One of the most popular subjects we cover in our Bible and Popular Culture course is the American Monomyth (Lawrence and Jewett 2002) – the hugely common trope of the ‘modern messiah’ or ‘supersaviour’ in popular culture. Over the next few days, we’ll share some student essays on this topic, which consider the messianic credentials of fictional figures in film and TV. Starting us off, we have a marvellous essay by Alicia Lou, who considers the character of Matt Murdock (aka superhero Daredevil) as a contemporary messiah. Alicia comes from Christchurch, but has lived in Auckland for over 10 years. She is studying a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Arts conjoint, majoring in Criminology and Politics. She hopes to eventually work in the legal profession or in foreign affairs. Alicia took our Bible and Popular Culture course because she is curious about the roles that religion plays in the world and everyday life.
So sit back and learn a bit more about salvific superheroes!
“Do you believe in the devil, Father?”
Matthew Murdock: Messiah, Anti-hero and the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen
In the Tanakh, the Messiah is the saviour who will defeat evil and lead their community into a new life (LaCocque, 2015). The Messiah is also closely associated with Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a parallel to the secular Western hero in the American Monomyth- the tale of a hero who saves his community from evil. Matthew Murdock, present in Marvel’s Daredevil (2015-) and The Defenders (2017-), satisfies many features of both a Christ figure and a monomythic superhero. His mysterious origins, zeal for justice and self-sacrifice resemble that of a saviour. This essay will analyse how Matthew both fulfills and rejects the Messiah role by becoming an anti-hero who refuses to play by the book and operates according to his own paradigm.
Matthew is depicted as a Messiah figure through his mysterious origins and extraordinary powers. As a child, he suffered a chemical accident that led to his blindness. As a result, he developed heightened superhuman abilities that allow him to gain an awareness of his surroundings. In 1×11, Matthew referred to his senses as ‘God’s will.’ He believes that God made each and every person with a purpose; a reason for being. Similarly, in John 6:38, Jesus also states that he is here to do the will of God. This connects to Lawrence and Jewett’s idea that a hero is often ‘aided by fate’ (2002, 6). Matthew sees this as a sign from God that he was destined to use his abilities for the greater good. As Jesus used his powers to heal people in Matthew 8, Matt also uses his senses to save innocent people from criminals.
This is a distinctive feature of a Messiah; the willingness to protect others from harm.
This relates to the monomyth as being ‘a selfless hero’ is part of the criterion. Matthew is a selfless hero as he fights crime every night to save people, risking his life in doing so. Lawrence and Jewett state that the hero’s fist is often irresistible and that his body is incapable of suffering fatal injury (2002). We see that this is not true for Matthew as his body is often beaten and bruised. Matthew’s injuries are analogous to that of Jesus in his mission. In Isaiah 52:14, Jesus is stated to be “so disfigured beyond that of any human being.” Additionally, Matthew’s wounds bare a close resemblance to the ‘Five Holy Wounds’ that Jesus received from his crucifixion (Vogt, 2009). Time and time again, Matthew’s wounds continue to re-open and he comes close to death on several occasions. His suffering is greatly emphasised, which humanises his messianic qualities and gives his actions a more important purpose. Matthew’s refusal to give up until the threat is eliminated symbolises his selflessness and ability to put others before himself just as Jesus did. This similarity makes Matthew a perfect replacement for Christ in a secular age.
In the Monomyth, the hero has a redemptive task to accomplish. With Wilson Fisk and a criminal organisation named ‘The Hand’ as an outside evil, normal institutions like the police and the legal department are unable to contend with these threats (Jewett & Lawrence, 2002). Matthew recognises that Fisk is above the law and that ‘The Hand’ are not visible to the public, so he takes it upon himself to rid the evil and bring his enemies to justice. This is also a feature of a Messiah; being motivated by a zeal for justice. Matthew’s motivation comes from growing up in Hell’s Kitchen. It is the place where his dad was murdered, a city full of crime and vice since before he was born. Matthew has personally witnessed the oppression and injustice in Hell’s Kitchen, as a son, as a lawyer and as a crime-fighter at night. This injustice is what motivates Matthew to seek redemption for his home. He states that he “needs to be the man this city needs” (1×5). This is similar to Jesus in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 where he “will overthrow the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming.” Like Matthew, Jesus also witnessed inequity and corruption; he too was motivated to overthrow evil by his own zeal for justice.
Matthew differs from a biblical Messiah by rejecting the standard good and evil paradigm. In Matthew 5:21, Jesus states that one “shall not murder…whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” Matthew abides by this rule as his Catholic faith prevents him from taking a life. However, Matthew is no Saint. He operates on his own methodology, which is in “shades of gray rather than in black and white” (Jewett & Lawrence, 2002, 48). Matthew often breaks the law and resorts to violence to achieve his means. He is frequently punching and torturing people until they are bleeding and begging for mercy; behaving in ways that are not Christ-like. Lang and Trimble state that the hero often partakes in “some violent act that the rest of society is incapable of performing” (1988, 166). Although violence may seem extreme, it is deemed necessary because lives are often at stake and innocent people will die. Matthew may commit wrongdoings but his intentions are genuine, thus his violence is purified. This makes his violence morally justified because it fulfills a greater purpose (Arnaudo & Richards, 2013). Ultimately, this delineation between right and wrong, good and bad is sometimes a blur. This is evident in Matthew as his lawyer-half represents the good while ‘Daredevil’ represents his darker alter-ego. The two halves cause Matt’s understanding of justice and vengeance to become twisted that he cannot separate them. He can only operate to his own methodology; a middle-ground between what Matthew believes is right and wrong. Matt’s inability to adhere to a standard black-and-white paradigm makes him an anomaly compared to a typical Messiah.
