Guardian Devils: Catholic guilt, superhero style

Guardian Devils: Catholic guilt, superhero style

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” says Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer turned masked hero in the first line of the new trailer for Netflix’s upcoming Marvel Comics superhero series “Daredevil.” (The trailer arrived this week; the 13-episode series debuts April 10.) Matt, or Daredevil, is played by Charlie

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” says Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer turned masked hero in the first line of the new trailer for Netflix’s upcoming Marvel Comics superhero series “Daredevil.” (The trailer arrived this week; the 13-episode series debuts April 10.)

Matt, or Daredevil, is played by Charlie Cox, who was very good as St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, in the bland 2011 drama “There Be Dragons” directed by Roland Joffé (“The Mission”). Cox was raised Catholic and describes himself as a believer and at least an occasional Mass-goer, though he immersed himself more deeply in his religion in connection with playing Escrivá.

The character Daredevil has apparently always been Catholic on some level, but the role of Catholicism in his story has grown over the years. The mediocre 2003 film by Mark Steven Johnson, starring Ben Affleck, also depicted the character going to confession — although in both cases, the confession is somewhat problematic.

“You’re not coming for forgiveness,” the priest in the 2003 film tells Matt, “you’re coming for permission, and I can’t give you that.” Likewise, Cox’s Matt says, “I’m not seeking forgiveness for what I’ve done, Father; I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.” (Here’s hoping the new priest spells out the sacramental theology issue as clearly as his 2003 counterpart.)

Daredevil, created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, was apparently conceived from the outset as Catholic, and was explicitly identified as such as early as 1975. His Catholic milieu was first emphasized by comic-book storyteller Frank Miller in a 1986 story arc called “Born Again.” The story is rife with religious language and iconography, and a nun named Maggie, who is both a Madonna and Mary Magdalene figure, offers Matt comfort and support on two key occasions before being revealed as the mother Matt never knew.

Daredevil’s active faith, and in particular his struggles with guilt and his recourse to the sacrament of confession, were introduced in a story arc called “Guardian Devil” written by Kevin Smith in 1999, the same year he released “Dogma,” which co-starred Affleck. (Smith also introduced Affleck to Mark Steven Johnson, leading to his casting as Daredevil.)

Daredevil isn’t the only Marvel superhero whose Catholicism has been depicted onscreen. The second “X-Men” movie, Bryan Singer’s “X2: X-Men United,” introduced Alan Cumming’s Kurt Wagner, or Nightcrawler, praying the rosary (in German); later in the film, he quotes Psalm 23 and the Our Father. In a dash of penitential folk piety, Kurt explains that the symbolic scar marks covering his body are “angelic symbols passed on to mankind by the archangel Gabriel,” and that he has “one for each sin, so, a lot.”

Ironically, both Daredevil and Nightcrawler are demonic in appearance. Nightcrawler is a mutant with fangs, pointed ears, and a prehensile tail. Daredevil is usually depicted wearing a red body suit and a horned cowl (occasioning a funny line in the 2003 film, in which the priest expresses disapproval of Matt’s costume), though the trailer for the Netflix series doesn’t depict this suit.

Another rosary-clutching screen superhero, the Dark Horse Comics hero Hellboy, played in two Guillermo del Toro films by Ron Perlman, is literally a demon — not in the Christian sense of a fallen angel, but a sci-fi demonic beast from another dimension with bright red skin, a tail, and horns — or rather, horn stubs which he files regularly to keep them from growing.

The paradoxical notion of a religious devil, or even a religious man dressed as a devil, seeking to work out his salvation while perhaps fearing himself damned, is a key factor in the appeal of these devilish heroes. On some level it represents the moral struggle and the experience of moral dichotomy in the starkest possible terms.

How this plays out in any particular incarnation of a given hero depends, of course, on the writers. (The first “Hellboy” movie had a smattering of religious themes, but the sequel largely jettisoned these in favor of a broader mythology.) How far Netflix’s “Daredevil” (which seems to be heavily influenced by a 1990s Frank Miller miniseries, “The Man Without Fear,” with no particular Catholic vibe) will go with its hero’s Catholic guilt remains to be seen.

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