The moment the time came, I began my delicate and sacred preparations. The shelves of convenience stores were raided for the ceremonial feast while sacred libations were sought from the racks of cheap wine in the liquor store. The altar was set up just right, with the holy device perched atop it, surrounded by offerings.
I knew I was in for something special when I set my laptop down on the table and sat down to binge watch the first season of Netflix’s recent adaptation of Marvel’s superhero Daredevil.
The Netflix binge is a process almost sanctified by my generation, a process of pop culture prostration that involves scheduling and feasting in much the same way as so many religious offerings, and for many of us (largely godless) millennials, this procedure is about as close as many get to religiosity.
Daredevil is something very intriguing. The 13-episode series had me worried at first. As a fan of the Man Without Fear’s comic book capers, my mouth still stung with the acrid taste of 2003’s less-than-stunning Ben Affleck portrayal in Daredevil. But a number of things about the series reassured me early on: the deliciously dark atmosphere, the great acting, the sharp dialogue, and the series’ bone-crunching violence. But the thing that I found most engaging and fascinating about this superhero origin story cum legal drama cum pulp noir piece is the attention paid to religion.
Daredevil is unusual among many of his fellow spandex wearers in the Marvel universe and beyond for his overt religiosity. Matt Murdock has long been impacted by his Catholicism, with his religion and its aesthetics and thematic features playing a regular role in his storylines. Although Daredevil was first explicitly referred to as a Catholic in his comic run in the 1970s, it was in the 1980s that Murdock’s faith would come to be a major part of his character. It was Frank Miller (of The Dark Knight Returns fame) who would cement the faith in his Daredevil story ‘Born Again’, which was laden with religious imagery, iconography, and symbolism, like an ark bursting with wild and vibrant animals.
Daredevil’s faith was hinted at in the middling 2003 film adaptation, with scenes taking place in a confessional box and a large gothic cathedral, but it always seemed like a coat of cheap Catholic paint from a hardware store, only touching the surface and hardly affecting the main structure of Murdock’s character. I found myself pleasantly surprised by the manner in which Murdock’s faith was carefully intertwined with the depths of his character in the new Netflix miniseries, going beyond an initial scene taking place in a confessional box to weave itself into the ethics and emotions expressed by Charlie Cox as the titular hero.
How is it that a character so grounded in religion appeals to an audience consisting largely of Millennials, whose interest in organized religion is dropping like a rock?
Much as in the 2003 film, the surface trappings of Murdock’s faith are all there, with scenes involving confession and a relationship with a parish priest, but it is the underlying elements that faith adds to Murdock’s character and the style of the story itself that makes religiosity such a fascinating element of the series. Firstly, Murdock’s strong faith lends the character a kind of authenticity. Murdock is portrayed as an essentially working class character, regardless of his white collar education and profession. The sort of religiousness that wavers between lapsed and devout is common among working class individuals who grow up in historically poor urban areas such as Hell’s Kitchen, making Murdock’s faith a comfortable fit for his character’s origins and an important tie to an area of the city from which he likely could have escaped.
Most interesting perhaps is how one can connect Christian iconography to the grim and realistic violence of the show. This Daredevil is not like those other Marvel superheroes in the flashier cinematic universe, the Thors and Captain Americas who may get a cut here and a scuff there but nevertheless manage to resemble pristine underworld models even as they thrash their way through waves of baddies. Daredevil gets hit, a lot. In the opening confessional box scene, Murdock mentions how his boxer father had a strategy “to let ’em hit him till they broke their hands.” His son seems to continue this tradition of taking punishment. The series is unafraid to show its hero pouring blood and clutching gruesome wounds, the grind of broken bone only inaudible because of the rain sizzling on the grey pavement. It is this gritty, punishing combat that gives the series some of its edge, but also seems to bear out its theological connection.
Even in the initial confession scene Murdock seems to connect his family’s ability to take brutal physical punishment, and sometimes almost thrive on it, to their religious affiliation. It has often been noted that Catholics focus on suffering to an almost morbid extent, focusing incessantly on the blood and gore of Christ’s crucifixion like horror movie fans with their eyes glued to the latest splatterfest. But the Catholic fascination with punishment and suffering as agents of power and purification cleverly translate to the dark and blood-soaked action of Daredevil. It is in the moments when the protagonist drips blood and struggles to stay on his feet that he seems to take on a kind of transcendent power, his determination in his weakness transmuted into a fearsome strength.
The series’ balance between courtroom drama and vigilante exploits is fascinating, often blending equal parts Law and Order and Batman to great effect. But the thematic thread that ties these scenes together are weighty considerations of right and wrong, crime and punishment. The ethics of the show are Old Testament in nature, showcasing with gruesome glee the vicious punishments doled out to criminals by the suited vigilante, who includes torture within his repertoire of retribution. It is a harsh world, where sin is punished violently and blood is the currency of justice.
Netflix’s Daredevil is a runaway success, with massive critical acclaim and the dubious honor of being the second most pirated show following its release, running just behind the mega-popular Game of Thrones. While Millennials may remain in large part apathetic about religion, it is evident that religious themes and imagery in a storyline are not a turn off and can actually lend great narrative depth and visual flair to a piece of art. Although young people may have forsaken churches, the biblical themes of suffering, redemption, and justice continue to be a draw, even if it is superheroes who are the new divine beings.
David O’Donoghue is a monthly columnist for the Redemptorist magazine Reality.