Netflix’s latest series, Marvel’s Daredevil—all 13 episodes of which began streaming Friday—opens with the titular blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) in confession. As he babbles about the complicated state of his family, the priest interrupts him, suggesting it might be easier if he just confessed what he’s done. Murdock responds: “I’m not seeking forgiveness for what I’ve done, Father. I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.”
To really understand Daredevil—both the comic book and the new show—you need to understand his Catholicism.
Created by Stan Lee, Bill Everett, and Jack Kirby, Daredevil No. 1, which was published in 1964, told the story of Matt Murdock, a boy blinded by a radioactive chemical while saving an old man from being hit by a car. Though he lost his sight, Murdock’s other senses were heightened to superhuman standards, giving him a radarlike ability. After his mother left when he was a baby, his father, a down-and-out boxer who worked as an enforcer for the mob, raised him. His father was eventually murdered by that same mob, and Murdock grew up to become a lawyer by day and a rooftop-leaping vigilante by night—fighting for justice to avenge his father’s death. But the Netflix show takes a lot of cues from Frank Miller’s Man Without Fear comic book series, his retelling of the classic Daredevil origin story.
Miller—who’s known for 300, Sin City, and The Dark Knight Returns—worked on Daredevil in the 1980s and again briefly in the ’90s, redefining the character from a Spider-Man–like wise guy swinging from rooftops, quipping funnies, and beating up bad guys, to a dark, violent hero. By adding these elements as well as a spotlight on Murdock’s conflicted Catholicism—particularly in the 1986 Catholic-themed story arc Born Again—he turned a poorly selling comic series on the verge of cancellation into one of the top-selling Marvel titles of the ’80s. Miller wasn’t the first to claim Daredevil was Catholic. But he was the first to bring Murdock’s religion to the forefront, making it essential to his identity.
Netflix’s version understands this, which is what makes the show work: It tries to reconcile the lawyer who defends the law with the Daredevil who breaks it. 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.
In the documentary The Men Without Fear: Creating “Daredevil,” a DVD special feature that goes along with the maligned 2003 film starring Ben Affleck, Miller says, “Along the way, I decided he needed to be Catholic because only a Catholic could be a vigilante and an attorney at the same time.” Miller’s idea in Born Again was to deconstruct the character and reinvent him by putting him through his own personal hell. The mobster Kingpin beats him nearly to death, he loses his law firm and becomes homeless, and his ex-girlfriend, Karen Page, becomes a drug addict and porn star who sells his secret identity to Kingpin for another fix. Miller uses these plot devices as a way for Murdock to re-emerge a stronger, better hero, born again. The illustrations mimic the imagery, putting Murdock, who is out of costume for much of the story, in various poses clearly reminiscent of the death and rebirth of Jesus.
For Miller, this decision was personal. Later in The Men Without Fear, he says, “Matt’s been the character I punish for all my mistakes and sins. Because he really is a flawed hero, in that he’s a man who intends to do good and causes much damage. Matt should have been a villain. He had a horrible childhood, his romantic life was the worst … but somehow he redeems himself and moves ahead. He just doesn’t give up.”
Another Daredevil writer who appears in the documentary and mined the Catholic theme of redemption through weakness is Kevin Smith, he of Clerks, Mallrats, and Dogma fame. Smith wrote the eight-issue storyline Guardian Devil, in which Daredevil finds himself caring for a newborn baby who may or may not be the Antichrist, as more or less a continuation of Miller’s Born Again, and it is arguably the most in-your-face story about Daredevil’s Catholicism to date, due to Smith’s own struggles with the denomination.
“[Daredevil’s] not a dude going to church every Sunday and receiving the host, but he had a very Catholic streak running through him,” he says. “I really appreciated that. I played with that a lot more in my storyline, actually putting him in the confessional and whatnot. I really steeped it in Catholicism a bit more because it lent itself to it based on the work that had gone before. I think the angst that goes along with being raised Catholic is quite obvious in that character and inherent to how powerful that character is and can be.”
The Netflix show drives home the idea that Murdock can’t ever be absolved from sin, because he fears that admitting what he’s doing as Daredevil will risk his capture. Midseason, the priest he half-confessed to in the first episode offers his ear once again, in case Murdock wants to tell his secret, but Murdock plays coy. Not only does he feel he can’t confess, he doesn’t want to. Being Daredevil (or, at this early stage of his career, the Man in Black, as he’s called before his dons his iconic red costume), sacrificing himself over and over again each night he goes out to fight crime, is his way of dealing with the guilt he feels about the murder of his father.
Cox’s Daredevil is no saint. He breaks bones. He uses excessive force. He almost murders a man. But what stops him from going too far are not wise words from an Uncle Ben–like character or a sacred oath made at the graves of his murdered parents; it’s his faith.
Daredevil is far from the perfect superhero. He makes mistakes. He doesn’t have “an iron suit or a magic hammer.” And his relentless sacrifice night after night, his ability to gain strength from his weaknesses, and his guilt over the terrible things he does to bring justice to Hell’s Kitchen may not make him the perfect Catholic either, but they do make his faith an ever greater superpower than his heightened senses.