Whenever I tell someone I study religion and comics I get a subtle head turn and then, as if on cue, "Oh, how interesting." It takes a minute, but you can see in their eyes the connections being drawn together. There are, after all, several commonalities that these communities share. Like many religious traditions, thousands of comic book fans make yearly pilgrimages to their favorite comic convention. Many comic fans join in a sort of congregational gathering every Wednesday at their local comic book shops. Both comics and religion have a history of being inaccessible to many. Religious traditions are loaded with histories of knowledge, practices, and loyalties that seem overwhelming to new comers. And, though comics are not on the same "eternal scale" as religious practice, they are nonetheless often, or known to be, inaccessible. Comics are filled with complex continuities built up over decades and thousands of stories. But beyond the anthropological or sociological comparisons between communities, religious expression -specifically within the superhero subgenre- has been at comics' very core.
Ben Grimm, the Thing, of the fantastic four is deeply enriched with religious resonances. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, both Jewish, created Ben modeling him after the golem of Jewish lore. Often in retellings of the golem, it is a great teacher or brilliant rabbi who creates the Jewish protector. If you are familiar with the Fantastic Four at all, you should recognize that Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, fills this role in the Lee and Kirby version. Because of the success of the movies and their partnership with Netflix, much more attention is being paid to Marvel as a whole. In the last few years, Marvel Comics has added to and deepened conversations within religion and popular culture. In 2014, Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, was the first Muslim American superhero with a solo series. Her success and popularity have led to many journals, books, and articles to be written on the intersection of religion and comics. And now Marvel Entertainment has the opportunity to do that with Netflix's Daredevil.
In April 2015, the world was introduced to the urban vigilante of Hell's Kitchen, NY, through a thirteen episode series on Netflix. Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer by day but, with heightened senses from a tragic accident, becomes Daredevil at night. Matt is also a devout Catholic in constant conflict with his faith. He suffers from the guilt of what he has done and what he still must do to keep his city safe.
In season one, we are introduced to a sort of spiritual consciousness in Father Lantom, played by Peter McRobbie. He is not preachy but is able to translate Catholic sensibilities and wisdom in such a way that meets Matt where he is in his context. Though Fr. Lantom has some powerful lines, it is the writing in episode nine that becomes the heart of the season. Fr. Lantom says:
There is a wide gulf between inaction and murder, Matthew. Another man's evil does not make you good. Men have used the atrocities of their enemies to justify their own throughout history. So the question you have to ask yourself is, are you struggling with the fact that you don't want to kill this man but have to? Or that you don't have to kill him but want to?
One of the things that make season one so memorable was Marvel's inclusion of this spiritual consciousness. As with Ms. Marvel, it is in the quiet moments of reflection, and engagement with the spiritual, that resonates the heart of the character the loudest.
In season two this past March we got a slightly different show. I enjoyed it immensely - the weaving of narrative from Daredevil and the Punisher to Daredevil, Electra, and the Hand read just like a comic. And Jon Bernthal's portrayal of Frank Castle, the Punisher, was simply amazing. However, I thought the season lost its heart, just a bit. We only see Fr. Lantom for one episode early in the season.
The season needed another quiet moment, another episode maybe? We needed that voice later in the season to make sense of Matt's struggling conflict of faith. Matt tries to be this voice to Frank, but again a revisit at the end of the season -even if rejected- would have been interesting. In some versions of the comics, Frank went to seminary and almost became a priest, but he struggled with the concept of forgiveness. To me, this would have added a great deal of depth and kept the momentum Marvel has been building in religious partnership and inclusion. In an interview with Gabe Aikins, staff writer Drew Caruso noted that "it seemed that being on the Daredevil path for a season, Matt needed less Catholic intervention, and a more personal one." I am not exactly sure what he meant; the conversation quickly turned to another topic. I am left with the thought that we might see some form of reconciliation between Matt's faith and his duty as the Devil of Hell's Kitchen in season three - well, one can hope.
Looking to the future of Daredevil and other titles within the Netflix line-up, what forms of inclusion will be made that portray an honest and fair representation of religion? I am excited to hear that Netflix will be introducing a Buddhist character to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A criticism of Daredevil season two has been its representation of people of Asian descent and, as an extension, their culture and rich religious history. This was also a concern with the casting of Finn Jones to play Daniel Rand, Iron Fist -- a young American, who spends ten years training in the mystical city of K'un-Lun and discovers the supernatural force of the Iron Fist. As Iron Fist is Buddhist, steeped in Eastern mysticism, how will Marvel portray the character? Who or what will be his spiritual consciousness, and how will Daniel find his quiet moments?