Superheroes are truly a diverse group. That's part of why we identify with them. No matter what our station in life, we can find a hero who represents us. They come from different economic backgrounds, different countries, and they all have very different skills and talents even outside their supernatural powers (or supernatural amounts of money). For every hero out there, these natural traits are key parts of who they are and who they become. Despite this, many heroes remain unidentified in an extremely significant facet of life for many people - religion.
There are, of course, reasons for this. It's no secret that superheroes lead violent lives. Though they do try to fight for what they believe is right, their many experiences with death, failure, and tragedy often leave them drifting from whatever faith they held before they put on the mask. Others just don't have religion as a significant part of their lives, or at least a significant part of their stories. Writers often find it difficult, unnecessary, or unnatural to add religious themes to every hero's story.
There are a few heroes, however, who are connected to their faith through their entire lives. Perhaps none more so than the man who took the look and name of his religion's greatest villain: Daredevil.
Born Matt Murdock, he was raised a Catholic by his father, Jack. Jack, who was a boxer, always wanted his son to be more successful and a better person than him. He taught Matt courage and discipline, and encouraged him to study hard. He passed his faith down to his son, and instructed him to value honesty and selflessness. Jack's death at the hands of Roscoe Sweeney's men strengthened Matt's resolve toward fulfilling his father's wishes - with one exception. Matt would carry on the fighting tradition his father left. But for him, all of Hell's Kitchen was his ring.
From his first moments as a vigilante, Matt's morals and faith influenced his attitude and decision making. The mere thought that he had accidentally killed someone in self defense was enough to make him nearly quit early on in his career as Daredevil. He constantly questions the morality of his own actions and commonly seeks advice from Catholic religious leaders-especially his mother.
Matt grew up believing that his mother was dead. In actuality, to preserve him from feelings of bitterness or abandonment, Jack Murdock covered up the truth. Maggie, suffering from extreme postpartum depression, had a mental breakdown and nearly killed Matt as a baby. Realizing her mistake, she fled to a religious community and joined as Sister Margaret. (Image 01) Her new life went unknown to her son for many years, until Matt, like his mother, was born again - essentially resurrected as Daredevil.
Widely known as one of the greatest comic stories ever written, Frank Miller's Daredevil: Born Again is where Daredevil's story took one of its darkest turns. Matt's former girlfriend-turned-drug addict Karen Page sold his secret identity for a heroin fix, information that made its way up the chain to Wilson Fisk. Kingpin set out to systematically break down every facet of Matt Murdock's life, destroying him both physically as Daredevil and mentally and emotionally as Matt.
The storyline draws heavily from two passages in the Bible. It takes its name from the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, Verse 3: "Jesus answered him, 'Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.'" The first half of the story takes inspiration from Matthew 19:21: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come, follow me." The Kingpin's machinations tear away his money and his law career, and his girlfriend simultaneously leaves him. When he confronts the Kingpin, he is beaten nearly to death, strapped into a stolen taxi cab, and pushed into the East River. While it wasn't a literal interpretation of Matt giving away all his possessions and burning his life to the ground, the metaphorical meaning is clear: Daredevil had gotten away from who he was and grown away from his faith. In order for him to be reborn as a more powerful, righteous hero, one with a renewed sense of purpose and purity, the old Matt Murdock had to "die."
Thematically, these references to Christian faith help strengthen the concept of Matt quite literally returning to his physical roots in order to reconnect with his Catholic ones. Matt is "born again" in the waters of the East River, emerging from the water and embarking on a spiritual journey, making his way first to the gym his father trained at, and, with the assistance of his mother, to a local Catholic Church, where she slowly nurses him back to health. He forgives Karen Page for her role, and acknowledges that he has spiritually "given up" his possessions by dispelling his anger over their loss. He is now a vessel for his faith, having been emptied of the material and worldly ties that had been tangling him up. In his final confrontation of the story against a drugged up super soldier named Nuke, Daredevil's rebirth is completed.
It's one of the most symbolic panels in Daredevil's history, with Matt shown rising from the flames as a Phoenix to meet and defeat his enemies. (Image 02) Resurrection by fire has been a common theme throughout history and there are multiple other meanings layered into the image. The first is the Devil himself rising from Hell, but, in the case of Daredevil, it is a "new" kind of demon, one that is meant for salvation and not damnation. The second is a direct allusion to Catholic baptism. To Catholics, fire represents the Holy Spirit, which descended on to the twelve Apostles in the form of tongues of fire and makes it clear to them: Those who are true servants of God will be saved, and those who are not will be damned. Matt Murdock has been touched by fire, marked as a purified servant of his God and his faith alike.
Though the symbolism is all but unacknowledged by the characters in Born Again, other Daredevil storylines have taken a more direct approach. 1998's Guardian Devil, by Kevin Smith and Joe Quesada, sees Matt's Catholic faith actively used against him. Through a series of manipulations, Mysterio attempts to break Daredevil just like Kingpin did years before. He forces a baby into Matt's care, then visits him under the name Nicholas Macabes (the name itself referencing the Maccabees book of the Bible), and claims the baby is the Antichrist, all the while poisoning Matt to sway his decision making. This eventually leads Matt back to his mother, Sister Margaret, then to Doctor Strange, and even the demon Mephisto in a search for answers. Matt's use of both magic and summoning is notable, symbolic of his desperation and just how far he's fallen; the Bible highly condemns both.
After Bullseye kills Karen Page at Mysterio's direction, Matt finally confronts his tormentor. Matt's refusal to kill him and his following speech, which lays out all the horrors Mysterio wrought upon him and his loved ones, is another symbolic reference to his Catholic faith. Matt rejects Mysterio's expectations and hopes in a direct parallel to Catholic baptismal vows: "Do you reject Satan and all his works, and all his empty promises?" Despite everything his adversary had done to him, Matt refuses to give in to anger and revenge. Instead, he suggests that he and Foggy reopen their law firm for the poor in a modern day act of Christ-like charity, using the funds Karen left him in her will.
Throughout these stories and many more, Matt's Catholicism is his inspiration, his rock, and his driving force. (Image 03) Though his actions may not always fall within the teachings of the Church, his beliefs and unwavering moral code are rooted in his faith, the moral teachings of his father, and the spiritual guidance of his mother. Few other heroes come close to Daredevil in this aspect, and it's a major part of why Daredevil continues to be one of the most unique and intriguing characters in comics.
Header image credit: Huy Dinh