The third season of the Marvel Netflix show “Daredevil” is a wonderful return to form.
The first season was memorable because it introduced a side of Marvel storytelling aimed at adults, verging on the tragic rather than the incessant quipping and slapstick comedy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a story of a superhero wrestling with his conscience. The story is pervaded by Catholicism, so much so that going to confession — the first scene of the first season — was no big deal. It’s a refreshing departure from the irreligious norm.
Daredevil is a Christian version of a superhero for three reasons. First, his power comes from weakness. His blindness forces him to find new ways to be part of the world, to pay attention to what’s invisible. Actor Charlie Cox worked hard to convey a certain humility through his performance, rather than the loud and proud attitude we often find (and love) in superheroes. Second, Daredevil doesn’t kill people, not even the ones who deserve it, because he doesn’t want to play God. Third, his idea of heroism is to help the poor, as a lawyer and as a vigilante, in his community in Manhattan.
The villain of the first season, Kingpin, was throwing the poor out of their homes in order to take over the real estate. It was all-American to fight him. After all, that’s a conflict straight out of Frank Capra. Standing up for the equal dignity of human beings is a very Christian thing to do, also, so it was Daredevil’s natural path.
Then the second season turned this great story about social conflict and redemptive heroism into a pointless digression about magical ninjas from the East invading New York. A lot of fights ensued and a lot of destruction, but none of it had anything to do with Daredevil.
There was a lot of drama about a girl Daredevil loved and the old man who had taught them martial arts — all very biographical, a kind of origin story. Yet what was the point of it? Nothing. It was Daredevil’s crazy college days, literally, with partying plus breaking and entering. At the end, we had only got back to the beginning. Everything that had happened in that season vanished, as we see in the third season now hitting Netflix.
Now we’re back to Daredevil’s first season. He’s stuck between the church and Kingpin, played by the much admired Vincent D’Onofrio. We’re back to that original conflict: What if the devil is stronger? What if he wins? A large part of the story is about Daredevil’s faltering faith and the temptation to abandon his humanity. He doesn’t know whether that means dying or becoming a monster.
In his spiritual collapse, the priest and nun who raised him become his spiritual parents again and we see, as in other movies and shows, that superheroes are portrayed in our stories primarily as overgrown children or teenagers who never quite grew up because of some traumatic experience. They’re broken people, we are given to believe, or else they would be normal just like us. This is a dubious interpretation of heroism, to say the least, but in this case it becomes a good view of Catholic education.
A friend who was educated by Catholics a generation back says it’s a plausible account of the priests and nuns who were then dealing with American kids. They are portrayed as no-nonsense adults. They are rationalistic, but they have a dry sense of humor, a moral backbone, and devotion to something greater than themselves. Compared to the psycho-drama of self-centered people, this is quite refreshing. They are a natural complement for the protagonists, who are in one sense children.
As America’s leading chronicler of our orphanhood stories, I’m tempted to say, I told you so! Daredevil, too, has become a story full of orphans, like “Deadpool” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” I assume this is because these stories, although written for millennials, are written by Gen X-ers, so many of whom actually had to deal with the crisis of divorce the baby boomers brought to America.
So the story is written from the point of view of rejected or abandoned children, who lash out at themselves and the world, and end up thinking they’re all alone — orphans in a hostile universe. This is a bit melodramatic, but it seems true to what goes on in the heart of such a child.
Some of these lonely children manage to turn their anger and self-pity into discipline and even loyalty to a greater good, but others do not. Daredevil just lost his dad, while the two villains in the new season killed their fathers and father figures. The story equivocates on what defines villainy. Are monsters monsters because society hurt them? Because parents abandoned or abused them? Or did the trauma just reveal the evil that was always inside? Viewers will have to decide for themselves.
If this suggests the story has a moral depth mostly lacking in our entertainment, that’s true. Aside from impressive fight choreography, which itself is less stylish and more agonized than in the first season, Daredevil descends into the depths of his self-pity. His talk in the church, another kind of confession, has him comparing himself to Job and acting like a sullen brat, while his spiritual parents try to bring him back to life.
The theme of abandonment is worked into the dialogue again and again, as abandoned children are scarred for life. So it doesn’t take long before you start noticing how deeply conservative the story is about society and family.
This seems to explain the haphazard plot, where the three friends Daredevil, Foggy Nelson (himself a child alienated from his family), and Karen keep betraying each other in ways they cannot bother to acknowledge. They can never act together, they can never trust each other, they take out their anger on whoever is available as a scapegoat, and all the time they have the best of intentions. In short, they are like the Avengers, who spend more time fighting each other than any enemy, because they cannot show loyalty.
So the symbol of orphanhood turns out to explain the experience of individualism, of a loneliness born of an inability to trust and to be trustworthy. This is all over our Marvel stories and it deserves far more attention than it has received. If you liked the first season of “Daredevil,” you will like this one even better. There is some indication that audiences are moving in this direction, preferring adult drama to childish magical ninjas, because “Iron Fist,” the silliest of the Marvel-Netflix shows, has been canceled, along with “Luke Cage.”