The Philosophy of Daredevil
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Written by: Matt Reichle
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon
The Philosophy of Daredevil
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here, and today we’re talking about one of the more thoughtful Marvel properties out there: Daredevil. NOT the Ben Affleck one. Also, spoilers for all you that haven’t binged both seasons yet. Matt Murdock, Blind Lawyer, and human lie detector… is a vigilante: the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.
The very concept of justice is based in the idea that law ought to be fair. This is why justice is personified as a blind woman holding scales and a sword: to weigh guilt and to execute said justice. Its no coincidence that Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer that beats people up in his Pajamas.
The other element the show places significant emphasis on is the fact that Matt is a Catholic. The choice to name a catholic superhero Matthew after the Apostle and Evangelist is quite apt. As a tax collector (before he became one of the twelve disciples) Matthew would have a similar reputation to lawyers today. The Book of Matthew does quite a bit of commentary on greed and social justice. Matthew 25: 31- 46 sounds a whole lot like a justification for Pro Bono Legal work and Matthew 23:16 deals explicitly with corruption and blindness.
In fact, the promotional material for the second season was heavily influenced by religious art including Caravvagio Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgement, and Rubens’s Saint Sebastian, which echoes Claire’s fears for Matt. Whether it be divine law or man-made law, the central theme of Daredevil is Justice. So lets get to it, Welcome to this Wisecrack edition on The Philosophy of Daredevil. Daredevil addresses a serious problem with justice: legal liability, whether or not a guilty party ought to be held responsible for their actions.
Sure it seems simple enough, somebody goes on a killing spree… they deserve to be punished, right? But that narrative is complicated by one of the central questions in Daredevil: Are people responsible for their life situations? In season two, Nelson and Murdock attempt to use PTSD as a defense for Frank Castle, saying that Frank doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong, and thus, he’s not responsible for his actions.
When little Frankie Castle balks at this, they reword their defense, to “sympathetic storming”, a diagnosis where the sympathetic system is on a heightened state of alert due to extreme trauma and emotional disturbance. Again, the idea is: Frank Castle is not responsible for his actions. The show asks: is a person still to blame for their actions if they aren’t free to chose the person they have become?
Wilson Fisk is conditioned into a world of violence by his abusive father until he, well, snaps. Electra is presented as an emotionless killing machine that can do nothing but murder because of her nature as the Black Sky. Elektra is literally predisposed to be evil, and a significant portion of the second season revolves around the question: can she exercise her free will to deny her destiny?
Frank Castle has experienced the complete horror of war, only to return home and see his entire family violently gunned down. Can one really blame him for being vengeful? Philosophically speaking, the idea that all decisions are determined by previous causes is called determinism. Determinists don’t really believe in free will. All actions are just the consequence of previous actions. Each choice a person makes is impacted by previous life events. In a deterministic universe, concepts like responsibility and punishment don’t really make sense because if we’re just a product of our past, then we don’t really CHOOSE to do the things we do. And how can we be punished for something we didn’t choose?
Matt represents a different view of criminal justice: Libertarianism: which believes in the ability to choose other than your determined nature. Libertarians are of the hopeful sorts. I mean… Matt literally wears rose-colored glasses. Matt presents an option whereby people can elevate themselves beyond their determined condition or environment. It’s what Matt is going on an on about on the roof with the Punisher, about the redemptive spark inside a person, where a person isn’t all bad, that they can choose of their own free will to be different.
While Matt is supposed to be the example that prove determinism wrong: Matt has the devil in him, whatever that means. He wants to kill people like Fisk, but he chooses not to. Does he act of his own free will or is Matt merely un-free in his Catholicism? Is his choice to not kill the Kingpin a decision that he makes freely or does he merely make this decision based on the events that led to him accepting Catholicism and all of its precepts?
Vigilantism causes controversy because the vigilante, being outside the legal system, doesn’t have authority to distribute punishment. There’s no due process or impartiality. Vigilantism is common in comic books but in most cases the hero isn’t in a position to be harmed by being outed as a vigilante. Electra is silly rich. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are billionaire playboys. Superman can get shot in the eyeball and be fine. Matt Murdock is a blind defense lawyer who gets paid in bananas and casseroles. There is actual risk for Matt if people find out who he is. It’s why the Daredevil is the man without fear.
Matt’s motivation for risking so much is echoed by Thurgood Marshall speech from 1992 about dissenting against fear. However, knowing that the speech is really in the context of civil rights and that Thurgood Marshall was significantly motivated to practice law because of southern lynching (a form of vigilantism)… the use of this quote is a little out of place.
