My husband and I – who are always technologically several years behind the times – finally broke down and got Netflix last fall. After the requisite binge of Breaking Bad and a few flirtations with shows we couldn’t get into, we recently settled into an evening pattern of watching Daredevil after the kids go to bed. It has its fair share of groan-worthy moments, and neither of us can stomach Vincent D’Onofrio’s choppy delivery of every single villainous line, but it’s a solid enough drama to keep us coming back for more. Like many superheroes before him, Daredevil struggles with how to use his gifts to fight the bad guys without allowing himself to become just as violent and ruthless as they are. It’s one of the strengths of the superhero genre that those who engage in violence cannot be heroes unless they also confront the questions of morality and responsibility that their actions raise. But Daredevil takes it one step further: he’s a Catholic, and when he runs into a moral morass, he consults a priest.
The premise of Daredevil is standard superhero fare: Matthew Murdock lost his sight in a chemical accident as a child, but gained ultra-heightened uses of his other senses as a result. Now all grown up, the mild-mannered, blind, do-gooder attorney Murdock spends his nights ninja-fighting crime lords in Hell’s Kitchen. He routinely leaves his adversaries lying as lumps of bloody pulp on the sidewalk, and they do the same to him. He is not afraid to beat information out of people using methods outlawed by multiple international treaties. But, no matter how bad the bad guys are, or how fiercely they fight back, Daredevil will not kill them. He draws the line at murder.
Is it an arbitrary line? The bad guys think so. They scoff at him and taunt him, trying to get him to cross it. But Murdock does not listen to them, nor does he depend entirely on his own judgment to determine right from wrong. (Maybe he has watched enough superhero shows to know how that usually turns out.) Daredevil does what his Catholic upbringing tells him he should do: he gets himself down to the church in search of spiritual direction. He finds it, too, without any empty recitations of doctrine or “Thou Shalt Nots” on the part of his priest.
As the series progresses, it becomes obvious that Murdock has not been honest with himself about his sins. Vigilante violence is not the whole of it; he has also ensnared himself in a web of lies that threatens to harm both him and the people closest to him. This is another standard superhero dilemma, but Daredevil at least tries to view it through a Catholic lens. It is no accident that Murdock’s “hero” persona is associated with the devil, and he knows it. If he is going to meld the two halves of his existence into a whole, he will have to come to terms with his selfishness, his hypocrisy, and his need for forgiveness.
I don’t know where the Daredevil series is heading, and there are plenty of indications that the writers don’t intend to be wholly orthodox in their portrayal of his Catholicism. (The opening scene of the pilot advertised as much.) But there are enough hints of respect for Daredevil’s faith that I am hopeful. The idea that a modern pop-culture TV show might give serious weight to portraying the formation of a Catholic conscience is exciting. The element missing thus far from Daredevil’s moral formation is prayer; we have not seen him go directly to the Source for guidance. But no matter how Daredevil’s character evolves, the show still dramatizes an aspect of moral formation too often overlooked in Catholic religion classes: that a well-formed conscience does not come only from reading books and studying theories, nor even exclusively from prayer, but also from asking questions and making mistakes. It is formed by confronting situations where every choice is wrong and still finding the courage to choose. Daredevil’s writers seem to know this. How far they are willing to let it lead their hero remains to be seen.