The lawyer and the vigilante

by May 2, 2008Commentary, Daredevil Character Basics7 comments

The first of three posts on the appeal of Daredevil, introduced HERE.

Americans seem to have a love/hate relationship with lawyers. No one seems to like them until they actually need one for divorce court, that pesky personal injury claim, or to settle the ongoing dispute with the cranky neighbor. No country in the world has as many lawyers per capita as the United States. Nor does any other country have such a long list of lawyer jokes. Although, I once heard it said that the problem with lawyer jokes is that “laywers don’t think they’re funny, and no one else thinks they’re jokes.”

At the same time, people can’t seem to get enough lawyer action. John Grisham appears to make a great living writing about lawyers, they frequently appear in big budget Hollywood blockbusters, and Law & Order is not just one television show, but an entire franchise. On top of that you have Court TV, and shows like People’s Court and Judge Judy. People apparently like to watch trials, hear about them and read about them. So what could be juicier than reading a comic book about a superhero who is also a lawyer? And one that, while certainly making enough money to sport some really nice suits, does it primarily to help people. Matt Murdock is one lawyer you don’t have to feel guilty about rooting for.

I admit to being one of those people who does watch a lot of legal shows. Not religiously, but if one happens to be on, and there’s nothing spectacular happening on another channel, I usually tune in. There’s definitely something to be said for for glamorous-looking people spouting such great lines as “Objection!,” “My client is innocent, Your Honor,” and “Counsellor, you’re out of order!” Then there’s that extra dimension to court cases that actually mean something, when an innocent man has been convicted, or when you really want to see the bad guys get their day in court. So, inevitably, I must confess to really liking the fact that Daredevil himself is a lawyer out of costume, and I’m a big fan of seeing him and the partners slugging it out in court.

Having a superhero who is a lawyer in his civilian identity makes a lot of sense. As evidenced by all the law shows I just mentioned, there are thousands of stories to tell within that kind of setting. It is also a great way to introduce villains and get the hero involved in cases that might need some extra-curricular intervention. The “client as villain” approach was used heavily in Stan Lee’s days. In fact, with the amount of work that was getting done around the office (that is, none at all…), Nelson & Murdock seemed to just be a front for a costumed villain casting studio. “Want a chance to battle Daredevil? Show up between nine and five and kidnap that lovely blonde secretary, and we’ll see what we can do.”

Since the early days, the amount of attention given to Matt’s role as a lawyer has varied considerably. Sometimes it has depended on the tastes and inclinations of the writer, and sometimes it seems to have been a consequence of other things happening in the book. However, with the exception of a few years after Born Again, another couple of years after Fall From Grace, and the first year of Brubaker’s run, Matt has always been a practicing lawyer, regardless of whether this aspect of the character has been featured regularly or not. What’s fascinating about the idea of the “lawyer vigilante” is that his two lifestyles both compliment each other and seem completely contradictory.

In a sense, Matt’s day job and his Daredevil business are both contributing equally to what he’s trying to do in the world. Unlike Spider-man, he doesn’t just have a job that pays the rent (by the way, is Peter Parker paying rent at his aunt’s house these days?), he has a job that is an extension of and a complement to what he does in costume. Perhaps that is why writers can afford to sneak a trial arc or two past the “must see the costume every issue at all cost” crowd. We all buy that he’s the same guy doing essentially the same thing, regardless of whether he’s in costume or not. His being a lawyer adds to what makes him interesting as a character.

Where it really gets tricky, and rather intriguing, is where the lawyer and the vigilante clash. We could have a long, and essentially pointless debate, over whether lawyers are expected to have greater respect for the law than the average person on the street. The fact remains, however, that Matt is one of those people who finds a great degree of comfort in the rule of law, lectures other people about its virtues, and then turns around and breaks that very same law on a daily basis. He believes firmly in the legal system, yet operates outside of it. This does make him something of a hypocrite. Not so much because he’s a lawyer, but because he claims to want to do things by the book. In order to escape the confines of his own moral code, he makes his own set of rules. This is evident as early as in the very first issue of the series. By taking on a second identity and disguising himself, he manages to rationalize his decision to break the promise he made to his father, and go after the men who killed him.

While I’ll delay any detailed comparisons to the Punisher until I have enough material for a separate post, I’d say that the biggest difference between Matt Murdock and Frank Castle isn’t a matter of degree, as many would suggest. Daredevil is not the “light version” of the Punisher, but a different kind of hero altogether. Where Matt is deep passion restrained by a code of ethics, Frank is complete detachment. The Punisher doesn’t care about getting his activities to fit within any kind of predefined boundaries, and he probably doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about whether or not he’s breaking the rules. Daredevil is all about the rules. While there’s no room for pro bono vigilantism in the legal system he serves during the day, Matt quiets his (presumably) guilty conscience by subjecting himself to certain standards of behavior. He likes rules, and by setting firm limits for himself, he can fool himself into thinking that he isn’t really breaking the law that badly. But he is. And, deep down, he knows that.

