In the first season of Marvel’s Netflix show Daredevil, Matthew Murdock has a frank discussion with his priest about personal vocation. A lawyer by day and masked vigilante by night, Matthew walks a fine line of hypocrisy. He regularly steps outside the bounds of the justice system in order to protect the innocent. Granted, his hometown of Hell’s Kitchen is already ripe territory for this law-bending behavior: from the beginning the show establishes that, despite the integrity and good intentions of law enforcement, people still slip through the cracks. Evil goes unpunished, and innocent people die. Thus, despite being a firm believer in legal authority, Matthew chooses to operate outside of the law when necessary.
In this way, his vocation has a dual nature. As an attorney, he defends those who would otherwise have no one to speak on their behalf. As Daredevil, he protects the innocent from criminals who manipulate the legal system to their advantage. The latter is something he felt called to even as a child, when he discovered his ability to overhear the prayers of churchgoers due to his enhanced senses. However, his abilities also allowed him to indulge the less noble aspects of his nature. He never kills anyone––he won’t let himself go that far––but maiming has been on the table since day one. His comfort with violence disturbs him. “God made each and every one of us with a purpose, right?” Matthew asks. Father Lantom agrees, and Matthew responds: “Then why did he put the Devil in me?”
Matthew’s question is not only figurative. Partly, he is asking whether it is possible to distinguish between a genuine call from God and one’s own selfish urges. On another level, Matthew is wondering why his vocation would require seemingly immoral (or at least illegal) actions. Surely God would not require sin to bring about justice. Either Matthew is wrong about his vocation, about God, or both—or perhaps he is fundamentally wrong about himself.
For a show about vigilantes, Daredevil features a striking amount of depth and sensitivity around ideas of faith. Unlike most contemporary Christian media, the show does not concern itself with condensing theology into easily digestible soundbites. Instead, it prioritizes an honest depiction of everyday people struggling with doubt. Matt Murdock is by no means a ‘good’ Catholic; he doesn’t attend Mass or take communion, and his personal life is fraught with irresponsibility and deceit. Eventually, he reaches the brink of rejecting God entirely. He becomes bitter, self-isolated, cynical––the image of a Christian in crisis. Yet, his faith remains integral to his actions and character.
This nuanced portrayal of faith is what I find to be missing in popular Christian culture. As a Protestant, I was raised on films such as Fireproof, Facing the Giants, and God’s Not Dead, which portray the simplistic view of faith that has become so ingrained in the modern church (particularly amongst evangelicals). In these films, all of life’s problems can be solved with prayer and a little old-fashioned American grit. The Bible exists only as a rulebook for life and relationships. While these films correctly assume that living well requires an understanding of, and inclination towards God, their portrayal of the Christian life runs shallow. Our lived reality often conflicts with theological principles in ways that cannot be resolved easily, or even at all. Reconciling the truths about God that we learned as children with the truths of our own circumstances, or the bitter circumstances of those around us, is a daunting task. In these moments, canned answers rarely provide any form of solace.
Daredevil refuses to be simple. In the third season, Matthew is injured to the point of immobility; his pre-existing blindness is compounded by a loss of hearing. Stripped of his identity as Daredevil, he is left spiraling in doubt. He thinks God must be a capricious soul to give him a vocation and then coldly take it away. Either that, or he was deluding himself all along. Maybe God never called him; maybe his younger self made up a fairy tale of divine purpose. “When I heard all those prayers, all those suffering people, I thought it was God’s voice,” he says. “But I was wrong. All I ever heard was people in pain. And all He ever gave any of us was silence.”
Contemporary Christian films fail to address that God never guaranteed an easy life for his children. If anything, we are told that our lives will be more difficult. Even those who dedicate their lives to God and His ministry are not spared from suffering. As Shusaku Endo describes the martyrdom of monks in 17th century Japan: “The black soil…has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent.” The life of a Christian is not one in which our problems are solved by a ninety-day devotional. Indeed, the moments of our deepest despair often coincide with the sensation of God receding from us. This is Matthew’s plight as he stumbles through a brutal rebirth of character. He feels that unless he can reconcile the two elements of himself one must die so the other can flourish: he cannot be both lawyer and vigilante any longer. In the midst of a painful transformation, he finds no guidance in the place he sought it most.
In the end, Matthew never receives any supernatural sign that one path is the correct one. Instead, he is faced with a series of choices: to resent or forgive his mother for abandoning him, to push away or reconcile with his friends, to take a life or allow the justice system to enact its own punishment, despite having failed before. Through these choices, he learns who he is: a person who desires to do good. More importantly, his faith forms the basis for that desire. Because of the checks his faith places on his violent instincts, his commitment to justice is equally manifest in a court of law as on the murky streets of Hell’s Kitchen. His final decision to spare Wilson Fisk––the primary antagonist of the series––comes not from a place of shame or inability, but from a moment of self-realization. He will not take a life, despite the problems it may solve, because doing so would compromise his identity.
Thus, the answer lies in paradox. Matthew’s existence as both breaker and enforcer of the law is only made possible through his faith. Without a devotion to justice, he would not be a lawyer with integrity. However, his belief in the sanctity of human life compels him to look beyond the courtroom and address the needs of those who have no legal recourse. This same reverence for life prevents him from assimilating into the endless cycle of violence within Hell’s Kitchen. In this way, lawyer and vigilante do not conflict, but rather grow out of one another as interwoven parts of the same whole. Matthew is not exclusively called to one or other but to walk that difficult and narrow line in-between, as only a man seeking virtue can.
Elyse Robidoux is a senior studying piano and composition.