Conflicted Hero, Sympathetic Villain: A Look at Netflix's Production of Daredevil

***WARNING: This post contains spoilers about the Daredevil TV series***

The time is gone when the straight-forward good versus evil plot line holds an audience’s interest. In our culture we don’t want a villain who’s plain evil and nothing else. Likewise, we get bored of the hero who’s completely pure and good. We require more complex characters, and the line between hero and villain has blurred to the point that sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between the two.

Recently, I got swept up in the Daredevil series that Netflix produced. I’m not incredibly familiar with the Daredevil comic series, but I’ve always been a huge fan of comic book superheroes, so I gave it a try. I was really struck by the way Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk play off of each other.

At the very heart of it all, Murdock and Fisk both have the same end goal in mind, to clean up Hell’s Kitchen and make it a better place. The point of conflict, however, is how each decides to go about doing it. And their perspective of what that looks like differs.

First of all, there’s Matt Murdock, blind lawyer with extremely heightened senses. While fighting crime through the legal system during the day, Murdock takes to the streets at night as a vigilante in a black mask. This is a pretty standard superhero trope, but the inner conflict within Murdock is the appealing part that adds a lot of complexity to this basic trope.

Murdock’s Catholic faith causes a lot of tension inside of him. Murdock consistently visits his priest but is not willing to admit to what he’s doing to the priest. As the series develops, however, Murdock struggles more with what he calls the Devil that’s inside of him. As Murdock gets deeper into his vigilante pursuits, he takes several beatings and narrowly escapes death, which causes him to reconsider his methods.

Murdock doesn’t want to kill anyone. From his Catholic perspective, this would be a mortal sin, which would destroy the love in his heart and turn him away from God. Even though he could be absolved of this through confession to the priest, Murdock fears that stepping across this line will take him beyond retribution. The inner conflict builds further when the people he is close to fall into more severe danger. This, combined with the fact that some of his close friends mention that they hope the masked man kills the criminals, drive Murdock toward this need to kill.

All of this comes the a head when Murdock speaks with the priest after attempting to kill Fisk. His struggles with his faith are revealed here when he talks about God’s purpose for his life. He admits that he once thought that it was God’s will that he had the accident as a kid and ended up with his special abilities. However, he questions his reason for being because he thinks that God put the Devil inside him and wonders if he is no longer a part of God’s plan. The priest’s response, which becomes a major driving force at the climactic end of the season, is a simple statement that nothing drives people to church faster than the thought that the Devil is right behind them. The priest wonders if that wasn’t God’s intention of creating the Devil in the first place and allowed him to fall from grace, so that he could become something to be feared in order to warn everyone to tread the path of righteousness. Murdock takes this sentiment and effectively uses it as his purpose in life.

Compare this conflicted, tortured soul of a hero with the villain, Wilson Fisk. Fisk, an extremely wealthy man who stays hidden in the shadows, wants the same thing that Murdock wants, to clean up Hell’s Kitchen. But unlike Murdock, Fisk has no qualms about killing someone in order to get what he wants, and he frequently tries to get his way through bullying and force. Several times throughout the season, he eliminates anyone who may pose a threat to his plans. He even goes so far as to take out his own allies who begin to question him or may give up vital information about him.

But before we jump on the “Fisk is pure evil” bandwagon, we’re given some insights early on in the season into his deeper character through conversations he has with his love, Vanessa. When he was a child, he and his mother were abused by his father, physically and verbally. After years of this, Fisk one day snaps and beats his father to death because he is abusing Fisk’s mother. Even though we wouldn’t agree with Fisk’s actions, we understand it. We sympathize we him and possibly even excuse his actions in the name of justice. Fisk has become a product of his environment. As a young adolescent, he is merely handling the situation the way he’s seen his father handle problems for years, through anger and violence.

While his actions throughout the season seem obviously wrong to us on the outside, we extend sympathy toward Fisk, understanding that this is the only way of life he’s known. It’s not only his past, though, that draws our sympathies. There is a very real sincerity about Fisk and his desire to make his city a better place. We’re given a little hint at his sincerity and even see some good in him when he meets Vanessa and opens up to her. Through these vulnerabilities that he opens up to her, and to the rest of the city eventually, we’re almost tempted to forgive the violent outbursts.

The way these two characters play off of each other can sometimes leave us to wonder who we really want to pull for. While Fisk seems to be opening up and becoming a better person, Murdock seems to fall further into his Devil with his own violent outbursts. Murdock clings to his faith while Fisk admittedly has none, even to the point of saying that if there is a God, he can’t stop Fisk from exacting his vengeance. It’s easy to sympathize with either character.

When all is said and done, there isn’t necessarily a clear-cut good guy. Each struggles with his own inner demons. Each does things he isn’t proud of. Each acts outside of the law. And yet, I wonder if the only reason that we end up on Matt Murdock’s side is because he is the title character. If Fisk were the title character, would we be more willing to justify and forgive his deeds because of that?

Just some food for thought.