Tag Archives: Netflix

Forgive me, Father, for I am Daredevil

20 Apr

I’ve been rushing to consume the first season of Netflix’s release of Marvel’s Daredevil before someone comes along and spoils things for me. In part, this is a conceit. I’ve read quite a bit of the Daredevil plot-lines that seem to drive this production, so I have a pretty good idea what to expect. And I’m not here to discuss the looming plot beyond this first season of episodes, but rather to point out one of the main talking points about the show: Daredevil aka. Matt Murdock and his Catholicism. This post collects some of the writing that has emerged discussing the new series and its main character’s religious identity.

Daredevil-

Plenty has been said about Daredevil’s Catholic history at Adherents.com where the religious affinities of comic book characters are explored in great detail. Their preference for genealogical details–the gritty line where serial plot holes and back stories are filled in by meticulous attention to decades of comic content–are extremely welcome. The new series, however, seems to assume that, on the whole, their viewers know next to nothing of Murdock or Daredevil.

If the character is a veritable blank slate, then what has been written by viewers now about Murdock’s Catholicism?

Daredevil-Born-Again-Madre-e-hijoSome writers have tried to link the TV series with its former incarnation as a feature film. There’s this short piece over at the Christian TV and film review site, DecentFilms, for instance, that worries that the Netflix series, while a superior production to the 2003 Daredevil film starring Ben Affleck, hasn’t clarified “the sacramental theology issue” the Murdock opens when he pre-emptively asks for forgiveness of sins he has yet to commit.

Such concerns become a serious contention over at ComicBookBin, where Hervé St-Louis asks “Is Daredevil Really Catholic?” The author’s reading of 20th century America’s religious history has some significant issues, which make Daredevil’s Catholicism sound, alternately, like a byproduct of WASPish hand-waving to lowly Catholic masses or trite cultural folklore. In the face of complaints that Daredevil simply isn’t Catholic enough as a character, we would do well to remember the story-arc Born Again, one of the centerpieces of the Daredevil canon. Though I am somewhat loathe to have a fight over canonical authority, this central work seems to be not an issue at all for St-Louis, who ignores the rich theology and symbolism that Miller embedded in his narration of Murdock’s discovery of his mother. (A better attempt at this argument is made over at “The Other Murdock Papers,” a blog devoted to Daredevil. The twisting knife of this argument, however, remains the unsustainable line between a lapsed cultural Catholic and “authentic” Catholics. How are we to judge? And whose verdict of Catholic authenticity shall we trust?)

World Religion News seems to buy Miller’s intentions toward the Catholic side of Daredevil’s character. WRN even identifies Patheos’ blogger Kate O’Hare as one viewer who has taken up the challenge of writing about Murdock’s Catholicism (with extensive links to the works of others before the series premiered earlier this month).  As O’Hare quotes her fellow Patheos‘ writer Jonathan Ryan, I find myself sympathetic to viewers who see Catholic theology in the cross-hairs of Daredevil’s actions if not his words. “This comic is devotional reading for me,” writes Ryan in 2013. “Sin. Redemption. The power of being helpless. Sacrificing yourself so others might live. All concepts that go deep to my heart.”

Other acute readings of the new series (rather than the comic book that were its inspiration) include the New Republic’s (predictable) account of the show as a anti-gentrification hero. That this might go hand in hand with the Catholic ethnic communities embodied by the depiction of Hell’s Kitchen is ignored in favor of other socio-economic angles. (For you academic-types, try John T. McGreevy’s excellent Parish Boundaries.) Surely there is still much to be said of the way in which the ethnic community surrounding Daredevil is not represented by the other characters that immediately surround Murdock. Is his lawyer buddy Catholic? What about their secretary? What about the villains?

dardevil-depressed

Salon pulls out the stops when writer Charles Moss declares that “Daredevil’s Greatest Superpower is his Catholicism.” The twist (as the inevitable click-bait and switch must have)? “It’s also his greatest enemy.” As Moss says, the Show “tries to reconcile the lawyer who defends the law with the Daredevil who breaks it. Murdock’s brutal justice is more than his way of taking personal responsibility for the sins of others; it’s his way of atoning for his own.” Which sins are these, we might wonder. How many sins does the blind lawyer really have at this stage of the story?