This contributes to making Matt a very conflicted guy who often does things that don’t make complete sense to himself and those around him. He is a hypocrite. He is also a deeply moral character, and one that would never hesitate to endanger himself to protect other people or his own lofty ideals. He is the guy who strives to do the right thing – by the book when he can, and by bending the rules when he can’t. He just tries to do what is right, as he sees it. It’s really that simple. At the same time, he will always beat himself up over the fact that no matter how hard he tries, the different pieces of the puzzle that is his life will never quite fit together. His life will never really make perfect sense. And that makes for some pretty interesting stories and an even more interesting character.

Next in this series I’ll look at what people in the marketing field would call Daredevil’s unique selling point. “The blind superhero” will be up by the weekend. Have a great day everyone!


  1. Francesco

    “No one seems to like them until they actually need one for divorce court, that pesky personal injury claim, or to settle the ongoing dispute with the cranky neighbor.”

    Off topic.

    Christine, I bet that even then they aren’t liked that much more. Unless the client has a lot of $$$ to spend.

  2. Francesco

    On Topic

    Dear Chris, we talked a bit about this in the chatroom, but I think I might contribute with my two €-cents in the comments as well.
    If one stops to think about it, Matt Murdock/Daredevil is a rarebreed in the MU, he’s in fact one of the few major superheroes who also have a regular job in his civilian identity.
    And not a regular job as in “playboy-gazillionaire” or “master scientist” regular job. It’s a pretty ordinary job.
    And it’s not even a mere cover for his activity as superhero. Matt has sweat blood on his books in his young age, and he gave it all to became a lawyer. It’s important to him nearly as much as his quest as vigilante.
    Bits of information – explicit or implicit – from the comics themselves also tell us that Matt is also pretty good at his job, has an above average income because of it, and, most importantly, Matt definitely likes his job.

    These facts are certainly part of the appeal of Daredevil. I say “part of” because, to me at least, they contribute to the love I have for this carachter for a lesser but significant part, compared to other aspect.

    And still, it’s not much the “legal drama”/”John Grisham novel” stuff that I think is appealing, but rather the fact that this aspect of “having an actual job” adds to the verisimilitude of the character.
    And, as we said, adds to the possible situations that can be created. Especially because the lawyer and the vigilante have many points of convergence (crime, justice, conflict).

    The legal drama stuff in itself, instead, I don’t find it a much important thing to the “appeal of Daredevil”. Such situations, as you have actually implicitly descripted in this post, are quite repetitive, full of clichés.
    It’s not that interesting to me to read characters going “objection!”, or the opposing lawyer being depicted as the evil bastard. I could as well watch reruns of “the Practice” if I needed that.

  3. JP Nguyen

    Regarding the “lawyer side” of Matt Murdock, I wish writers could bring out more subtle legal cases.
    I remember the story by Nocenti where DD fights the Punisher to save a killer who had poisoned people but wasn’t the “absolute evil guy” (unemployed, feeling out of place…).
    Chichester, too, could write compelling criminals.
    Most of the time, criminals in DD are mobsters, people who have “chosed” this way of life.
    I’m surprised that Brubaker, who writes the excellent Criminal series, hasn’t brought us anything else than “evil-evil” villains (Vanessa Fisk got mad, Mr Fear is a psycho, Gladiator was a pawn).
    A great villain is a character that scares the shXt out of you but that you can also admire or at least respect (the Kingpin at his greatest, Dr Doom). All villains used by Bru, I can only pity them (yeah, even Mr Fear : the guy believes he’s a Big Master of Evil because he can bring misery to poor Matt, I think this goal is a bit pointless)

  4. Christine

    Thanks for your comment guys! I’ll respond to Francesco first. I agree that even the fact that Matt has a regular job with a certain amount of job security (when his license isn’t suspended) that is often featured in the book makes him special.

    As for legal clichés, I think there’s a huge difference between good legal drama and bad legal drama. Not all law shows are good by virtue of being law shows, but there is a certain amount of drama and tension inherent in what happens in a courtroom that often works for telling good stories. Which I guess kind of brings me to JP’s comment…

    I actually agree with you here. As much of a fan as I am of Brubaker’s work on the book, a little more subtlety and complexity as far as the villains are concerned might work better. I also think we will see more of that coming up, if the previews of the next arc are any indication.

    Generally (now addressing everyone…), I should also add that the reason I picked these three topic posts for the whole “appeal of Daredevil” thing, is more because these are things that I see people point to when discussing the character, and because they all seem central to how someone would describe him (blind lawyer/vigilante who gets a lot of crap dumped on him yet always gets back up again). They are not presented in any kind of order of importance.

    Having said that, I do like that Matt has an interesting job that he likes and I do like that he happens to be a lawyer. I don’t think it’s central to the character to the extent that he couldn’t have another job, but it makes for a very interesting conflict with what he does on the side. That, and I actually happen to like the occasional trial arc. A lot. 🙂

  5. Christine

    Hi JP! I’ll update the original link to point to this page instead. I just happened to really like what you wrote. 🙂

    About Babelfish… LOL When I said “decent,” what I probably should have said is the following: “When you combine what Babelfish spits out with what you understand of the original anyway (in my case 40-50%), you can sort of piece together something that makes sense.”

    What Babelfish comes up with usually looks pretty funny, but it helps a little as long as people are aware of the inherent limitations of machine translations. Which I like to think most people are, but who knows…

  6. Frank Castle

    Daredevil is like that guy that says don’t smoke cigarettes, it’s bad for you while smoking a cigarette.


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