Marvel’s DareDevil TV Series explores the shifting boundaries between villain and hero

This is a (a)theological companion to Marvel’s 2015 DareDevil TV Series. The series narrative starts like this: the main hero goes to church to ask forgiveness for what he’s about to do. He draws the line at killing people, but both the good guys and the bad guys tell him if he wants to make a difference, to win, he’s going to have to start.

Throughout Season One, he’s wrestling with questions of morality… he’s afraid he may be just like the bad guys. And in at least one sense, he is: because although we, the viewers see him as sympathetic, the general public only see the media portrayal – the “Masked Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.” He goes from vigilante to “cop killer and terrorist”.

The main bad guy (Fisk) is a monster… but we also see his sympathetic backstory. His violent dad drove him to a psychotic break. He believes he is actually saving the city. He’s determined to improve his city, but to do that, he needs power and money. At first, he’s a dark shadow, in hiding, running things from secret, but then he comes out publicly. He owns most of the police force and runs the major crime syndicates.

So who, really, is the evil character? Neither. They are both forced to use violence against each other to secure control over the system. But like most modern dramas, we root for the marginalized underdog who is forced to go outside the law. Good and evil is besides the question, it’s really all about conceptual framework and public image. Who looks like the bad guy? The rich, public figure, the respected business man, the art buyer; or the dangerous masked vigilante who is fighting against the police, the establishment, the corrupt system?

This motif of fighting for justice and righteousness and what you believe in even if the world doesn’t appreciate you; even if the world hates you and mistrusts you, is a common thematic element (remember in Harry Potter, when everybody thinks Harry is killing people by talking with the giant snake?)

This is the fascinating quality of super-heroes, and most super-heroes have these revolutionary elements (think Zorro), and as such many of them can be seen as Satanic-figures – revolting against a system they see as corrupt and want to destabilize. But DareDevil is the only “hero” to be actually be called a “devil.” His “Costume” is a red suit with horns.

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And the series doesn’t shy away from openly theological comparisons (in fact it revolves around them – DareDevil keeps going to back to ‘confess his sins’ with his Catholic confidant.)

He asks,

Do you believe in the devil, father? In this world, among us?

The reply:

‘The word ‘satan’ actually means adversary, supplied to any antagonist, angels and humans, serpents and kings. Medieval theologians reinterpreted those passages to be about a single monstrous enemy.”

“So you don’t believe he exists?”

The priest tells a sad story of a brutal murder and says, “yes, I believe he exists, in the world, taking many forms.”

(That’s a ludicrous cop-out, by the way. Humans do terrible things, almost always because they are mis-educated. The way to stop violence is through education).

“What if you could have stopped him from ever hurting anyway else?”

“Stopped him how?”

And that’s the question underlying the series: How far is too far? He draws the line at killing, but unless he kills his adversary, the power structure won’t change. Is the “Devil” good or evil? The definition seems to rest on the fact that murder is a mortal sin: so he can fight for Good and still be Good, but once he kills, then he’s just evil fighting against evil (and if so, how can he tell that his goals are the righteous ones?)

The Plot Thickens

Fisk comes out as “savior of city”. People think he’s the “2nd coming”. Only DareDevil and a few of his friends know otherwise; DareDevil is considering murder or assassination, basically, as the only way to defeat the crime boss.

He goes to visit the devil and is confounded to learn:

“He has someone he loves. Who loves him. Would mourn his loss.”

“I know my soul is damned if I take his life… but if I stand by if I let him consume the city, all the people who will suffer and die.”

The priest counsels him:

“There’s a wide gulf between inaction and murder. Another man’s evil does not make you good. Man have used the atrocities of their enemies to justify their own throughout history.

“So the question you need to ask is, are you struggling with the fact that you don’t want to kill this man, but have to, or that you don’t have to kill him, but want to?”

Meanwhile…

Fisk is using DareDevil’s (a “masked psychopath”) vigilante tactics to justify his rise to power (in the same way that the US Government uses fear and hysteria to restrict civil liberties and crush dissent).

He needs a scapegoat, but also a problem, a public fear, embodied in ONE figure, so that he, Fisk, can have a cause, can inspire and unite people, can get them to hand him power.

His little band of rebels despair:

What are we supposed to do, against someone who owns everything, everyone. What can we do to somebody like that. The only thing you can. You make them pay.

Paradise Lost

That could be, and is actually, EXACTLY Satan’s argument in Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost, God makes a new rule that Satan questions. He voices concern and God throws him out of heaven. He seeks justice but God heaps violence and punishment on him and his supporters. God is too powerful to defeat openly. What can Satan do? Whatever he can.

Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our Enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire Calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from Hope, [ 190 ]
If not what resolution from despare.

But it’s not a fair fight: God and Fisk have more control, more connections, and are more willing to sacrifice pawns in a masterful manipulation (while Satan and DareDevil are more honest and direct).