If the debate is about whether Catholic viewers see Daredevil in Catholic ways, then the answer is a far more sympathetic yes. Though Catholic Vote identifies the inevitable weaknesses in production elements of the show’s portrayal of Catholicism, the takeaway from their review is their appreciation that the series took the Church “seriously as a positive actor in a world, a voice of justice and conscience in a crime-ridden city and a light in a blind man’s darkness.” The CV seems to be taking whatever it can get. I wonder whether it shouldn’t ask for more. Why haven’t we seen the priest do more in the community? Is his only task to be the quiet, gentle conscience of the brutal justice Daredevil is handing out? Is his promise of redemption one Daredevil can take?

What do you say? Are you a Daredevil comic enthusiast who sees new religious layers to Murdock’s character? Are you a Netflix series newbie who is being drawn into this world? What do you think of Marvel’s Catholic superhero?

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The Boy from Hell — From the Archive

30 Oct

[I wrote this post in 2010, but when I moved my blog to a new host, it didn’t get reposted. It seems a natural extension of yesterday’s post on the Witch Doctor comic series. -DWM.]

I get to watch all kinds of interesting things on Netflix: Watch Instantly, but right now I’m intrigued by “Hellboy: Animated: Sword of Storms” and “Hellboy: Animated: Blood & Iron.” These 2007 animated kids features add to the already impressive collection of Hellboy materials, which to date include two feature length films (2004 & 2008), a series of comics, trade paperbacks, novels, video games, and even a D&D style RPG. The success of the franchise is a not surprising in light of the success of many comics when brought to the big screen. Hellboy joins adaptations of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, the Punisher, the Fantastic Four, and X-Men, and that doesn’t even get into 300, Sin City, Watchmen, or Wanted.

I could go on, but the point I want to make about Hellboy puts it in a different category from most of these other flicks. While I could say that hardly any other series is really concerned with a group of monsters that fight the “supernatural and the occult,” this does sometime seem to be the m.o. of the superpower hero genre. Sure, heroes like Spiderman or Wolverine fight bad-guys with superpowers all the time, but these series often fail to provide a mythology to support their world that relies upon religious manifestations and suppositions.

Thus, it is the combination or grouping of the supernatural (which could be take to mean the powers comic book heroes are often blessed with) and the occult together that makes Hellboy different. Instead we see a world that is more like Indiana Jones than Spider man, more like Tomb Raider than Superman, more like Ghostbusters than X-Men. That is, one of the central components of the Hellboy franchise is its reliance on seeing our world as populated with monsters not of science fiction, but of religion. Demons populate this world, not byproducts of nuclear accidents or cosmic radiation.

In a given comparison you might find some weaknesses to this distinction, but I’m willing to wager that Hellboy (and Constantine based on the Hellblazer comic books) are one of the few features to deal so explicitly with the occult. The occult is not easy to pin down for in its most general sense it means “knowledge of the hidden.” This may mean things beyond our ability to quantify or measure, or it may mean secret knowledge. In this sense we are confronted with a confusing jumble of terms that sometimes includes not only esoteric and arcane but gnostic.

Many conservative Christians encourage general readers to avoid making refined distinctions among such words, choosing instead a path that renders all such things dangerous and forbidden. This is easily seen in many of the criticisms of Harry Potter, where no distinctions are made between real uses of “magic” as a form of religious practice and the magical world seen thanks to special effects studios. I don’t mean to pass judgment on whether or not magic exists. Magic itself is a slippery term that could just as easily refer to turning water into wine as love potions. It’s a dangerous road to walk down as a scholar.

I would more readily accept Christian suspicions and denigrations about Constantine or Hellboy than Harry Potter; I know many children who wish that we lived in Harry Potter’s world and that an acceptance letter to Hogwarts will whisk them away from our muggle world, but I don’t know many children who accept that world as the same world we live in. They can distinguish between the human appearance of its characters and their supernatural abilities. In Hellboy humans are simply human, which means that everything else, those “things that bump in the night and which bump back,” could very well be possible.

When superheroes populate Metropolitan or Gotham City, we know these are just copies of our world whose shadows are populated with impossible things. Hellboy operates using such shadows, but the basis of its approach is not scientific but religious possibilities. If the Bible is followed literally, then we must conclude that angels and demons both exist. Hellboy seems to accept that proposition and then take it several steps further down the road. Along the way the demons become humanized–speaking our language and taking human form–as well as capable of ethical decisions. This is a natural anthropomorphic step, and I see it as similar to making animals talk. It lessens the gap between fantasy and reality.

