” The result? Some of the best Marvel comics in history.
Daredevil: Born Again from 1986 is a standout. In it, Miller breaks down Daredevil to have him “reborn” as a powerful crusader. While some of Miller’s gross gender politics is at the forefront — the women are characterized only by their relationships to men, and Karen Page has a career in porn due to a heroin addiction — the story is a retelling of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection juxtaposed with a Christmas setting.
Desperate for a fix, Karen sells Murdock’s identity as Daredevil and the intel finds its way up to his nemesis, Kingpin. Obsessed with ending Daredevil once and for all, Kingpin uses his connections to bankrupt Murdock, frame him of perjury, and bars him from practicing law. Kingpin firebombs Murdock’s apartment, brutally beats him and leaves him for dead in the East River.
From there, Daredevil wanders Hell’s Kitchen in imagery evocative of Christ’s walk to Golgotha — complete with the three falls — until he meets a nun, who is his estranged mother and falls in a mirror image of the Pietà. After nursing him back to health, Daredevil is “resurrected,” renewed and reborn and discredits Kingpin’s reputation and regains his life, both as Matt Murdock and Daredevil.
Upon the show’s premiere, Stephen Martin of The Irish Post commented on Daredevil’s uniquely Irish take on superpowers. Though he’s Catholic, there’s an old Celtic flavor because of Daredevil’s grounded abilities despite “ultra-performance” sharpness. “Whereas Zeus and Jupiter are considered magical ‘gods,’ the likes of Cúchulainn are more grounded” Martin writes. “Similarly, while Superman and Spider-Man can fly or climb skyscrapers, Daredevil must rely on strictly human traits.” In the comics, Daredevil possess “radar sense” that substitutes vision allowing him to “see” his environment but the Netflix series diminishes radar to a more general “super awareness.” Thus, Daredevil is about a superhero without any real superpowers.
Catholic reconciliation and a grounded Celtic heritage enable Daredevil to patrol Hell’s Kitchen unlike other superheroes and vigilantes. They’re typically agnostic, because more often than not they’re gods themselves or hold roots in science, which purport proof and evidence with little room for blind faith. And Murdock is a lawyer — evidence and proof is his day job.
And yet, Daredevil leaves room for blind faith. “Sometimes we have to do some things outside of the law,” says Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock. Former Daredevil comics writer Kevin Smith — himself a lapsed Catholic — said in an interview with Slate that he loves Daredevil for carrying the burden of vigilantism with the pursuit of greater justice. “I think the angst that goes along with being raised Catholic is quite obvious in that character and inherent to how powerful [he] is and can be.”
Season two promises a new challenge of self-reflection for Murdock. He’ll be fighting Punisher, a man who twists justice to his extreme. In the comics the two have famously fought over who was the more righteous, and their failure to resolve speaks volumes about their spiritual shortcomings than it does their strengths.
“I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done, Father,” Murdock says engaged in the Sacrament of Penance in the first episode. “I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.”