Sympathy for the Devil
Daredevil exhibits a high degree of complexity by virtue of going beyond the dualism of good and evil, which is how these sorts of stories are usually written.
Several years ago a particularly dreadful Hollywood film was made which featured the Marvel hero known as Daredevil. One of the reasons why the movie was a complete and utter disaster was that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, then known as the power couple ‘Bennifer’, played the leading roles. I was quite young at that time and my taste in films was not particularly refined, but the film still managed to fill me with a sense of disdain in relation to Daredevil as a character. A few years later, however, I visited a secondhand shop and bought a bunch of old comic books featuring the Punisher, and Daredevil happened to be tagging along in some of the stories.
I was immediately sucked into these stories, and I came to understand that Daredevil had been misrepresented by the Hollywood film, and that he is actually a very interesting character. Daredevil and the Punisher have many qualities in common. They both belong to the Marvel universe of Urban Heroes, and the stories in which they feature are often more realistic and down to Earth than those involving the more fantastic superhero stories. One can take, for example, the Avengers, the Hulk, and X-Men, to name but a few. Daredevil operates in another environment, and the problems which he confronts are those that one can come across in any typical big city.
Daredevil is a white knight, the Punisher is a black knight, and in the comics there is a symmetry between the two. The Punisher is constantly at war against the system, criminality, other heroes, and virtually everyone else. Daredevil is, on the other hand, a true reformer who essentially believes in the system, but who also believes that it needs a helping hand from an outside force. The Punisher incarnates vengeance, and Daredevil accordingly incarnates justice. I’m not going to discuss this dance of the knights in the present essay; the discussion will be continued after the second season of the serial has aired, in which the Punisher will be featured as the antagonist.
Daredevil was given a new chance when Netflix decided to produce and air a serial featuring him. The story of Daredevil, otherwise known as Matt Murdock, has thus been retold, and with greater success than last time. As with a lot of heroes, Matt had a rough start, and his trajectory goes from a place of weakness towards acquiring strength in both mind and body. Matt was born in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, the son of the boxer Jack ‘Devil’ Murdock. Hell’s Kitchen is an impoverished area, and it is more or less run by gangsters. His father is murdered by them after refusing to follow orders and lose a rigged match, but simultaneously winning a huge cash prize for his son, thus setting him up with a better future and allowing Jack to end his own life and career with glory and honour.
A turning point in Matt’s life is reached when he is hit by a truck as a boy, getting toxic chemicals in his eyes which destroy his eyesight. In spite of this handicap, however, the tragedy has the effect of enhancing his other senses. Typical for the character is that Matt suffered the accident as a result of sacrificing himself in order to save a complete stranger; Daredevil is the definition of self-sacrifice. With the exception of his superior martial arts skills, these enhanced senses are the closest thing that Daredevil has to genuine superpowers, like other comic book heroes often possess.
As I mentioned above, Daredevil operates in an environment which is much more realistic than most other superhero setups. The story which is featured in the Netflix serial could have been told by having a cop or private investigator in the leading role. It didn’t need to be a guy wearing tights. This is reflected in the villain, Wilson Fisk, who is known as Kingpin in the comics. Fisk is the man behind all the crime, and is the head of a criminal conspiracy, and the perfect sparring partner for Daredevil. Daredevil wants to help the system, while Fisk wants it as a puppet on his strings, and they are a perfect match when they meet in gladiatorial combat.
Fisk actually has a more interesting trajectory than one might think, but at first he is presented as simply a criminal mastermind. His conspiracy, which includes the Japanese yakuza and the Russian mafia, own the cops, the courts, and the souls of the city’s residents. They sell weapons, drugs, and human beings; and they exact other means of control over the people. Fisk is thus made out to be a polished gangster, a criminal entrepreneur, and the opposite of Daredevil. The German thinker Carl Schmitt once defined the enemy as he who is existentially different from oneself; the complete stranger. Our enemies therefore define us in a way, and we can learn something important about a person by knowing something about his enemies.
However, Fisk is also presented as a man with a vision for New York and Hell’s Kitchen. This takes Fisk’s character in another direction, and he becomes more of a lord of finance than a mere gangster. We learn that Fisk has a plan for New York, and in this plan the city is to be remade in a new image. Buildings are to be torn down, residents are to be evicted, and a new city will rise from the ruins of the old one. This adds to Fisk’s character, but it also adds to Daredevil’s character. The latter is defined by the former, and one of the reasons why this series is much better than the old Hollywood film is due to the tension between Daredevil and Fisk.
We come to understand Daredevil as the champion of the people, and Fisk as the representative of the elite.
The interesting thing about Fisk is that his criminal enterprise is only a means to an end and a way of funding his vision for the city. At this point, it is reasonable to think of Fisk as a member of the financial aristocracy, a man with no regard for ordinary people who can destroy the life of a working man in the same way as one swats a fly. Daredevil is of course opposed to this vision, as well as to Fisk’s other operations. He is a man of and for the people, the one who looks out for their interests and who protects them from injustice and abuse. Daredevil is the merciful devil, even in relation to those criminals whom he refuses to kill, no matter their transgressions. It is only natural that he tries to thwart Fisk plan to build a small paradise at the expense of ordinary people.
This captures a problem that is unique to our time: the problem of a super-rich elite which is completely disconnected from the people, and which profits by manipulating the system. They have zero sense of social responsibility. Furthermore, they have no sense of loyalty to keep them in check, and they therefore do only as they wish. Its ability to depict a contemporary issue on the screen is one of the reasons why I, on rare occasions, appreciate modern pop culture. There is, however, one problem with my summary of what is going on in the series: namely, the fact that things are not as they appear. The initial setting of the story as being mortal combat between the champion of the people and the lord of capital is false.
Hell’s Kitchen is a hell, quite literally. It is riddled with corruption and criminality of various sort, and the scum of the human race are feasting there. No one seems to have a clue what to do about it, least of all Daredevil, who seems to be content with beating up the occasional criminal or dirty cop. But he is unable to attack the system at its roots, which seems to be entirely rotten and beyond saving. The people of the city appear to be beyond saving. At some point it struck me that Fisk is not trying to carve out a paradise for the rich at the expense of the poor; rather, he is trying to gentrify the city in order to build the foundation for something better.
This insight changed my view of this setting, and how to look at the characters and their ambitions. Fisk thus goes from criminal mastermind to lord of capital, as well as being a truly radical visionary during the course of the serial. Marx noted that the radical is the one who goes beyond the symptoms and attacks the disease; the one who dares to go to the root of the matter. Fisk is a true radical because he attacks the root of the problem, which is the rotten base of the city. Fighting the symptoms is no longer enough; the solution needs to go deeper than that.
The end point of Fisk’s endeavour is to collect enough resources and power to make it possible for him to tear down the slums, get rid of the trash, and build something which can be inhabited by better people. Fisk’s actions and schemes throughout the serial certainly make him a criminal. But we should not forget that he works dialectically by utilising a particular type of method in order to achieve an objective of a very different nature. Fisk is working his strange dialectic by making organised crime work for him in order to – at the end of his scheme – eradicate crime from the city.
This serial thus exhibits a high degree of complexity by virtue of going beyond the dualism of good and evil, which is how these sorts of stories are usually written. At a deeper level, this serial rather deals with the concepts of decline and decadence, and how these things are to be managed. The conflict plays outbetween a true radical, Fisk, and a reformer, namely Daredevil, in which the former wants to move beyond the degeneracy of today and towards a vision for tomorrow: a vision which seeks to rise from the ruins of the old and wash the filth from the streets once and for all.