In the second scene of the first episode of Netflix’s Daredevil, we find Matt Murdock in the shadows of a confession booth illuminated by a dim, mustard-yellow light. As he talks to the priest, he fidgets with his glasses and barely breathes his words. After admitting that he has been away from the Church, he goes on a tangent about his father’s boxing career, whose strategy against better opponents was to let them hit him until they had nothing left. In these moments, something in his father would snap, he’d corner the opponent “and let the devil out.” As a child, Matt didn’t understand his father’s transformation, and he doesn’t claim to understand it now. The priest, slightly bewildered, asks Matt to be more candid about what he wants to confess, but Matt isn’t there seeking forgiveness for what he has done; he’s there because of what he is about to do.
The boxing anecdote is a window into understanding Matt’s ethical-theological crisis. Hell’s Kitchen is a corner of New York City controlled by organized crime, and the prevalence of crime has permeated into the justice systems created to protect the Kitchen. When there is unchecked crime in the streets and brazen corruption in the legal systems, how can a lawyer committed to helping his city wait for the evil to weaken? Matt’s presence at the confession booth symbolizes the guilt he feels for “snapping” and releasing the “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” out on the evil that threatens it.
Is this the appropriate response? What should one do when evil runs rampant and the Law turns a blind eye? Are these even the only questions to ask in a circumstance like this? These are the questions Matt (and thus the show) seeks to answer, but the show does not give answers through black-and-white characterizations and dialogue-heavy plot lines. Before even a semblance of an answer is given, Daredevil abruptly immerses you into Matt Murdock’s bleak world full of morally ambiguous characters and presents you with the same ethical dilemma – is his (our) response is the right one?
Daredevil wants us to live vicariously through Matt Murdock and experience his world, as opposed to inviting us to be a mere voyeur. This is insinuated by the various forms the show’s theme music takes. The music of the opening credit sequence represents Matt’s intense struggle to protect his city and the ethical-theological concerns (illustrated by the images in the sequence) that undergird his form of justice. The music creates a space for us to enter Matt’s journey and accept the emotional intensity that comes with it. To reinforce this concept of Matt’s/our journey, the theme music is played at different tempos as certain instruments in the symphony are isolated. When this music is played, we are encouraged to associate the emotions cultivated in the audio-visual space of the credit sequence with what we see before us, reinforcing Matt’s primary existential struggle throughout the show.
The world that the show portrays is violent and bleak. Hell’s Kitchen is a city pulsing with bribery and murder that traps and suffocates its victims. In most superhero adaptations, the severity of the evil is mitigated by stylized fight sequences featuring the lone hero coming out of isolation to help the community take care of the bad guys. However, in Daredevil the evil is immanent. Thus, there is no “entering into” the conflict for Matt; as an inhabitant of the city, he lives within the corruption already. Just as the ominous mustard-yellow light illuminates the entire city, the evil that Matt faces is everywhere, on the streets and in the courts. Therefore, the yellow light signifies the evil that pervades Hell’s Kitchen. We are forced to experience both with Matt. This also may explain why Matt/Daredevil is often framed in enclosed spaces (alleyways, offices, underground tunnels, and his apartment). Matt is trapped by evil because he is a citizen of the city evil plagues. He is also trapped because he refuses to let evil consume his beloved city — he stands with the trapped victims of The Kitchen to protect it. Daredevil portrays the struggle against evil as not something we stand conveniently outside of and enter when necessary. It is something we are born into. The question is, how will we respond?
How the show presents this struggle is far from clean and simple. Matt is not proud of what he has to do in resisting evil through vigilantism. Acting outside of the Law goes directly against what he stands for as a lawyer. As he has confessed to his priest, the violence that he feels he must dish out is something he struggles with. The actor who plays Matt Murdoch/Daredevil, Charlie Cox, brilliantly captures Daredevil’s struggle to justify his violence when inflicting pain on street thugs. Matt often turns away with us during some un-glorified, violent scenes. However, there are other times when he claims to enjoy what he does, leading the people he protects and his enemies to suggest that he is no different from the evil (people) he stands up against.
Matt is not the only morally ambiguous figure in this struggle between good and evil. Almost every character in Daredevil is portrayed as a devil and a saint. The respected Ben Urich bribes a hospital nurse to extend his wife’s stay in the hospital and deliberately undermines his newspaper editor to expose Wilson Fisk. The compassionate Karen Paige consistently lies to her closest friends to disclose incriminating facts about Fisk and his partners. Even the main “villain,” Wilson Fisk, is portrayed as a victim of a traumatic childhood who wishes to rid Hell’s Kitchen of evil in his own way. Through these characterizations, Daredevil demonastrates that the conflict between good and evil is not black and white. We all are guilty of participating in the things we condemn. And the people we associate with evil are not devoid of moral inclinations.
Daredevil doesn’t immediately provide its own answers concerning how to live in a world like Hell’s Kitchen, nor do the answers it does eventually provide undermine the complexity of its world and characters. In fact, things get worse and more confusing before we are given any answers. When Wilson Fisk steps into the light, The Kitchen receives him as a noble hero trying to redeem his city. At this point, Matt is at his wit’s end, suggesting that his callous and slightly sadistic approach to bringing justice was a front. To stop people like Fisk, Matt must resort to murder – a cardinal sin in the Catholic Church. This is not just an ethical crisis for him, it is a theological one which drives Matt to his priest, picking up where the show began. Here the show densely packs its ideas into its dialogue, but it has thoughtfully and meaningfully created the context for it.