Bridging that gap, however, is never the primary task of these items. Hellboy’s mythology works without ever filling in all the pieces. This is the source of the difference between Hellboy and superheroes–the origin story is crucial to superheroes, who cannot exist in a world that is presented as ours without explanation, while the origin story seems secondary to Hellboy, who would exist anyhow but might be trapped on the other side. I don’t mean to imply that Hellboy is somehow more believable than any other product of the SF/F genre, but I do mean to suggest that it is lent extraordinary credibility by preying on a vague and generalized understanding of the “occult” and supernatural. We give such things credence in our daily lives, as least many of us do.

What is surprising to me is how unremarkable the presentation of the occult is in Hellboy. It just rolls naturally along without ever really considering its own existence or origins. Constantine wrestles endlessly with the conflict between “his” Catholicism and ours. His demons are torn quite literally from the Scripture, and his methods are drawn from religious folklore. That Hellboy works with unidentifiable sources and with relative immunity from the condescension given to such shows as The Dresden Files or Charmed, suggests that it has successfully populated a niche between those works and mainstream comic fantasies. That niche seems generated not only by renewed New Age visibility of channeling and other such phenomenon, but also by the vivid imaginations of fantasy authors looking to classical myths and religious templates. In the end I think it’s all enjoyable entertainment, but I can understand the dis-ease that many folks have with such flights of fancy. My only problem is that from start to finish Hellboy steals plays from their playbook–and I hate throwing babies out with my bathwater.

 

North Korea’s State of Mind & the Mass Games

16 Feb

 

All Hail Kim Jong Il

Kim Jong Il depicted at the Mass Games in North Korea, photo by giladr via Flickr

Documentaries are one of my favorite Netflix pleasures. They’re often hard to rent, but when you can stream them at will to your television, you’ve got the world at your fingertips.

Today is February 16th, Kim Jong Il‘s birthday. I know this bit of trivia thanks to a valuable British documentary, A State of Mind (2004, director: Daniel Gordan). With unprecedented access to North Korean daily life, the filmmakers follow the journey of two young gymnasts who are training to compete in the Mass Games–“a spectacular nationalist celebration” that glorifies the subversion of the individual in favor of the group. It is the state’s embodied indoctrination of its socialist ideology, and I must confess that it is more striking and beautiful than it is frightening. Perhaps this is the result of the compassionate way in which the documentary presents many North Koreans’ seething hatred of Americans and America. You can’t watch A State of Mind without confronting the role of America-as-foil or imagining whether the subjects are honest in the way they talk about the satisfaction of participating in front of Il and his son. It’s not a perfect documentary, but it’s more than worth your time. I encourage you to take a chance to see it.

I should be clear, this is not a post to celebrate Kim Jong Il’s birthday, but rather to suggest this documentary to any of my fellow American readers who are also too young to remember the Korean War. To put it in perspective, my grandfather fought in that war. It’s an intimate part of my family history, one that I am still learning and may one day understand well enough to write about. Similarly, going to Vietnam in December reminded me of my youthfulness, of the historical limits of my own state of mind. My father said, when my wife and I told him about the trip, “I can’t imagine taking a holiday to Vietnam.” The effect of that war on his life in America was profoundly negative, and it is integral part of the way he views that part of Ameica’s past. His discomfort with the idea of traveling in modern Vietnam was for me an opportunity to explore a country whose past was for him essential but out of reach.

(George H.W. Bush riding in a Humvee with Gene...

Bush & Schwarzkopf via Wikipedia

More than any other documentary in a long time, A State of Mind made me think about the limits of my own historical memory. My professional work on modern America reveals that I very much want to understand the here and now–how things got the way they are at this moment. But my own experiences can only carry me so far in that journey. I can’t, for instance, really recall the first Gulf War. I have fleeting memories of images from the TV and the curious sense that I had Desert Storm trading cards. My first political memories are not of George H. Bush, but of Bill Clinton. I am a member of the generation whose first real political engagement was with the election of George W. Bush and the Florida ballot controversy. And the first memory I shared with fellow Americans of all ages was September 11th–when I wasn’t even in the U.S. but abroad in India living in a Burmese monastery.

When historians make the past present we build that presence on documents and material culture and a host of other sources. But that past must take root somewhere and the architecture of our memory palaces are profoundly shaped by our lives in the present. It’s good to get a reminder of just how fragile and intimate that architecture is. And if this documentary can do that for me, I can’t say better of 90 minutes of your time, can I?