In the Monomyth, the hero must withstand temptation (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002). This also applies to a Messiah. In Matthew 4, Jesus was tempted by the Devil to use his powers. Eventually, “the devil left him,” which indicates that he overcame temptation. Matthew is also lured into temptation, but not in the conventional sense. Matthew has the temptation to kill. Frank Castle and Elektra Natchios are people who execute without remorse and are constantly tempting Matthew to kill. In 2×3, Frank urges Matthew to kill but Matt resists, stating that “I don’t kill anyone.” Matthew has a conflicted sense of self because he wants to succumb to this temptation but he knows that killing is wrong. Elektra appeals to his darker side by assuring him that “this is who you are, Matthew” (2×7). This is what Matthew is most afraid of; that he is a killer at heart and this makes him no better than the same criminals he condemns. It is this thought that conditions Matthew to renounce his temptations for most of the series.
It is not until Elektra’s death that Matt finally breaks his code; to avenge her by killing the man who murdered her. Matthew sabotages the monomyth by letting the temptation to kill consume him. He proves not to be a traditional Christ figure, but an anti-Messiah who tries to do the right thing and does not always succeed. Yet, Matt does not completely reject the messianic role; he merely adapts it. Matthew’s violent nature and tendency to make mistakes attributes to a modernised Messiah figure that is imperfect and deeply flawed.
Matthew’s mission ends when he achieves redemption and recedes into obscurity (Lawrence & Jewett, 2002). As a Messiah figure, Matthew can only achieve redemption through self-sacrifice, which parallels to Christ’s atonement in the Christus Victor theory. It states that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice to atone for the sins of others and to free humanity from evil (Noble, 2013). In Isaiah 53:5, Jesus was “pierced for our transgressions…and by his wounds we are healed.” Matthew realises that the only way he can prevent New York from being destroyed is to kill The Hand’s secret weapon: ‘The Black Sky,’ an ancient evil using Elektra’s body as a human vessel. He blames himself because if he had saved Elektra, the ‘Black Sky’ would not have been resurrected and lives would have been spared. This leads Matt to make the decision to stay behind as The Hand crumbles; to ensure that the evil is eradicated and to be with Elektra one last time. Matthew sacrifices himself to atone for the sins of humanity- the exploitation, injustice and barbarity residing in Hell’s Kitchen- and to atone for his own sins; the violence he inflicted, the evil he unleashed as ‘Daredevil’ and for allowing Elektra to die. Like Christ, Matt was a martyr for his faith. He was the sacrificial ‘lamb’ who took away the sins of the world (John 1:29). His death was the decisive victory that restored “the community to its paradisiacal condition” (Jewett & Lawrence, 2002, 6). In the end, Matthew is seen in a Church; bloody, barely moving but alive, signalling that he has been reborn. The sacrifice, death and resurrection of Matthew is directly akin to that of a biblical Messiah.
Matthew Murdock adheres to the Monomyth through his mysterious origins, selflessness and redemptive mission. Although there are many parallels to Jesus, Matt is not a classic biblical Messiah. He rejects the standard black-and-white paradigm and is an anti-hero; a paradoxical Christ figure that chooses to create his own path. Matthew adapts the traditional Messiah into a popular Messiah by showing that a saviour does not have to be a perfect monomythic hero. Matthew is flawed, broken and human, which only makes him a more relevant and absolute Messiah in popular culture.
All references to biblical texts are from the NIV.
Arnaudo, M. (2013). The Myth of the Superhero (J. Richards, Trans.). Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Goddard, D (Creator). (2015, April.10-present) Daredevil. New York, United States: Marvel Television, ABC Studios
LaCocque, A. (2015). Jesus the Messiah. In Jesus the Central Jew (pp. 15-42). Society of Biblical Literature.
Lang, J. S., & Trimble, P. (1988). Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero. In Journal of Popular Culture (Vol. 22, No. 3, pp. 157-173).
Lawrence, J. S., & Jewett, R. (2002). The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Noble, T. A. (2013). Christian Holiness and the Atonement. In Holy Trinity: Holy People (pp. 128-157). James Clarke & Co Ltd.
Petrie, D., & Ramirez, M. (2017, August. 18- present) The Defenders. New York, United States: Marvel Television, ABC Studios
Vogt, P. (2009). “Honor to the Side”: The Adoration of the Side Wound of Jesus in Eighteenth-Century Mordvian Piety. Journal of Moravian History, 83-106.