The priest’s counsel, however, doesn’t bring black and white clarity to Matt’s world so much as reinforce the grey complexities of it: people cannot be reduced as simply evil, vengeance is God’s, and there are eternal stakes in choosing to take a life. However, through his conversations with the priest and his friends’ commitment to a reformed legal system, Matt discovers a way forward in embodying a symbol that “points toward a path of righteousness,” as his priest says. He could “let the devil out” without becoming like the devils he faces. While his methods (violent vigilantism) may be disagreeable to some, he doesn’t have to become the evil he wishes to protect his city from. The last fight sequence of season one ends with Daredevil “cornering” Fisk in an alleyway illuminated by crisp, white light.
In season one, Daredevil invites us to ask ethical and theological questions about our response to evil in the world. Its responses are enacted through the story, refusing to simplify the problem. Like Matt and his friends, we are called to resist evil, but not from a penthouse or through merciless violence, like Fisk. Like Matt, we must remain in the alleyways, homes, and offices where this evil is present, but it is only through theological reflection and community (friends and institutions) that our form of resistance can be effective.
Season two of the show continues this conversation about the prevalence of and response to evil in our world, but includes voices other than Matt’s. Continuing its creative and informative use with the camera, season two begins on a rooftop, not in an alleyway, with Daredevil meditating on the noises of the city, seeing where his help is needed. One would think that this frame suggests that Daredevil has made some headway in his resistance towards the evil in his city, but the same mustard-yellow paints the city — evil is still just as prevalent. Also, there is a ominous green light that covers several spaces in the panorama shot, foreshadowing new complications.
As Charlie Cox notes in an interview, Matt/Daredevil is not the same apprehensive Catholic he was in season one. He firmly believes in his style of justice, as portrayed by the fierce, red lighting that illuminates the character much more often than it did in season one. There are also fewer theological conversations with the priest; instead, Matt engages in theological dialogue with others and embodies his Catholicism out “on the field,” praying the Lord’s prayer or crossing himself. Season two demonstrates that the show is comfortable with its response to evil as embodied by Matt/Daredevil and creates space for dialogue with other perspectives.
Matt’s personal, internal conflict concerning justice and resisting evil in season one becomes external in season two. The other side of the argument is embodied by Frank Castle, aka The Punisher. In season two, episode three, Frank and Daredevil discuss each other’s form of justice. Daredevil begins the debate with a flippant comment that tragedy doesn’t have to turn us into vengeful killers, i.e., Frank Castle, to which Frank responds, “Loss doesn’t work the same for everybody, Red . . . we don’t get to pick the things that fix us, that make us whole.” He thinks Daredevil’s approach is untenable in the “real world” and will break under the right circumstance. “You know you’re only one bad day away from being me,” the Punisher says.
Daredevil doesn’t deny that his approach has inconsistencies and doesn’t always produce “permanent” results like Frank’s, but for Matt, murder accomplishes two ethically and theologically inexcusable things: 1) it permanently destroys the lives of those connected to the murdered criminals (something his priest reinforces) and 2), it snuffs out the small light of goodness in them, canceling their opportunity to experience God’s mercy in this mortal life. For Frank, entrusting criminals to the justice system gives them another chance to kill, steal, and rape again, but for Daredevil, refusing to take vengeance into his own hands gives criminals a chance “to try again, and if you [Frank] don’t understand that there’s something broken in you that you can’t fix; there’s goodness in people and even in you.” For Daredevil this belief is based on the hope and redemption that he has seen in “the real world.”
And it is this hope that Matt has for Elektra who feels only darkness inside of her, reinforced by the ominous green lighting around her in specific scenes that even overpowers the yellow light of Hell’s Kitchen. She challenges Matt’s version of justice, by pointing out that he doesn’t really trust the legal system, or even God, because he has to bring justice himself by night. In fact, Matt is challenged by other characters on his inability to accept help from others and the Law (something season one clearly emphasized).
What’s theologically askew with Matt’s system of justice isn’t the suffering and difficulties one endures for others. It’s that he thinks he’s the only one who should suffer. However, as Claire notes, if Matt doesn’t come down from his self-righteous cross and realize that he’s not the only person who cares about the city, he will become separate from the people he aims to protect and lose his humanity in the process. To be the suffering-servant and resist evil, one needs the help of a community doing the same thing, personally and institutionally. Karen’s final monologue sums up season two’s response to its critical interlocutors: “A hero isn’t someone who lives above us, a ‘god’ or idea. A hero lives among us, with us.”
If you are enjoying Netflix's Daredevil, check out these graphic novels: Daredevil: Born Again, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, and Daredevil: Guardian Devil.
Chris Lopez is a masters student a Fuller Theological Seminary where he hopes to also earn a PhD in Theology and Culture. His artistic interests are theatre and the comic book, but he is looking to explore Jazz and Film Studies during his time here in LA. When not pursuing his own creative interests, he prefers to take on a pastoral role in encouraging his wife, a local actress, and his other creative friends to hone their craft and flourish as artists.