Today, Marvel and Netflix release their first joint effort: the 13-episode, binge-friendly Daredevil. Both the show and the comic it’s based upon follow Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen who, in his downtime, dons a scarlet costume to fight crime. Fans are probably familiar with the character from his prolific comic book appearances, or even the maligned 2003 Ben Affleck film (let alone any number of appearances in other media). But as our post-Avengers culture has become inundated with costumed heroes, it’s worth noting that Daredevil tends to stray from the rest of his spandex-wearing pack—and for a very particular reason.
As of now, readers have become accustomed to a certain brand of superhero: one that rises to the occasion after being elevated through a profound life experience. Sometimes the heroes are mutants (X-Men), sometimes they’re aliens (Guardians of the Galaxy) and sometimes they’re the pinnacles of human achievements in science and robotics (The Avengers), but all of these characters had greatness thrust upon them by genetics or serendipity or some other randomness, and subsequently rose to the challenges that emerged after. Sure, every superhero has his or her share of obstacles—sociopathic family members (Thor), fascist armies (Captain America) or even a power-hungry techno-genius with a grudge (Iron Man)—yet these challenges never amount to anything greater than what these protagonists couldn’t handle alone, let alone together.
Daredevil isn’t like his peers in the Marvel Universe, though. With superheroes, there’s the argument that each secret identity is the true mask, and costumed personas reflect the character more than any birth name. With Daredevil, that line isn’t necessarily as clear or distinct. Murdock didn’t have greatness thrust upon him in the traditional sense; Murdock’s powers came from being doused with chemical waste—and the mere fact that it was waste is an exact reversal from other chemically-altered heroes who interacted with their superior formulas either on purpose (Steve Rogers) or by accident (Peter Parker). When we look at those heroes it’s easy to see how someone like Rogers or Parker benefitted from their situations physically and mentally; Murdock, on the other hand, had his life torn down and was forced to literally flail blindly in order to piece it back together. As such, he’s become the stereotypical loner, someone practically obsessed with walking a reclusive path between personal order and chaos; this puts Daredevil on a much different path than the common denominator character Marvel shows you in theaters.
Daredevil the Ronin
When writers, readers and critics describe Daredevil as steeped in darkness, it’s not a veiled attempt to be coy or clever; Murdock had everything taken from him. While many heroes have a tumultuous past, Daredevil’s origins rival tragedy of near-Shakespearean proportion: Murdock is blinded by discarded waste while trying to help an old man; his mother flees his home due to mental health and domestic abuse issues; and gangsters murder his father for refusing to take a dive in a boxing match. Murdock’s world has been taken apart brick by brick until he’s left with nothing but his religious faith, but even his faith can only sustain him through so much (as we see particularly in the end of Frank Miller’s run on the title, which we’ll discuss later). Referred to as “the man without fear,” Daredevil only earns that title because it’s only after he’s truly lost everything that he’s free to do anything. And despite any triumphs he may accomplish, Murdock’s darkness and fallibility hovers over his shoulder at all times, a creeping, lurking monster that he can’t just punch away.
Frank Miller’s Daredevil
As such, Daredevil stands remarkably apart from Marvel’s crowd of capes and tights. More comfortable in darkened alleys than in front of throngs of adoring fans, Murdock lurks in the shadows because to him, they’ve become the most recognizable iteration of home: a place where his dual life can perhaps save others from suffering. And it’s no surprise as to why; while all heroes fear for their loved ones, Daredevil has a notoriously bad string of luck when it comes to relationships and separating them from the violence of his vigilante lifestyle. In the most popular and oft-referenced Daredevil arcs, such as the respective runs of Miller and Brian Michael Bendis, the character is shown as a challenged figure surrounded by loss in both of his lives. Miller famously wrote the sequence where sociopathic assassin Bullseye kills Daredevil’s second greatest love, Elektra (he would later go on to essentially destroy Daredevil’s first love, Karen Page, as she becomes addicted to heroin). During his lengthy run, Bendis pushes Murdock out of his self-imposed loneliness to introduce him to Milla Donovan, a strong and sharp love interest who’s also blind. Murdock marries her, only to then have the character driven insane by the supervillain Mr. Fear, where she’s placed in a mental institution and separated from Murdock by a court order.
