Spoiler alert: This article contains some spoilers for the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil.
Philanthropist and crime boss Wilson Fisk—a native of Hell’s Kitchen come back to deliver it—lives in a sleek penthouse. He turns his back to the suffering and brokenness below him every day as he eats his morning omelet. Immaculately dressed in dark suits and body armor, he meets with his criminal underlings in the upper floors of a skeletal high rise under construction, or in a rooftop garden whose tranquility belies the conflict below.
Fledgling defense lawyer and blind vigilante Matt Murdock, also a newly returned native of Hell’s Kitchen, gave up a position at a top Manhattan law firm to start a small practice with a friend. He works out of a rundown office in his old neighborhood by day and prowls the dark streets of his city by night in a black mask and cargo pants, an outfit more reminiscent of the Dread Pirate Roberts than any high-flying superhero.
Throughout the thirteen episodes of Daredevil’s first season on Netflix, Wilson Fisk orchestrates his moves from above and finds comfort in his loneliness; Matt Murdock fights from below and is continually reminded that he won’t succeed on his own. This contrast, and Matt Murdock’s character in particular, make Daredevil different from many other films and TV shows in the superhero genre. Matt Murdock is a part of Hell’s Kitchen, and though he’s often tempted to be a lone vigilante, he learns again and again that the true way to preserve his community is to recognize and enter into communal brokenness, not to try to save it from without. In Daredevil, the significance of relationships trumps the rightness of violence done in their name. Suffering for is supplanted by suffering with.
As I watched the show (and rewatched, because the show rewards rewatching), I recognized this overarching theme while at the same time expecting that it would be undercut somehow. After all, so many superhero stories involve single, singular heroes who endure suffering and inflict pain in order to protect others, but who also always separate themselves from those others. They may be separate because of their extraordinary abilities, or because they believe the danger of their work precludes them from having close relationships, or because they are literally alien, but they are always separate: distinct, set apart from the communities they protect.
However popular this trope is, though, I think it’s a misguided and selfish one. Anyone who’s seen a handful of superhero movies can recall a climactic fight scene that razes cities just to provide a backdrop for a hero’s final showdown with the villain. If you’ve seen Man of Steel, for example, you know that this happens (twice!) so that Superman can defeat Zod in a shower of special effects and dust. Such heroes do not preserve communities; their suffering is a spectacle, not something they enter into with the people they aim to save. Happily, Daredevil upsets this trope.
Throughout the show, Matt Murdock is at times determined, and at times reminded, to forge and keep relationships as part of his crusade. For example, in the episode “Stick,” his cantankerous old mentor tries to bully him into cutting himself off from all of life’s comforts, including relationships, in order to fight in “the war” (a war I’m hoping we find out more about in season two). In one flashback during the episode, we see Stick abruptly cut off his relationship with a very young Matt because Matt got too attached; “I needed a soldier,” Stick tells Matt decades later. “You wanted a father.” However, it’s clear Stick himself was unable to adhere to his own creed: for decades, he’s kept the homemade bracelet Matt gave him as a child. Matt finds it among the carnage left behind in his apartment after he and Stick have fought, and it serves as a symbol not only of Stick, but of the wrongness of his creed. Not even a soldier dedicated to “the war” can—or should—cut himself off from every relationship.
Suffering with trumps suffering for again in the episode “Nelson v. Murdock.” This episode is my favorite of the season, not least because it is focused on a rare event: a masked vigilante not being applauded for his nobility or worried over for his suffering, but being called out on his crap. Matt’s best friend, law school roommate, and now law partner, Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, found out about Matt’s vigilante crusade in the previous episode after, worried, he broke into Matt’s apartment and found him gravely injured and still dressed as the “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” in his Dread Pirate Roberts costume. Foggy is, understandably, angry. However, the root cause of his anger is not how Matt is endangering himself, though that’s part of it. No, Foggy is angry because Matt’s activities have broken their relationship.
