There’s an archaic, frankly sexist saying about women gravitating toward “bad boys,” but in Season 3 of Netflix’s Daredevil, it’s the damaged ones that hold all the allure.
Daredevil has always been a show that fully subscribes to the "hurting hero" trope. Its leading man, Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), is the poster child for Fight Club wannabes. It’s rare we see him sans bruises, stained knuckles, split lips, or stitched skin. He’s a street hero, after all, one who prowls Hell's Kitchen looking for baddies to beat bloody with just his fists, the way his old man would’ve done. The way "real men" are expected to do.
But Murdock’s suffering isn’t confined to his physical body. A defining characteristic of the Marvel hero is his obsession with his own morality. Murdock likes to beat the sh*t out of people, it’s true, but he almost always feels bad about it after the fact. He consults his priest, he questions God, he wonders if his own nature leans more toward the moniker he’s been given by fans of his vigilante ways than he’d care to admit.
In this way, Daredevil’s always elevated itself above other Netflix-Marvel team-ups. Murdock’s suffering is what made him a hero in the first place — his blindness spurred his extraordinary abilities — and his suffering is what continues to define him as such. But it’s time we talk about the consequences of this “suffering syndrome” that affects nearly every man on this series in its third season.
Besides the fact that it revels in its own torture porn, the show often presents its male characters as men in need of mothering out of their own martyrdom.
Take Matt Murdock, for instance.
We pick up with the Devil of Hell's Kitchen soon after a building was toppled on him and his nemesis/lover Elektra (Elodie Yung) in The Defenders. Matt somehow made it out alive, but it seems Elektra wasn’t so lucky. As he heals from his injuries below his Catholic parish, mourning the loss of his abilities and the death of his girlfriend in equal measure, he’s cared for by a tough-as-nails nun named Maggie (Joanne Whalley).
Maggie mends Matt’s wounds. Maggie lends an ear to his rantings about God and faith and the unfairness of his life. Maggie slowly, tediously, builds trust with Matt, convincing him to give himself, his friends, and his God a second chance. We see Matt begin to push his body to its breaking point, training despite his life-threatening injuries, holding boxing matches in the bellows of the church. We’re given the not-so-subtle message that Matt is strong enough to ignore his pain, as all men should. That he’s a hero because of his hurt because he’s suffered and survived to fight another day.
But it’s not only Matt who’s responsible for the return of Daredevil; it’s Maggie too.
It’s Maggie who tempts Matt away from his self-pitying tantrums toward a less self-centered existence. It’s Maggie who worries for him, cares for his broken body no matter how many times he intentionally abuses it. And it’s Maggie who, when Matt discovers the secret identity of his birth mother, willingly serves as an emotional punching bag for our hero, taking her licks so that her charge — her son — can find his way back to the light.
And Maggie’s not the only mother figure who tries to minimize the damage caused by a self-hating man.
Daredevil’s nemesis this season, Bullseye, is also a man in need of a womanly savior.
Before he became Wilson Fisk’s (Vincent D'Onofrio) muscle, Benjamin "Dex" Poindexter (Wilson Bethel) was a respected officer with the FBI, a talented sniper, a man who craved order to stem his psychotic behavior. In Episode 4’s “The Perfect Game” we’re treated to Poindexter’s origin story. A tragic one.
An orphan who exhibited psychotic behavior in his youth, we see Poindexter as a boy, killing his baseball coach with a wicked fastball after his mentor took him out of the game. We see Poindexter as a young teen, recalling his fascination with murdering small, helpless animals. And we meet the woman in charge of saving him, Dr. Eileen Mercer (Heidi Armbruster).
Dr. Mercer is able to take a scared, angry little boy and transform him into a functioning adult, despite his personality disorder, despite his lack of empathy, despite his urge to hurt himself and others. Without Dr. Mercer’s teaching, Dex’s moral compass would’ve almost certainly led him astray. Even after her death from a terrible illness, Dr. Mercer continues to steer Dex on the right path.
When the FBI agent is struggling with his psychosis, when he begins fixating on a young woman, when his anger gets the better of him on the job, it’s Dr. Mercer’s tapes, recordings of their sessions over the years, that pull him back from the brink. And when Dr. Mercer’s voice begins to fade, when her influence on Dex wanes, it’s Julie, the woman Dex has been using as his new “North Star,” who serves as a reminder of his humanity.
There are other women in the series too, disposable women used to further the stories of their male counterparts. Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) graduates from this trope, but just barely, by finally earning her own backstory. She still bends over backward to help the man who spurned her, still risks her life to save Matt’s, but she does it with more agency and more snark than she was afforded in Season 2.
Vanessa Fisk (Ayelet Zurer) is another of these women. She serves as her husband’s invisible end-goal for much of the season, serving her part off-screen by motivating Fisk to regain his power. In that way, every atrocity committed by Fisk also leaves blood on Vanessa’s hands — a terrible prospect, one the show avoids atoning for by portraying Vanessa as corrupt as her mob boss husband.
But what does this all mean? Shouldn’t we be happy that the gender roles have been reversed? There’s no woman on the train tracks, no damsel in distress. That’s a victory, right?
Except, when we ask women to be the savior of men, we’re not granting them some unclaimed power, we’re confining them to the same rigid stereotypes that have plagued female characters since the beginning of time.
Look, I enjoy seeing Karen Page bailing Matt Murdock out of whatever harebrained scheme he’s fallen into with just her wit and sheer determination as much as the next girl. I think it’s laughable, and oddly satisfying, to see a man whose entire existence is built on the force of his punch reduced to needing help from a woman he viewed as a victim just two seasons ago. And I cheered when Vanessa asserted herself to her overbearing husband, demanding equality in their relationship, a seat at his business table, and the respect of being viewed as something more than a damn piece of art to hang on his walls.
Those are the pros of seeing women rescue damaged men — the believability of it all. Knowing that’s what women have been doing silently since the beginning of time, enjoying seeing that work finally acknowledged.
The cons, though, feel too heavy to balance out the scales.
When we show women as the driving force behind a bad man’s actions, we appoint them undeserved blame. When we show women as angelic saviors of damaged men, we absolve the guilt and responsibility from that man’s bad choices. When we portray women as nurturing, motherly types — beings that only exist to clean up messes, care for others, whose love is touted as a transforming, all-powerful force — we place the burden of being a hero on them, while still giving the men the glory. What's worse, we strip men of the ability to address their own vulnerability. We teach men that it's their job to solve problems through physical confrontation while it's a woman's job to make sense of the emotional ramifications.
That’s not to say that Matt Murdock isn’t a hero, that Dex isn’t a sympathetic villain, that Wilson Fisk isn’t a mesmerizing bad guy. All three of them certainly deserve their time in the spotlight, and the hardships they face are tragic and worthy of a closer look. But let’s not sacrifice the stories of their equally compelling female counterparts by buying into this ridiculous notion that a man needs a woman to save his soul.
All women wear capes, yes, but we can’t be expected to carry every man’s emotional baggage. Let’s let the male character do the heavy lifting in that area for once.