Tony talks softly, and wields a big stick.
Part of the joy of telling a superhero story in a series format is that you’re free not to simply have a single ‘origin episode’ and try and cram the whole of the lead character’s backstory into that one shot. Instead, you can reveal backstory and characterisation as and when it becomes natural and relevant. Y’know – like life.
Stick, episode 7 of Daredevil, takes what we know of Matt Murdock’s origins from the first couple of episodes and grows it beautifully. In a way, it’s an inevitable episode – while, for instance, we know that the shooting of his parents was key in turning Bruce Wayne into Batman, the really interesting stuff, as Christopher Nolan spent the majority of Batman Begins showing us, is how he turned that trauma into a hard-as-steel persona that could be a shadowy advocate for justice. Stick essentially delivers us ‘Daredevil Begins.’
Murdock’s Ra’s al Ghul is the eponymous Stick, a blind old man who kicks some serious ass. When Matt was recovering from the accident which blinded him, and his father’s rash actions in winning a boxing match he’d been paid to lose (and subsequently being assassinated), he was in the care of some Hell’s Kitchen nuns, and here we get to see the initial arrival of ‘Murdock-Vision,’ the incredible combination of all his other senses.
Imagine you’ve been going along with all the normal senses humans take for granted, and only using them to the anaesthetised levels that humans do, and then suddenly – WALLOP! Not only can you not see, but everything else is turned up to eleven. You can hear everything within blocks of you – every TV, every radio, every conversation, every heartbeat. Imagine you can smell everything, suddenly, with the acuity of a Labrador – all the sweat, all the meals co-mingling into one, the stench of drains you never thought about, the traffic pollution, the animals. Imagine the blankets on your bed suddenly revealed their textures to your skin, like laying on a fabric cheese-grater. Heat, and cold, and air movements and altitude, all announced themselves to you in a way you couldn’t turn down, couldn’t block out, couldn’t escape.
That’s the world that young Matt Murdock suddenly finds himself in, and as you might imagine, it has the potential to drive him insane. Add to that the panic of sudden blindness, the pain of sudden loss, and the crushing heavy heart-weight that makes him know his father died because of him, because he wanted to show his son that winning was possible for a Murdock.
Stick is called in by the nuns to help Matt, and he takes a fee to get the young boy on his feet again, teaching him how to filter what he senses, not only so that he doesn’t go stark staring mad every minute of the day, but also so that he learns to hone his perceptions to a level of which Sherlock Holmes would be justly proud. He also trains the boy to fight, not letting him wallow in self-pity at his fate for a second, but hitting him when he’s down as an allegory of real life. That’s almost the point – this is no sweet story of surrogate fathers and sons. In fact, when Matt seems to be in danger of confusing the relationship for something more paternalistic, Stick up and leaves him, claiming he can’t train him any more, because what Stick ‘needs’ him to be is a soldier, rather than a son.
When Stick turns up again in the Kitchen decades later, the two men have a less than entirely cordial reunion. Stick’s not in town to see Matt though; he’s been in Japan, killing people he feels it’s necessary to kill, particularly members of the Yakuza (or Japanese mafia), with whom it turns out Fisk has done a deal. They’re importing a deadly weapon called Black Sky via the docks, and Matt and Stick unite to stop it, though strictly on Matt’s ‘no killing’ proviso.
That goes well…
Certainly we get to check off another big chunk of Daredevil joy as we see him use his fighting sticks for the first time in the series.
But then there’s the part where Stick ignores the holy hell out of Matt’s rules, and kills a vital member of the organisation. Again, the weakness of the Daredevil is raised as a question, this time by the man who trained him – the question of how you can hope to be an effective warrior in a world of killers, if you yourself are still afraid to cross that line.
It’s a fascinating philosophical exploration, episode 7. What would happen to Batman if he was just Batman, if there was no daytime Bruce Wayne, just the warrior of the night? Stick advocates for a policy of total war, and demands Matt banish all the ‘weaknesses’ and weak spots from his life – from the silk sheets he sleeps on because cotton feels like sandpaper to his super-sensitive skin, to his friends, because if he doesn’t, ‘they will suffer and you will die.’ All the way through the season so far, we’ve been seeing Matt’s refusal to kill as a weakness in what he does, in that his endgame is made unrealistic and compromised if he’s unprepared to cross that line. But Stick’s stark embodiment of what ‘the other side’ of the coin looks like, what Matt would be like if he killed with impunity, gives us pause to reflect that, just as Clark Kent is a positive side and a normalising influence on Superman, and Bruce Wayne on Batman, so Matt Murdock, daytime lawyer Matt Murdock, with his friends Foggy and Karen, is worth having in himself, as a balance to keep the Daredevil from going unnecessarily far. Certainly he’s not worth sacrificing to go full-on vigilante, and you could even make an argument that while it’s the man in the mask who saves the helpless from the likes of Fisk’s goons, in the duality of the human mind, it’s daytime Matt Murdock, hotshot lawyer and local boy made good who is the ‘angel’ of Hell’s Kitchen.
While we’re immersed in this philosophical exploration of what makes a man or woman a hero, and whether it’s the opposite of what makes them able to live within a society, there are two perfect examples to back up the Matt-as-angel idea, the notion that heroes exist at every strata of our lives. Karen goes to Elena’s Cardenas’ apartment to keep her updated on her case, but also to get information from her, and reassure her that ‘they [the bad guys]…they are the ones who should be afraid.’ So you can be a hero by bringing comfort to an old lady. When Karen leaves Elena’s, there are goons prepared to rough her up to discourage her connection with Elena. Enter Foggy, stage left, with baseball bat, to kick some ass. Without a mask. Both Matt’s friends do the right thing in this episode, and perhaps they’re a good influence on him. Perhaps he’s a good influence on them. Perhaps both things are true simultaneously. And when Karen introduces first Foggy and then Matt to campaigning journalist Ben Urich, who’s trying to help her piece together connections and find the ‘king’ of Hell’s Kitchen, Ben acts as another example of what can be done within society to stand up to oppression and the forces of darkness, while reaping the benefits of company, cold beer and laughter, rather than turning yourself into the ultimate warrior and living a life of misery and focus.
Episode 7 shows us the important character who helped shape a terrified blind boy into the man who would become the Daredevil. What it doesn’t show us is what helped shape the same blind boy into the man who would become Matt Murdock, lawyer and doer of good among the poor residents of Hell’s Kitchen. Stick had no interest in training him to live in society, and so can claim no part of the daytime Matt Murdock as his creation. For that, we must look to the strength and hope of Matt himself, to his faith and those who instilled in him the value of a life of service to a grand ideal, and to his friends, especially Foggy, who gave him the comforts of a daylight life of relative normality, to set against the training Stick put him through.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk