Daredevil's Virtues are Flawed Storytelling

by Wholesome Rage | 30 January 2019

Batman and Daredevil are extremely similar characters. But Batman is an icon, and Daredevil is maybe a B-lister on a good run.


There’s some differences. Daredevil has his blind-sense, sure, and Batman has working eyes. Daredevil has God and the Church, and Batman has more money than both.

Otherwise they’re incredibly similar.

They both were raised from childhood by ninja-assassins after the tragic deaths of their parents at the hands of criminals. They’re urban crime fighters who work with a reluctant police force. Both Daredevil and Batman have strict moral codes of conduct, which is why they refuse to kill. Both have widely respected public figures for alter egos – Batman has billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, and Daredevil is District Attourney Matt Murdoch.

Their main superpower is sheer willpower.

They’re extremely similar archetypes. They’re what I like to call ‘Determinators’, people with no special endurance who just won’t get put down, won’t stop, whose sheer determination makes them the characters that they are. They have a toolkit, but their toolkit is only useful to them because of their skill, as opposed to defining them like a superpower would.

This means they also have similar storylines to each other, as hero stories tend to clump into key categories. Superheroes who have powers tend to have stories revolving around personal growth and unlocking their potential. Gadget-based heroes solve problems and have ethical dilemmas – Spiderman, as one example, who also has a strict no-kill policy and we’ll talk about him later.

Determinators tell stories about winning no matter the cost, and seeing just how much they have to lose – or sacrifice – to win.

As a result, these stories are also about what these characters aren’t willing to sacrifice. When someone will keep fighting with fourteen broken bones, what they’re not willing to do becomes a lot more interesting, especially if it makes their lives a lot harder for it.

But Batman and Daredevil have different objectives as characters. Batman’s personal objective revolves around being Batman. He fights crime because that’s an extension of his moral code. Daredevil’s objective, meanwhile, is the idea of justice, and specifically stopping the kind of organized crime that got his father killed.

Here’s where we see the most important difference between the characters: Batman’s moral code is compelling, while Daredevil’s becomes frustrating. This is because of how they interact with their personal objectives.

When Batman is unwilling to sacrifice his moral code and just kill the Joker, it’s because his objective – Be Batman – is more at conflict with the murder than with the Joker. This is why so many of the best Joker stories revolve around the Joker specifically trying to get Batman to snap and murder him – that’s how he wins.

Daredevil’s objective, however, is justice. The kind of justice that has to be done ‘the right way’, through the court system. A Determinator’s storyline, though, is all about making that moral code as difficult to stick to as possible. Daredevil often faces criminals that buck the system, and a corrupt criminal justice system that he can’t win against as Matt Murdoch.

This means that sticking to his objective feels frustrating or counterintuitive. At its worst, we actually start cheering for him to just kill the guy. I mean, he’s Catholic, so “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, but it starts feeling pretty weak.

If Batman killed a guy, he couldn’t be Batman anymore. Something he hints at, in fact, is that he’d become closer to The Punisher.

If Daredevil killed a guy… it’d solve all his problems.

This ended up being a huge problem with the Daredevil Netflix series, especially by Season 3.

  • Foggy Nelson was a better protagonist and a better lawyer, who accomplished more within the law.
  • Karen Walker was braver, fiercer, and accomplished far more long-term results. (With her superpower – ‘A concealed carry permit’).
  • Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, was a more effective, more interesting vigilante character who highlighted Daredevil’s hypocrisy.

As a result:

  • Foggy Nelson highlighted that by sacrificing so much of his time as a brilliant lawyer, Matt Murdoch’s means were self-destructive to his ends.
  • Karen Walker highlighted that you could still be a good person and kill a villain, and that’d solve a lot of problems.
  • Frank Castle highlighted that if Daredevil wanted to be a vigilante crime fighter, his moral code was self-defeating vanity.

That third one was emphasized to the point of absurdity. At one point Daredevil is about to be killed by a ninja and Castle shoots the man in the back and Daredevil… smiles, and salutes him in thanks.

Let’s cut back to Spiderman for a moment, another superhero who’s motivated by dead family and has a strict no-kill code. He has powers, though, and gadgets, so usually he ends up with a different story structure to Batman or Daredevil.

Still, a core part of writing a Spiderman story is that Spiderman can’t have anything nice. The universe is going to keep beating him down, and he’s going to keep responding with quips and optimism and just trying that much harder.

He’s the yin to the Batman-Punisher-Daredevil yang. Those characters respond to a hard world by becoming better, stronger, harder. Adapting. Overcoming. Spiderman, though? Spiderman is about making the world a better place, so nobody has to hurt anymore.

This is why the moral code for Spiderman makes sense. Not only does Spiderman not kill anyone (on purpose), but he’ll actively prevent other characters from killing.

Spiderman’s objective comes down to making the world a better place in general, and fighting crime is an extension of that. The Spiderman videogame portrayed this really well: His work as a scientist and environmentalist often did more good than the crime fighting. At least, when supervillains weren’t involved.

Spiderman doesn’t let people die because he’s a dreamer and an idealist and he genuinely wants a better world. We aspire to be like him, and as good as him.

Daredevil is a self-flagellating martyr. He seems like he should be a cool character, and visually he’s one of the coolest of the determinators, but his morals are still kind of offputting and self-defeating. They don’t seem to make him a better person, and they seem to sabotage his end goals. As a result, instead of making a case for wanting to share or aspire to his morality, it’s an argument against holding those morals at all.

In short, we want what he wants, but we get frustrated because his reasons for not getting it seem arbitrary and self-sabotaging.

A final note on this would be the Punisher. The Punisher is a step further still: He has morals you’re not supposed to agree with, but you’re supposed to appreciate his results. As a result, you’re not meant to like or relate to the Punisher at all.

The Punisher is perhaps my favourite comic book character ever, because of my guiding principle of good character design: Always write a character whose worldview is non-intuitive, but entirely internally consistent. A character that knows exactly why they act the way they do.

Frank Castle just wants to kill people. A lot of people. They just need to be the right people.

He’s a monster. He knows he’s not a good person. He understands his own motives, and has no illusions about them. We like the Punisher because he kills the ‘right’ people, and is very careful not to hurt anyone innocent. He’s a _professional _monster, after all.

Punisher MAX: “Widowmaker” – . Content warning: Extremely violent, references to child pornography and abuse.

This achieves the opposite of the Daredevil problem. Where Daredevil’s results are sabotaged by a morality we’re supposed to admire, we find ourselves questioning if that morality is good, which is uncomfortable in a bad way. When the Punisher achieves good results, we question if his morals are really so bad… which is uncomfortable in an interesting way.

This seems to be why Batman is so iconic and why Daredevil isn’t, even when they otherwise seem so similar and are used to tell similar stories: We know exactly why Batman would want to be Batman. It’s harder to understand why Daredevil would want to be Daredevil.

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