Michael Davis wrote cogently a few months ago about the BBC’s Father Brown and the fact that despite many other winning features, the protagonist does not appear to be … errr … Catholic. This problem is shared by other TV Catholics. Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett in The West Wing memorably liked to speak Latin and quote the Bible occasionally, yet balked at pursuing any actual policies that underlined his faith, and wasn’t averse to the odd discreetly authorised assassination.
At first glance, the titular hero of Netflix’s Daredevil suffers similarly. Daredevil, a veteran Marvel comic character, is a morally ambiguous vigilante, blinded as a child in an accident involving radioactive material (naturally), yet able to achieve superhuman feats due to the acuity of his other senses.
Enthusiasts like myself will know that Daredevil/Matthew Murdock of the Daredevil comics is also Catholic, and this aspect of the character features heavily in the TV series. In the very opening scene, Murdock visits the confessional. He prays at the bedside of a gravely injured lover, inviting the scorn of his foul-mouthed, sword-wielding, blind ninja mentor Stick.
Yet in other respects, Daredevil’s Catholicism is of the cafeteria variety. He visits the confessional, but is never seen to go to Mass. Killing is strictly beyond his moral code, yet near-pathological lying, brutal violence, and steamy encounters with female colleagues and ex-girlfriends are par for the course.
In what sense, then, might Daredevil offer a more intriguing Catholic protagonist than some of his televisual forebears? For one thing, the programme explores the ambivalent territory of moral justice in the absence of legal justice. Daredevil is a lawyer by day, but is frustrated by the limitations of his ability to help people professionally in an imagined New York of bent cops, impoverished migrants living in crumbling tenements, gang violence and impenetrable organised crime.
His opponents, especially in Season 1, are not baddies with implausible superpowers but these more mundane evils. Nor does the show provide a simplistic answer to the question posed of whether violence (which is viscerally depicted) is justified in the absence of law. Daredevil’s actions are constantly questioned both by his confessor and his best friend and fellow lawyer, Foggy Nelson, an individual who also brings the vigilante to task over his duplicity.
Yet it is in the new season that the most exciting prospects for an exploration of Daredevil’s Catholicism are to be seen with, forgive me, SPOILER ALERT, Daredevil’s appearance in the team-up series The Defenders hinting that the show will be exploring the legendary Daredevil comic book arc ‘Born Again’.
This 1980s storyline saw Daredevil stripped of his law licence, home, and mental and physical health at the hands of the crime lord Kingpin, before being nursed back to health by a nun who turns out to be secretly Murdock’s long-lost mother (this is comic books, after all). The artwork was redolent with Catholic imagery, the most famous cover showing a stained glass window backdrop, with a Marian Sister Maggie hovering above Daredevil with a devilish Kingpin lurking below. His long-time love interest Karen Page is cast as both Judas and Mary Magdalene, selling Daredevil’s identity to Kingpin in return for heroin after suffering addiction and abuse, only to be forgiven and rescued by the reborn Matt Murdock who assures her, “I’ve lost nothing.”
Fascinatingly, the comic book Daredevil who is reborn does not regain material wealth or professional standing, and lives with his betrayer in a run-down apartment. Yet he exalts in the core of his identity, simply as someone who tries to protect the innocent. Whether the forthcoming season of TV’s Daredevil will capture this act of Christian witness, we will have to wait until November to see. In the meantime, I urge you to discover a most rewarding fictional Catholic.