While justice Marshall may not be calling for vigilante justice he is calling for an end to fear and apathy—to not turn a “blind eye” to injustice. Though vigilante violence is still extra-legal, the question: what makes a person good is a central idea of the show—and while it’s a little heavy handed—they make it clear that Matt Murdock is just a bad day away from becoming Wilson Fisk or Frank castle.
Most superhero narratives play up the cliché of good and evil. There’s a pure heroic protagonist and a corrupt and vile antagonist. In Daredevil, however, this elementary distinction is blurred by Kingpin, Stick, Electra, and the Punisher, who all occupy moral gray areas. They don’t set out to do evil,they validate their decisions by appeals to a greater good. For the Kingpin it is the glory of his city, he is merely doling out justice, for Stick and Electra there is a great war between the Chaste and the Hand.
What separates Matt from Karen, The punisher and the Kingpin is faith— Matt is a Catholic, whereas all the others profess they aren’t religious. Orphaned after the death of his father, he is raised by nuns, attends church regularly and makes an effort to be a good man. Which is funny since Matt chooses to dress up like the devil and kick the shit out of people. And so for Karen, The Punisher, and Kingpin there is nothing besides the corrupt law to keep them from killing. No divine law that makes taking life unjust.
Each season Matt tackles different adversaries, but the actual enemy doesn’t really matter. What matters is Matt’s struggle with his inner devil—with his desire to bring Justice to his city by any means necessary… except killing… Matt is a good catholic boy who likes hurting people but has a real problem killing people. Something about “Thou shall not kill” and all that.
Except that he doesn’t choose not to kill—he kills Nobu three times but conveniently forgets about it every time he does so. He lights him on fire, he throws him off a three-story balcony, then he chucks him off of a roof, and at no time does he express any guilt for doing so… so maybe he does have the devil in him…
There is a constant refrain from characters in the show and that is: Daredevil’s tactics as a vigilante are half measures. Fisk argues that what’s dangerous about Matt is not that he wears a cape or mask, Daredevil is dangerous because he believes one man can make a difference. For Fisk, it’s only through sweeping structural changes that come about by through influence; power, money and eating the same omelet that real change can take shape.
Fisks’s argument is echoed by both The Punisher and Stick: that Daredevil’s vigilantism is insufficient. Matt plods through life like his father, a boxer who sidles through life taking on each opponent one by one, fight by fight. For Stick and Punisher, Daredevil’s insistence to not kill limits his ability to effectuate change. Daredevil’s perps end up back on the street to continue to rape, kill, and murder. In many ways the yellow seen everywhere can be read as more than just an homage to the primary colors of the comic books: it speaks to what Daredevil’s frenemies imply… that The Devil of Hell’s kitchen is really a yellowbellied coward.
In a criminal justice sense, Daredevil justifies his actions through a utilitarian approach, one attributed to nineteen century philosopher: Jeremy Bentham. His idea of justice relies on rehabilitating, incapacitating and deterring the criminal. Punishment is justified by a forward-looking prediction to stop future harm for the sake of all of society. An action is just only if it advances one of these goals. Like imprisoning the Kingpin and the Punisher.
Sure there isn’t due process, a jury, or a judge but this is a question of philosophical justification. Daredevil does what’s needed in a predictive sense—he protects the neighborhood by beating the hell out of people. Whereas the Punisher represents a retributive concept of justice which closely aligns with a deontological or Kantian approach to justice.
For Immanuel Kant, it’s not a question of protecting society based on the consequences of punishment. Retributive justice is concerned with deserts, no not ice cream, just deserts: getting what a person deserves. Punishment isn’t used to help society so much as it is to assure that a person gets what they are due. In fact, for the retributivist it would be UNJUST or immoral to do otherwise. It is similar to the concept of an ‘eye for an eye’ or Lex Talionis: A system of justice “which requires the infliction upon a wrongdoer of the same injury he has caused another.
So, yeah, the Punisher… Punishes people. Whether it’s the Kitchen Irish, the Dogs of hell or members of his ex-military outfit, Punisher acts to right the wrong done to his family. There is no legal recourse—he ‘just does’ … he insures that people get what they deserve.
Daredevil presents the story of a conflicted hero, torn between his duty to the church, the legal profession, and his desire to stand up for those that are unable to stand up for themselves. Sure Daredevil may be a Batman rip off but it did generate the source material to create the teenage mutant ninja turtles. While all of this is great, what makes Daredevil a phenomenal series is that at its heart the show is about kicking ass. In a hallway, in alleys, stairwells, living rooms, and cellblocks… it just kicks ass.