Fisk lets DareDevil defeat one of his henchman, Nobo, who had become problematic. DareDevil does exactly as Fisk manipulated him to do.

“In a perfect world, we’d have taken each other out. But it isn’t a perfect world, is it. Not yet. To be honest, it took longer than I expected.”

Likewise, in Paradise Lost, God knows Satan is going to go and tempt Adam and Eve, but he needs him to do it, so that Adam and Eve will fall, so that they’ll be guilty, and accept Jesus Christ as reparation. Satan thinks he is challenging and resisting God covertly, when he is actually still a pawn in God’s plan.

Sometimes it’s hard to see God the literary figure as anything other than perfect – Christian theologians have scrubbed him of defect. But remember that Yahweh is not so far off from Zeus, king of gods, and the parallel to Fisk gets much closer. Zeus grew up to kill his own father, and so inherit his throne. (As Fisk kills his own father).

At the end of Episode 9 DareDevil gets destroyed, beaten, and very nearly dies (as all heroes must, before coming back in the climatic battle).

But in Paradise Lost, the book ends here: God triumphs over Satan completely and totally, builds his perfect new world founded on violence, dissonance and persecution by silencing opponents (removing oneself from God’s universe isn’t an option, you’re either with him as a supporter or punished as an adversary, there are no options, no outs.)

And then everyone lives happily ever after – except, wait, nobody does.

Satan and his 1/3 of the angels suffer punishment with no trial, no justice, blamed for crimes God manipulated them deliberately into taking, actions that were necessary for God’s plan to be put in motion (without Satan’s temptation, humans wouldn’t have fallen, Jesus would be irrelevant and unnecessary).

Humans fall from grace and live in sin, incapable of happiness without redemption through Jesus. God is a totalitarian dictator. This is the universe if Fisk had won – in contemporary TV drama, that would make a really shitty conclusion and everyone would hate it… but that’s really how Paradise Lost goes. In Paradise Lost, we never get to see God question or second guess himself, but we do see that in DareDevil.

Just as the hero is doubting himself, so is Fisk. Is it all worth it? He’s just trying to ‘save the city.’ He imagines himself as the good guy.

The old Chinese Woman tells him a story of a snake whose ambition was too great; it bites an elephant, jaws open wide, but could only reach the elephant’s foot. (Obviously a reference to the classic Satan myth – the original version – his “pride” being his own damn fault).

Fisk asks, “Am I the snake or the elephant?” She answers:

“There is conflict within you. Man cannot be both savior and oppressor.”

But GOD can be! (And is, in Paradise Lost).

DareDevil is getting similar advice:

“Light and shadow, one has to be sacrificed for the other. Choose and choose wisely.”

“What about working within the system, the law?”

“Sometimes the law isn’t enough.”

 

“We don’t live in a world that’s fair, we live in this one.”

“How is that any different from the way he solves his problems?”

 

Fisk owns the police (law) and media (story). Too much power. How do you fight that? Where is justice? Forced to operate outside the law, you hurt him anyway you can.

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In the final battle, DareDevil has finally accepted that he needs to become evil, the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, and be willing to go the distance and actually kill Fisk; so he makes a whole Devil suit, with horns and everything. This was hard for him; as a Catholic, he wanted to be good. He wanted to act inside the law. But the system was broken. He needed to become evil to defeat injustice – because being good in an unjust system cannot resolve conflicts. Satan finally makes the same decision in Paradise Lost:

To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist. If then his Providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil; [ 165 ]

So farewel Hope, and with Hope farewel Fear,
Farewel Remorse: all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good; by thee at least [ 110 ]
Divided Empire with Heav’ns King I hold
By thee, and more then half perhaps will reigne;

Why is DareDevil a hero?

Both Fisk and DareDevil want to save/improve the city. Actually, Fisk’s plan probably would have worked. He wanted to demolish all the old crappie heroin infested apartment buildings and build a whole new, modern, high tech district. That probably would have been great for the city and improved safety and standard of living for everybody.

What has DareDevil achieved by opposing him? Collateral damage, innocents being hurt, open warfare.

The really interesting part of this is that, this is the SAME STORY: in DareDevil, he’s a hero for no other reason than he fights back. There are lots of other examples of this same story where we give the vigilante the moral upper hand for some reason. But there’s no other example that is so CLOSE to Satan (red suit and horns, actually called “Devil”) and yet we still fail to close the gap between this story and Paradise Lost.

Even though we see DareDevil as a hero, almost everybody interprets Paradise Lost as being wholly and uniquely different, citing things like Satan’s “hubris” or “pride.” Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost, and God is the manipulative, violent tyrant. It’s clear and obvious on the surface of the text (if you bother to read it). But for Christians who believe literally in the existence of God and Satan, this is a connection that must be avoided with blindfolds and earplugs, because salvation depends on God maintaining his victor’s crown and keeping one foot on Satan’s neck.

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  • Annie Wei

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