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Onward Christian Superheroes
Blind lawyer Matthew Murdock (Charlie Cox) sits in the confession booth at a New York City Roman Catholic church describing his family history—that is, his and his boxer father’s violent natures, where they “let the devil in” and people get hurt. But instead of confessing past sins, Matt says, “I’m not seeking penance for what I’ve done. I’m asking forgiveness for what I’m about to do.”
Later that night, dressed in black and a ski mask completely covering his eyes, he attacks criminals engaged in human trafficking, the first of many bloody (though non-lethal) encounters to follow.
With Marvel Studio’s incredible box office success now having earned over $3 billion for 2018 alone for three films—Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp—it might be possible to overlook the presence of more grounded superhero series in the same Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), on Netflix. Superhero mythologies tend toward outright fantasies, with often cosmic levels of power providing conflict for the stories (see Infinity War). But some of these Netflix series—in particular, Daredevil and Luke Cage—take a different path, getting their down-to-earth dilemmas and moral themes from another place: their protagonists’ faith backgrounds.
Just as Phil Vischer promised we’d never see a VeggieTales installment featuring Jesus as a vegetable—it would violate the essential conceit of the stories to feature the Son of God in an animated vegetable world—it’s hard to include Christian themes when a genre tends to work by displacing real-world conflict and psychology into fantastic scenarios featuring super soldiers, Norse gods, and amazing powers. (A rare cinematic exception is Captain America, who, in the first Avengers movie, disputes the existence of Norse “gods” because of his belief in the Judeo-Christian God.)
That’s why what Marvel has done with Daredevil and Luke Cage is taking a commendable risk: opening the door to letting Christian belief inform the nature of the characters and conflicts and exploring how that can alter the very nature of a superhero and his world.
Bloody Saint Matthew of Hell’s Kitchen
The first series to debut, Daredevil, in 2015 indicated quickly how different the Netflix series would be from the fun PG-13 feature films. Matt Murdock’s off-the-rack outfit—no supersuit here—does little to protect him as he’s pummeled, stabbed, and bruised. And the cinematography underlines the blood motif throughout the series: The opening credits are an animated study in a character and world immersed in bloodshed. These aren’t the clean battles between superpowered entities of Marvel movies. They are more reflective of what real violence is like: brutal and exhausting.
Matt’s nightly missions often leave him in need of the medical care provided by a nurse, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), who remarks that "martyrs ... the saints, the saviors all end up the same way—bloody ... and alone.” Is this Matt’s cross to bear?
This bloody brutality in the name of justice is what haunts Matt Murdock, raised a Roman Catholic. The accident that blinded the character also exposed him to a strange radioactive substance that greatly enhanced his other senses, so that one night he can hear the nearby muffled cries of a girl molested by her father. Finding the legal system ineffective in addressing the crime, Matt attacks the father, beating him senseless, with a warning that the masked man will know if he ever touches his daughter again.
From then on, Matt is compelled to act on what he hears going on in the city. But still, his uneasy conscience drives him to a series of dialogues with Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie), sometimes sitting in the sanctuary under a bloody crucifix of Christ, that delve into deep ethical and theological questions about Matt’s motives and how far he is willing to go to fight evil. When Matt ponders whether to kill crime kingpin Wilson Fisk, Father Lantom quotes Proverbs 25:26: “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.”
The priest explains, “One interpretation is that when the righteous succumb to sin, it is as harmful as if the public well were poisoned, because the darkness of such an act, of taking a life, will spread to friends, neighbors, the entire community.” Matt Murdock will have to find a way to keep his righteous anger from descending into the demonic.
But speaking of the devil gives Matt the ironic symbol he needs to represent such a force inspiring fear in the ungodly. Father Lantom’s remark that “nothing drives people to the church faster than the thought of the devil snapping at their heels” suggests Matt’s new protective costume, red and black, with horns. “The devil of Hell’s Kitchen” will now be known as Daredevil.
Luke Cage: Harlem’s Messiah
In 2016, Luke Cage arrived on Netflix. Originally conceived by Marvel Comics as jive-talking and flamboyantly costumed in the 1970s during the Blaxploitation era of urban antiheroes, he was later overhauled as a much less bombastic, cooler but still studly black character. The Harlem setting allows the stories to be set among mostly black characters familiar with biblical references, which recur often.
Carl Lucas (Mike Colter), a police officer framed for a crime, is sent to Seagate Prison. Beaten to near-death, he is placed in an experimental machine that could save his life, but which, of course, does more than that: When he emerges from it, he has impenetrable skin and super strength. (According to showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, the idea of a hoodie-wearing “bulletproof black man” as a superhero at this cultural moment was no accident.) In this, he differs from Matt Murdock, whose only “superpower” is his enhanced hearing, but they are alike in their shared belief in the ultimate source of their abilities and mission.
Lucas describes his “born again” experience by recounting how his preacher father (Reg E. Cathey) had foretold a life of regret for his son and applied Luke 4:18 to him. “He used to say, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because I have been anointed to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind ... to release the oppressed.’”
Taking a new name from the gospel, Carl Lucas becomes Luke Cage, a freed man. Bearing the weight of the responsibilities his new abilities thrust upon him, driven by his father’s commission, he seeks to be Harlem’s hero, fighting crime. But he discovers that his greatest nemesis, Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), is the illegitimate son of his philandering father. Like biblical brothers, Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, the neglected brother driven by resentment against the favored brother, Diamondback shoots Luke with a Judas bullet, able to penetrate even his bulletproof skin.
Yes, another reference to Luke as a Christ figure that leads to another figurative death and resurrection scene that makes Luke even more resilient. Though he eventually defeats Diamondback, Luke, still a fugitive from prison, meekly submits to the authorities, Christlike, until he is later cleared of all charges, when no fault is found in him.
In season 2, Luke finds that the father who had rejected him when he was in prison, and who blamed him for the sickness and death of the mother who never doubted Luke’s innocence, has moved to Harlem to preach at a local church. Luke is initially determined to avoid the old man, telling him he will keep “savin’ souls my way, walkin’ the righteous path on my own terms.” But, in a poignant scene set in the sanctuary, father and son find reconciliation, all the more meaningful as it is intercut with another character’s act of revenge.
I appreciate the direction in which this emphasis on faith has been leading Netflix’s Marvel superheroes. In all the Netflix Marvel series we see an increasing emphasis on human flaws, needs, and powerlessness, superpowers notwithstanding. But with Daredevil and Luke Cage, there’s something different about the dangers, toils, and snares undergone by these characters. Luke may have bulletproof skin, but like Matt Murdock—and like so many biblical characters—he also has a concrete set of moral and spiritual guidelines, a belief in both justice and mercy, and feet of clay, a combination that keeps these superheroes complicated as they work out their own salvation and that of the city they serve.
Alex Wainer is professor of communication and media studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is the author of Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Figure in Comics and Film.