From Daredevil: Hardcore by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev
And yet, Daredevil continues to put on his costume and patrol the neglected allies every night. He harnesses the same drive that other heroes have to do what’s right, but more often than not he’s forced to take a darker road, which in many cases has led to his ruin. In an effort to help his city, Daredevil takes on the Kingpin, a hulking crime lord, in a public brawl, and after publicly (and quite brutally) taking him down, he claims the Kingpin’s title, placing himself at the center of all of New York’s crime. Yet this turns out to be a slippery slope that results in Murdock’s arrest and imprisonment; the character later ascends to lead the Hand (the notorious group of nihilistic ninjas prevalent throughout the Marvel Universe) and becoming possessed by a demon in the event series Shadowland. At this point, former allies (such as Luke Cage and Iron Fist, both of whom will have eventual Netflix shows) team up to remove him from power and exorcise the malevolent force within him, forcing Murdock to leave New York for a time.
Daredevil may be a superhero, but he’s one who rarely wins his battles without incurring a devastating price. No matter what triumphs the character has accomplished, each victory is followed by an equal or greater loss—whether through the fallen life of a friend or lover, or a piece of his own soul.
The Devil You Don’t Know
To be fair, Daredevil didn’t start out as such a buzzkill. The character made his debut in 1964, created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett (and Jack Kirby, so the legend goes) with a vibrant yellow and red costume and a talent for hopping over criminals. Daredevil was closer to Spider-Man in approach and optimism—he exercised a flamboyant attitude lined with wisecracks. Readers would be hard-pressed to find a story where it didn’t seem like Murdock enjoyed being Daredevil in both of his lives up through the late ‘70s; one early story by Stan Lee and Gene Colan featured a plot in which Murdock lied about having a “cool” twin brother Mike— someone goofy and hip and fun—all in order to throw people off the identity trail (because that’s an easily believable scenario). Another story, by Bill Mantlo and a then-unknown Miller, featured Daredevil helping a recently blinded Spider-Man in a sort of comedy-of-errors adventure of the wise-cracking blind leading the wise-cracking blind.
Daredevil Issue #1
But as the ‘80s ushered a gritty cloud of realism to comics, Daredevil’s previously carefree life started to “catch up” with him at the hands of new creators. The great loves of Murdock’s life found themselves on the wrong ends of needles (Karen Page) and knives (Elektra), and dead girlfriends became a Daredevil trope rather than a surprise twist or plot element. Daredevil himself battled a crippling depression while searching for help from a higher power, a struggle that culminated in 1986 as Miller essentially broke the character during the seminal “Born Again.” The story found Murdock framed for perjury by a corrupt detective, rendered homeless and left suffering with crippling paranoia and despair. And while Miller did rebuild Murdock’s life by the end of the story (hence the “Born Again” title), Murdock became one of the first major characters in comics to consistently and publicly battle his own depression in comics as his life continuously crumbled around him, and every creative team following this monumental arc viewed the book no longer as a superhero drama, but as a personal exploration of self-realization as well as a crime epic.
The easiest way to see this shift reflected is in the development of Daredevil’s rogue’s gallery. Where your average supervillain tends to have simplistic goals of wealth and domination brought on by casual violence, Daredevil’s foes are much more violent and sadistic than the common costumed clowns. Their relationship with Murdock is often deeply personal; his most famous foes don’t just want to get away with robbing banks, but instead aim to dissect Daredevil’s life in a way that can be only be described as torture. Daredevil faces monsters like the aforementioned Bullseye, the vicious drug lord Owl and the cold, calculating Kingpin of Crime, all of whom have personal stakes in the destruction of Murdock and Daredevil for both business and pleasure. These aren’t men who simply want to get away with dirty deeds, but rather characters obsessed with power to the point that they need control of their surrounding environment, including Daredevil. That pressure inevitably pushes the character to the point where only way for Daredevil to defeat his antagonists is to become one of them (the aforementioned ousting of the Kingpin, or even the time Daredevil beat and carved a bullseye into Bullseye’s flesh, which aligned the character visually with the 2003 film version).
Born to Lose
Daredevil’s battles don’t end when he takes off his costume, though. Instead, they continue when he puts on a different kind of suit as Matt Murdock, attorney at law. As a public lawyer, Murdock’s face is visible to everyone he puts away in court; grudges emerge, vendettas develop and Murdock’s loved ones often become victims that neither he nor Daredevil can necessarily save. In fact, one of Murdock’s greatest foes ends up being the editorial staff of the Daily Globe newspaper as a report outs his secret identity to the public, leading to friends like Foggy Nelson or loves like Milla Donovan and Karen Page inserted in the crosshairs by villains both super and petty. Murdock is a man who has devoted himself to battling crime in every arena imaginable, but unlike most heroes, he’s not offered the luxury of a convenient separation between his two identities; they’re so uniquely interwoven that we find Murdock on the battlefield at all times, perpetually burning the candle on both ends.
