The following contains major plot details for Marvel’s Daredevil.
In its most conventional sense, masculinity is tied to power. And power is more often than not tied to money. So how can you be a “strong man” when you live in poverty? Is it better to suffer for your principles or compromise to get by?
Those questions may be par for the course in prestige dramas, but they’re fresh territory for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its new Netflix series Daredevil. The story of blind do-gooder lawyer/masked vigilante Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) features not only visceral fight sequences and a healthy dose of Catholic symbolism, but also an exploration of the ways in which men respond to poverty. With that rich thematic through-line, Daredevil immediately sets itself apart from the rest of Marvel’s breezy superhero fare.
The show takes place in a present-day Hell’s Kitchen that has recently been ravaged by the events of The Avengers. The fact that Daredevil uses that backdrop to mostly explore male perspectives is likely because all but one of the show’s creative players are men (Ruth Fletcher Gage co-wrote “Speak Of The Devil”). The first season does fairly well by its few female characters, but they’re asked to carry less thematic weight.
Isolated women like legal assistant Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and elderly resident Elena Cardenas (Judith Delgado) can afford righteous causes. But Daredevil smartly observes that female caretakers—whether they’re nurses like Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), girlfriends like Vanessa Marianna (Ayelet Zurer), entrepreneurs like Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), or mothers like Marlene Fisk (Angela Reed)—are often less concerned with pride than their male counterparts. After all, women aren‘t generally socialized to see power as a key part of their identities.
Almost all the show’s male characters, however, struggle with poverty-related identity crises, regardless of whether they have people who depend on them. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the story of “Battlin’” Jack Murdock (John Patrick Hayden), Matt’s boxer single father.
In a show full of principled characters, Jack takes the cake. Without financial power, he derives his identity from moral codes. He drills the lesson “Murdocks always get back up,” into his son, even as he encourages him to use books instead of physical strength to escape poverty. Jack pays his rent by taking bribes to throw boxing matches, but after his son is blinded, he decides to put principles above practical considerations. He wins a big match, earns some money for Matt, and accepts death at the hand of a pissed-off mobster. It’s not an immediately sympathetic decision (he’s essentially leaving his son an orphan), but it’s understandable that a man worn down by poverty would feel that a noble death is the only way he can teach his son a lesson about pride. Frankly, it’s also the kind of decision it’s harder to imagine a woman making.
Jack’s son echoes his father’s struggles between principles and compromise: When Matt can’t battle criminals legally by day, he takes them down physically at night. Though he’s pushing the limits of his morality as he maims and mutilates bad guys, Matt justifies his actions with his own moral code: He won’t kill anyone.
Much of Matt’s season-long arc is about learning to balance advice from three separate father figures. His biological father taught him about honor; his callous mentor Stick (Scott Glenn) taught him to fight; the Catholic Church—personified in Peter McRobbie’s Father Lantom—taught him to protect his soul. Matt ultimately combines all three lessons to win the day, but for a show that’s strongest when exploring consequences, it rings slightly hollow that he’s continually able to emerge victorious and stick to his no-killing policy.
Thankfully, Daredevil doesn’t always offer such easy answers. Like Matt, journalist Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) grapples with a moral dilemma. Is it better to accept a desk job that will help pay his wife’s medical bills or maintain his journalistic integrity and investigate the high-level corruption he’s been warned to ignore? Similarly, Russian mob brothers Vladimir (Nikolai Nikolaeff) and Anatoly (Gideon Emery) debate whether accepting help from a condescending crime lord makes them weak. Although Ben ultimately chooses his principles and the Russians accept a compromise, all three men wind up dead for their choices.
It’s worth noting that although poverty disproportionally affects black and Hispanic people, Daredevil is focused mainly on white characters. Ben’s death means the show has no prominent men of color going forward in season two, which feels like a major oversight for a series focused on inner city poverty.
Indeed the final character struggling with issues of masculinity—and the person responsible for killing Ben and the Russian brothers—is yet another white man: crime boss Wilson Fisk (a superb Vincent D’Onofrio). As is often the case in both prestige dramas and superhero stories, Fisk is the villainous flipside of heroic Matt Murdock. Both were raised in Hell’s Kitchen poverty, both want to help their city, and both realize they need to work outside the legal system to do so. But while the former chooses small-scale vigilante justice, the latter seeks to control the city as a crime lord.
Like Matt, Fisk’s personality is created in both acceptance and rejection of his father. Bill Fisk (Domenick Lombardozzi) compensated for his financial powerlessness by asserting abusive control over his family. In opposition to that, Fisk reveres and respects women, but still takes to heart his father’s lesson about masculine pride. That’s how young Fisk justifies murdering his dear old dad (to protect his mother) and why adult Fisk can feel morally superior while beheading an ally for embarrassing him on a dinner date. Hell’s Kitchen has no fury like a Kingpin scorned.
Apart from his willingness to commit murder, the thing that separates Fisk from Matt is his lack of existential angst. In a twisted take on the idea that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, Fisk simply accepts that crime, intimidation, and murder are efficient tactics to save his city. His warped morality allowed Fisk to climb his way out of poverty into a life of luxury. Meanwhile Matt and his best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) can barely scrape together a living after they turn down jobs at a morally bankrupt law firm to open their own good-hearted practice. Moral compromise is not without its benefits.
All of this could feel a little simplistic if Daredevil weren’t so smart in the ways it subverts masculinity as well. Outside of perhaps Bill, no one character embodies all the stereotypes of conventional masculinity. When he’s not a vicious rage monster, Fisk is something of a gentle giant, and his social awkwardness and fumbling attempts to woo Vanessa make him immediately sympathetic. Before his death, Jack was a warm and affectionate father whose parenting style was free of macho posturing. And Matt is often incredibly emotionally vulnerable, particularly with Claire and Father Lantom.
The show also celebrates loving male friendships between Anatoly and Vladimir, Fisk and his assistant James Wesley (Toby Leonard Moore), and especially Foggy and Matt. In embracing the complexities of masculine identity and relationships, Daredevil paints a rich portrait of the ways in which men are shaped by poverty for better or for worse.
In fact, Daredevil makes a good argument for why Marvel eventually needs to add some female-heavy projects to its lineup too. If the studio ever hopes to explore female identity issues (as it ostensibly did with Agent Carter), it needs projects that present multiple female perspectives. Without its diverse array of male characters, there’s no way Daredevil could offer up such a fascinating portrait of masculinity.