Devil With a Cause

When I asked Charlie Cox—the star of Netflix’s new Marvel show, Daredevil—what separates his hero from the vast array of superheroes on screens large and small, he didn’t hesitate.

“He’s religious. He comes from a religious background. He’s Catholic. So he’s dealing with this always in the back of his mind, this idea of morality and original sin, and also God’s will. What is God’s will? I don’t think he would be in any doubt as to whether going out and beating people up is God’s will or not.”

Perhaps not, but viewers may not be so sure. Daredevil is Marvel’s newest foray into the screen, and it’s excellent, making Ben Affleck’s 2003 bomb as distant a memory as Christopher Nolan made George Clooney’s Batman.

Daredevil has long been one of Marvel’s grimmest characters, and Netflix understands this, enshrouding his world in darkness, danger and serious moral quandaries. It’s very grown-up for Marvel, which usually keeps things on the lighter side of PG-13 for most of its recent history.

Take, for example, a moment very early on in the pilot episode. A trio of frightened young women are herded into a storage container by a man with a taser. As the man speaks with his colleagues, it becomes clear these women are being sold into prostitution. The price is haggled over. The women are speechless, frightened, blinking back tears. They’re scanning the rooftops for help that does not appear to be coming.

This is a long, long way from an invading alien race or reality-warping “Infinity Stones.” Daredevil drops us into a murky, dangerous New York City fraught with monsters of a familiar sort. Human trafficking. Violent drug deals. Crimes you’ll read about a dozen times on the Internet this week. For the most part, such societal ills are seemingly beneath the notice of hammer-wielding thunder gods. They are not beneath the notice of a certain Devil, however.

A Devil in the Details

A bit of backstory: Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind attorney (played with tortured aplomb by Boardwalk Empire’s Charlie Cox.) As a boy, he was in chemical accident that robbed him of his eyesight, but enhanced his other senses. That’s not much of a superpower, as the show makes clear, but it’s enough to lend Murdock a sense of obligation. By day, Murdock attempts justice the old-fashioned way. By night, well, he goes about it the even older fashioned way.

The comic book upon which Daredevil is based is sort of unofficially considered a turning point in the comic book world. In the ’80s, the comic was penned by Frank Miller, who would later become famous for transforming Batman from the campy, square-jawed Caped Crusader of the ’60s TV show to the Dark Knight now familiar to all. But Miller perfected a lot of those tricks during his run on Daredevil. Under his writing, New York City became a far more dangerous place than Marvel had previously depicted, and its heroes much more psychologically complex.

Miller’s influence is dripping from Netflix’s Daredevil. The people who populate this show are layered and wounded. The criminals are ruthless, frequently proving to be more than a physical and mental match for our heroes, such as they are. The lighting is often dim, pulling us into Matt Murdock’s sightless world. The plot moves along with broiling deliberation, building tension until things explode in a series of impeccably crafted fight scenes.

Those fight scenes are worth bringing up, if only because they’re used as a source of deft characterization. These are not the gee-wow martial arts theatrics of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or The Matrix, but instead, raw, brutal brawls. One early, jaw-dropping sequence goes several minutes without cutting away, as Daredevil takes on a room full of thugs. You watch him and his foes grow increasingly exhausted, leaning on walls, gasping for air, spitting blood on linoleum floors. As in most real fights, the winner doesn’t so much overpower his foe as he does outlast him.

All this means that Matt’s drive for justice demands a lot. When he goes out at night to fight crime, it leaves him weak and tired the next day. He quickly runs out of excuses for his black eyes and fat lips. His costume, at this stage, is strictly utilitarian, with no distinguishing emblems or superheroic branding (it “kind of sucks,” one character tells him. “It’s a work in progress,” he admits). Daredevil is in over his head, and he knows it, but he can’t escape a sense of obligation, and that’s where things get very interesting.

Inner Conflict

In the comics. Murdock’s Catholic upbringing is frequently depicted as his primary motivator for what he does, if not a massive guilt trip. Spider-Man feels that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Daredevil feels that with great(ish) power comes a divine calling. This weighs on him heavily—more curse than blessing—and although he definitely considers himself to be on a mission from God, that doesn’t stop him from asking forgiveness for the things he has to do along the way.

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His quest is a violent one (very violent. This is not one for the kids) and while most superheroes are more than happy to solve their problems with their fists, Murdock is tortured by the things he does. He confesses them to a priest, even as he feels them to be his sacred duty.

“I almost think that that’s his way of saying ‘I’m not ashamed or what I’m doing,’” Cox explains. “I’m here out of respect. I’m here to tell you what it is I’m going to do. And I’m not turning my back on the Church. Whether the Church turns its back on me is a different story. But I believe that I can have a relationship with God and I can have a relationship with the Church and also engage in the activity I’m engaging with.’”

There isn’t space here to get into the cast of compelling supporting characters Daredevil has put together, from Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) Murdock’s deeply troubled assistant, to Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), his snark-ridden law partner. Best of all might be Murdock’s chief nemesis, Wilson Fisk. A crime lord played with mesmerizing nuance by Vincent D’Onfrio, he is an astonishing presence: immovable, terrifying, but touched with a humanizing emotional fragility. He makes every other villain Marvel has brought to the screen look pallid and flat in comparison.

In short, Daredevil is another win for Marvel, and a big win for Netflix, but observant viewers will note something more here too. Daredevil may be Marvel’s first foray into a darker, more mature tone, but in doing so, it doesn’t abandon hope. Instead, it takes seriously the idea that we—heroes, villains and all of us in-between—need some hope.

“I think ironically, [Murdock’s] greatest strength will end up being his faith,” Cox says. “I think he begins to reconcile what his relationship with God can be. And I think that faith will end up, where at first it was a burden and seems like it’s working against him, I think he begins to find a way to reconcile that relationship and to make it work for him, and will end up being his greatest strength.”

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