Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Clinton, Manhattan, once the citadel of poor and working-class Irish Americans, is enveloped in a grim pandemonium that has earned it the name ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’ A cesspool of peril, poverty and gangster activity lurking under the perpetual shadow of high-rise excess and construction-induced dust – mystifying all malefaction.

A place where fire burns, tears fall and teeth gnash, Hell’s Kitchen has turned the Devil’s hot spot into something quite literal – the bricks ‘n’ mortar home of New York City denizens living between 34th and 59th Street. Also the ideal setting for the exaggerated ideology associated with comic book narrative – where ‘bad’ comes in the form of horrendous hellions intent on world domination and ‘good’ comes clothed in lycra.

As obvious as the heightened metaphoric language of comic book literature might be, not even the somewhat stereotypical sensationalism of masked men and big-breasted beauties at war with egomaniacal evil-doers can escape the fact that life is messy; that good and bad aren’t mutually exclusive. One of Marvel’s smartest superhero allegories is Daredevil, who is currently rocking the series circuit with a self-titled feature for Netflix; the first of five comic book adaptations in a series that will star heroes Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and ‘The Defenders’ in forthcoming seasons.

Daredevil (aka Matt Murdock) is the product of a radioactive accident that left him blind but heightened his remaining senses, giving him supernatural sensory perception. He was also the son of a boxer, who taught him some serious ass-kicking skills before being offed by the mob for refusing to throw a fight. Suffice to say, the tortured superhero thing has not escaped Matt Murdock, who is played by Charlie Cox (Boardwalk Empire) with a moody ambiguity that emphasises the imperfections that one might find incongruous in a man whose supernatural tendencies presumably preclude him from human-type fallibility.

Murdock, as Daredevil, lacks the typical superhero extravaganza associated with comic book story-telling: he’s not invisible; he doesn’t fly, morph, transpose, transmute or shoot fire, ice or spider webs; he doesn’t have super strength either. He can hear really well and took some martial arts lessons – pretty much, and he is susceptible to a beating – in Episode 2, nurse Claire (Rosario Dawson) discovers Daredevil bleeding to death in a dumpster. He survives only with her help. Arch villain Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, says of his masked nemesis;

“That’s what makes you dangerous. It’s not the mask, it’s not the skills; it’s the ideology. A lone man who thinks he can make a difference.”

It’s empowering – the idea that an individual can effect change. It might be acutely utopian (for sceptic’s sake) but the challenge is unavoidably poignant when delivered by a man who cannot see and yet sees more, and does more, than those with more means. But before Daredevil can climb too high on that ever elusive pedestal of superhero awesomeness, Foggy Nelson (played by Eldon Henson), Murdock’s day-job legal partner, offers a general rule, that “guys who wear masks have something to hide and it usually isn’t good.”

By humanising his superhero, Goddard makes Daredevil’s plight universal. Everyone’s world is on fire at one time or another

Matt Murdock has his own demons to deal with: how pushing a blind pedestrian out of harm’s way rendered him, with cruel comic book irony, sightless; and then losing the dad he so loved (and later he’ll learn that the girl he fell in love with at uni is an assassin for hire and his arch rival)… Hell is relative. Hell is personal. It entraps the mind with a figurative force; the same way that Hell’s Kitchen implicates its inhabitants.

Yet instead of ditching the town that caused his tragedy, Matt Murdock becomes a defence attorney; saving scum by day and doling out retribution by night. But there is an elephant in the room and it’s prodded and poked by the violence meted out by Wilson Fisk (played by the brilliant Vincent D’Onofrio) and his crew of delinquents. The further Fisk pushes Daredevil into the role of rescuer – testing the lengths to which he will go in defence of innocents – the more the hero’s apparent altruism is brought into question. Does Matt Murdock need the salvation of ‘the mask’ more than the people it claims to save? And does this taint his reputability?

Being a superhero is the obvious remedy to Murdock’s misfortune; it gives his blindness purpose. By saving others, Matt Murdock saves himself. Daredevil needs Hell’s Kitchen as much as Hell’s Kitchen needs Daredevil. It’s a complex symbiosis that writer/director Drew Goddard (Alias, Lost) explores, in a tone that renders Daredevil more thriller than fantasy. By humanising his superhero, Goddard makes Daredevil’s plight universal. Everyone’s world is on fire at one time or another. To have someone swoop down and offer a solution to the hurt and hate, the self-destructive despair – who wouldn’t open their arms with gladness? And yet we still have to decide to be saved. Life cast its lot for Matt Murdock but he still had the choice to make; stay or go, fight or flight. More than anything, it’s the choice that makes him a hero. After all, “We all want to live in a world where we can make a difference… There are a lot of us. And we don’t all wear masks these days” (Matthew Murdock, Earth-616).

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