To that end, Murdock has only had one consistent friend his entire life: Foggy Nelson. Foggy is Murdock’s partner in law, and one of the few people who immediately gains the trust to know the secret of Daredevil; the two grow up together, go to school together and immediately practice law together upon graduating. Foggy is someone Murdock feels he can always help, whether at work on a case or even as a romantic wingman. Yet Foggy is also a consistent target in Daredevil stories, which results in the character faking his own death at least twice. This frustration forces Foggy to even abandon Murdock and establish his own practice without Murdock. And as time goes on, Foggy represents someone Murdock cannot help at all; when Foggy is diagnosed with cancer, not even the scientific geniuses of the Marvel Universe can help cure Foggy, which weighs heavily upon Murdock until Foggy’s eventual death (which, because this is a comic book, turns out to be a ruse).
Daredevil is not strictly defined as a hero in the traditional sense, but rather as a unique and more tenuous iteration of a popular scenario. He’s easily identifiable as a hero because he holds a strong sense of morals and ethics defined by his day job as a lawyer, allowing him to fight crime within the law (something only one other popular Marvel superhero can boast), yet Daredevil’s fiction doesn’t provide the romanticism or boyhood escapism of characters like Iron Man or Thor. In fact, while the Avengers have to fight armies of Chitauri and Ultron robots, it’s arguably safer to stick around them during their worst times than Daredevil at his best. Murdock and Daredevil’s lives are just so full of collateral damage that any character in their vicinity is smart to flee their influence, and that’s arguably what Murdock wants (though not necessarily what he needs).
This friction is what makes Daredevil’s depression so palpable, and made Murdock more relatable as a character. The most recent run of Daredevil by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee has attempted to revert Daredevil back to his Golden Age swashbuckler status, resulting in an overall sunnier attitude to the book. But every now and then Waid resurrects that depression and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Murdock will find himself wearing an “I’m Not Daredevil” sweater to a holiday party on one page, and struggling with an acute form of PTSD on the next; he’s given chances for love, and yet he typically runs from them for fear of his past. He’s a character that wants to grow and find a future, but because of Daredevil he’s constantly stuck in the past as old villains constantly reinvent themselves in new and terrifying ways. Bullseye returns to mastermind a series of seemingly unrelated personal defeats to wear Murdock down and kill him, at which point Murdock is forced to question if he can even prolong this fight anymore.
And yet, this unending conflict is what makes Daredevil special. This absolute adversity is what makes the character worthy of a 13-episode series and a different kind of hero worship. We love high-flying tales of adventure for their provided escapism, and sure, the trials and tribulations of Matt Murdock are certainly a different variant on that popular formula. But within Murdock we are shown something infinitely more empathetic—a person whose existence is more fragile and personable, someone whose epic battles are defined by trial and frequent error, and when every win is usually followed by a loss. This fragility makes Daredevil’s struggle that much more personal and harrowing. Matt Murdock has to survive; he has to win.
With Marvel and Netflix’s Daredevil, we’re given the opportunity to see a different side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—one without clear lines of victory and loss, one where happy endings aren’t guaranteed. Marvel certainly prides itself on being a fun and inventive landscape, but one of its original mantras was that its world was a more fantastical version of what you see when you look out your window (“Marvel: Your universe”); that’s not the case with Daredevil, though. While the accomplishments of Murdock are certainly nothing to undermine or disrespect (a blind kid from a rough neighborhood with no parents becomes a lawyer and a ninja? That’s incredible), he inevitably holds up a dark mirror instead of the lighter filter other heroes wield. Murdock is someone stuck in the same patterns we struggle with every day—even if his are heightened by the inclusion of assassins and mob bosses.
All heroes suffer: it is the inevitability of characters destined to battle evil in never-ending conflict. From those in the court to those in the street, some powered by devices and others empowered by terror. Yet while there are heroes who battle actual, literal infernal creatures from all sorts of hellscapes, there are few who have to engage in parallel battles with their own demons—and from that, Daredevil stands alone.