I still have to pinch myself sometimes that I can watch Daredevil whenever I want.
And it wasn’t just that it was simply Daredevil, but Daredevil in the tradition of the great artists and writers like Gene Colan, Frank Miller, John Romita Sr. & Jr. (that rooftop-running scene in 1×12…), and Brian Michael Bendis (particularly with the character of Wilson Fisk). The style of the show beautifully combined the fun energy of the 60s comics, the crime and darkness of the 80s comics, and the character development of the 2000s. That first scene when Murdock is sitting in the confessional, talking about his father, was so powerful and such a great way of beginning the story—not just as an homage to Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada’s “Guardian Devil” series from 1998, but to set the tone of how important theology would play into the story and the presence of Hell’s Kitchen.
Now this is not an intent to use Daredevil as an evangelistic tool—to say, “Daredevil is a great way to get people to go to church.” In fact, it’s perhaps a realistic window into the ever-rising statistics that the majority of Americans are declaring themselves “non-religious.” Every time Matt Murdock visits his priest, the church is empty (I thought it would have been cool if it turned out that the priest was just in Matt’s mind; or even better, the priest was actually Mephisto). Karen Page, Matt and Foggy Nelson’s lawfirm assistant and friend, tells Matt when he asks her if she’s religious that she’s not—because her parents were. This comments on the reality that more and more millennials are rejecting religion, for many reasons, but certainly including their familial past. In a time where we are not only no longer socially obligated to go to church, but actually praised in many circles, more and more people of all age groups are declaring their detachment to organized religion and not looking back.
However, in the continued discussion between Matt and Karen, Karen asks Matt if his faith helps him. They are trying to expose crime-boss Wilson Fisk to the public, but in the process lose a friend; “Not today,” Matt answers.
There is much loss in Daredevil; in fact, that has always been part of the evolving organism of the story. Matt Murdock is Daredevil because he has enhanced senses, but it came at the cost of losing his sight. He became Daredevil because he lost his father to murderers. Throughout his career as Daredevil he’s lost his law-firm, his license, numerous friends, his identity, hi sanity, and his faith. While some of these have been restored (only to be lost again, at times), the running theme of Daredevil is that he could easily have become a villain instead of a hero at many points of his life; and at times he has even succumbed to that.
So what allows him to come back each time? I don’t believe it’s his faith. That’s part of it, but that’s not all of it.
One of the great things that these Netflix series are doing in Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and hopefully soon Iron Fist, is that they make the city a character in the story. Everything our heroes do is linked with where they live. Daredevil and Cage fight to protect where they live, and even Jones can’t help but be connected to the people around her because of where she lives. New York is the hub of the Marvel Universe, and over the years has become as important as the street-level heroes who protect it. In the building up of the super hero community over the last ten years in these movies and series, we’re seeing the New York on-screen that we have in the comics.
In this city, particularly Hell’s Kitchen, we see people who are suffering, but refuse to leave. We see the characters of Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk essentially doing the same thing—fighting to make the city better—but on opposite sides (and sometimes not so opposite). As Murdock expresses his faith through his life, so does Fisk, often commenting that church and religion were never strong in his family, but that the few exposures he had to it intrigued him. At one point he comments that he read the Bible, watched people pray on TV, and though he would try to imitate the actions, they were false. And perhaps this can connect with us, that at times our religious life has been more of imitation than experience, and though we try to convey the actions we think we’re supposed to, that are expected of us, we know in our hearts they are at time inauthentic.
In the last episode of Season 1, as Fisk has been exposed and arrested and being transported to jail, he tells his guards a thorough version of the story of the Good Samaritan, found in the gospel of Luke. He tells of the Jewish man who had been beaten by criminals and left for dead, that a priest came by and did not help, nor did a Levite, but a Samaritan found the beaten man, cared for him, and gave all the money he had so that the man would be healed. While Fisk uses the story as a realization that instead of being the man who loved the city and the people, that he’s actually the criminal who beats others, the full and detailed re-telling of the story shows that even the unchurched can find meaning in theology, sometime better than the churched.
While Daredevil doesn’t have Matt Murdock (or anyone else) attending worship services, it does show the people of Hell’s Kitchen looking to theology in ways that are often arguably more meaningful than habitual church attendance. Matt doesn’t go to Mass, but he does visit a priest and confesses himself and his struggles. He asks the priest at one point if he believes in the Devil, to which the priest gives a very full answer, first saying that he once believed the devil was just a concept made up by medieval theologians to scare people into going to church, or represent the collective evil of humanity; but then he met someone so evil that it convinced him the Devil was real. When Murdock says he’s met the Devil in Fisk, he struggles with how he’s supposed to stop him other than killing him. The priest quotes to Murdock a psalm which writes of the act of killing being like that of poisoning the community well, that such an act ripples to the detriment of all around, going back to the importance of community.
In these scenes we may not see the people of Hell’s Kitchen be faithful church attenders, but we do see that theology is important, in that the people, in various ways, are striving and actively searching for meaning and purpose, and sometimes that search pulls them to think about how God is present. It may not drive them to church, but it does drive them to seriously think about how things like faith and God can be present in the midst of so much evil and suffering. Even in the quieter moments of the series, we see that thoughts of biblical stories and prayer are seen as significant, even influential in life, and in this we are given a window into how people see the value of theology, even if they are separate from the church….and maybe that’s ok.
The reality many know is there are thousands of people who faithfully attend their church every week, but would not be able to articulate why, farther than that’s just what you are supposed to do; and while that is not a bad thing on one hand, on the other it speaks to how it can be more out of the habitual comfort of going to church than actually being a part of something which causes one to grow—because if we can’t speak to the growth we are experiencing through attendance, study, prayer, service, etc.……what is the point?
Trying to explain connection to faith and religion can be like trying to explain falling in love—it is hard to put into words, especially to someone who has not experienced it in a similar way. But part of the disconnect with the established church and the rising population of the “not religious” is when the not-religious genuinely ask why they should be part of religion, and the established church has difficulty talking deeper than ideas of duty, responsibility, obligation, service—issues that were important and present in the post-WWII generation, yet became less so over the decades, until when we are finally at a time when people have no trouble asking why they should be a part of church, the church doesn’t know how to answer because for the last 60 years, it hasn’t had to.
If the established church is truly sincere about reaching those who are not a part of religion, perhaps watching the first season of Daredevil wouldn’t be a bad way of understanding how the unchurched—the “nones”—see faith and religion today. It may be that people don’t want to give up their Sunday morning to a building, but that doesn’t mean they’re closed to the idea of discussing faith, stories, and service.
Is the church open to the idea of doing this more in the way that it speaks to the people of Hell’s Kitchen…..?