One of my favorite parts of the show is the fact that Matt Murdock is a fantastic troll. He is blind, but his senses are so heightened that he can, among other vigilantism-related abilities, navigate a room with ease and tell when people extend their hands to shake—a fact that doesn’t keep him from doing things like leaving a real estate agent with her hand extended awkwardly in the first episode. But Matt’s subterfuge is not limited to strangers; it extends to Foggy, his best friend. When Foggy asks him angrily, “Are you even really blind?”, he’s wondering whether Matt has based their relationship on lies and whether they’ll even be able to preserve their friendship after those lies are revealed. And when Matt thanks him for lying to Karen, their friend and office manager, Foggy lashes out at him again for the same reason: “I just lied to someone I care about,” he says.
Perhaps in another superhero film or show, we’d see a different kind of revelation scene: Gwen Stacy would glare at her boyfriend and then help him defeat the Lizard, or Iris West would give Barry Allen a stern talking-to before the episode’s action continued relatively unaffected. In contrast, this episode pauses the action. Matt Murdock can’t fight baddies or Foggy; he’s recovering from severe injuries, prone and in pain on his couch, while Foggy stands over him. Their conversation is broken up by flashbacks to earlier days in their friendship. The episode, like the show, privileges the relationship Matt has almost destroyed over his mission. And throughout the remaining episodes, rebuilding his relationship with Foggy is a significant plot point, not a detail in the grander story of the lone vigilante hero. Matt Murdock’s story, with those of his friends, positively reinforces the idea that heroes should suffer with their communities rather than standing apart and suffering for them.
Wilson Fisk’s character also reinforces this idea—only his does so negatively. Fisk is always portrayed as apart from Hell’s Kitchen, the community both he and Matt Murdock say they want to save. Fisk lives high above them in luxury; when he bombs the Russian-controlled parts of town, he and his girlfriend watch them burn from the wide windows of a high-rise restaurant. In multiple episodes, when Fisk commits his most brutal and murderous acts, he is doing so allegedly to preserve relationships and protect the people he loves: he beheads a Russian mobster with a car door for endangering his developing relationship with Vanessa, he kills his accountant for trying to poison her, and he chokes Ben Urich to protect his aged mother. While we might be tempted to approve of his motives, his actions are not noble; they make us sick, make us shudder and turn away. It is no wonder that a man like Fisk plans to save Hell’s Kitchen by razing it to the ground: he cares little for the people there. His crusade throughout the show has been a selfish one, severed from the community it claims to save.
In the first episode of the show, when a deeply rattled Karen Page first meets her (young and inexperienced) defense lawyers, Nelson and Murdock, she’s incredulous. “What are you, some kind of Good Samaritans?” she asks them. The first time I watched the show, I didn’t think her question very significant. But that question, and the story of the Good Samaritan, are important: in fact, Wilson Fisk brings them up in his last monologue, as he’s being transported to prison. Although he thought once that he was the Good Samaritan, cast in the role of helping the broken down and abused, he’s learned that he is anything but. He is, he says, the “ill intent” that committed the assault in the first place.
It is no wonder, then, that Fisk is comforted by a painting, and later a prison wall, that both remind him of the wall he stared at just before he killed his father. The painting comforts him, he tells Vanessa, because “It makes me feel alone.” Fisk acts alone, for himself and for closure in his own story, which he thinks the destruction of Hell’s Kitchen and its people will provide.
Fisk’s last scene in the season one is in a prison cell, where he looks up, alone, and stares at his cell wall. Matt Murdock’s, in contrast, starts with him standing on top of a building, plumbing the city with his senses, before he jumps down into the world he’s made himself a part of.
I think one reason the standard “suffers-for” hero is so attractive is that a lot of people are intrigued and allured by the idea that they might stand apart, adored and admired. They may suffer, but there will always be someone there to gaze adoringly and express gratitude. But that’s not the only, or the best, kind of heroism. And as Christians, while we might sometimes suffer for each other, we are also called to suffer with each other—to enter into community with others, to carry their sorrows and help them in their work and through their struggles.
That’s one reason why Matt Murdock is a Good Samaritan. He stops at the side of the road, helps a stranger, and makes—imperfectly, in fits and starts—community out of brokenness. But even more significantly, sometimes Matt Murdock is the broken stranger on the side of the road (or in the Hell’s Kitchen dumpster). And someone finds him there and takes him home and helps him heal, too.