Listening Without Fear

Image by Mike ‘SoL’ Person
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” — Ernest Hemingway

After two seasons, Netflix’s Daredevil has earned its right as the cornerstone of Marvel’s “street level” response and the parallel team-up to its cinematic Avengers, The Defenders (which will comprise Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist). This is somewhat surprising, given that Daredevil is a B-list superhero with not much visibility beyond a failed tent-pole film experiment. Be that as it may, the series has generated so much public goodwill and critical praise that it’s hard to conceptualize the television extension of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) without it.

In one sense, though, Daredevil’s success was always unlikely; even the superhero’s original conception was an afterthought. Back in 1964, the year of Daredevil’s debut at Marvel comics, Stan Lee was immersed in developing the much more lucrative and popular heroes like the X-Men, Spider-Man, and even the Avengers when he initiated the character’s creation in what was essentially a Spider-Man rip-off — a regular man become super-human through a radioactive accident who swings through the city fighting crime. The difference, though, between Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Matt Murdock/Daredevil was primarily that the accident that created Murdock not only blessed him with super-human powers, but also handicapped him: While Peter Parker gained the powers of a spider by being bitten by a radioactive arachnid, Matt Murdock lost a basic sense: his sight. Along with the addition of a superhuman “radar sense,” this allowed his other senses to become enhanced — primarily, his hearing and ability to listen in new ways.

Daredevil is thus unique among most popular superheroes — and especially the current wave of film and television meta-human stars — in that his superpower doesn’t merely elevate his physical abilities above the average human’s. Instead, his power simply equalizes his disability to give him a level playing field. But it’s not just Murdock’s ability to hear that defines him; it’s also his readiness and willingness to truly listen. This is what gives him the edge and makes him truly super.

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While I’ll turn to focus on Murdock’s ability to attend to others soon, he isn’t the only hero (or villain) for whom listening is of central importance; in fact, the motif runs across season 2’s interconnecting storylines and characters.

Chief among these is series newcomer Frank Castle, also known as the Punisher (Jon Bernthal), a former military veteran turned vigilante who appears on the scene in the process of hunting down and killing anyone involved in the deaths of his family. Despite existing in the larger, lighter world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Bernthal’s Punisher is easily the grittiest and most realistic portrayal of the character we’ve seen in live action. He’s is a savvy foil for Daredevil; he, too, is driven by a desire for justice and as a protector of the innocent, albeit with an even harsher view of the world and lacking any compunction about using lethal force.

In his essay ‘Daredevil and Punisher: Polar Opposites?” from the book The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil, M. S. Wilson highlights the tension between Murdock and Castle:

The most striking similarity between Daredevil and the Punisher is that they both care so much. They might argue over methodology or even motives, but in the end neither could disagree about the fact they sincerely care about the fate of innocent people and want to help them in any way possible. This also illustrates the biggest contrast between the two: Daredevil believes everyone deserves a second chance and has the potential for good, while the Punisher believes criminals have already made their choices and eliminating them is the only way to prevent future criminal behavior. In a way, they may both be right. The Punisher’s methodology says few hardened criminals are apt to reform, no matter how many chances they’re given, while Daredevil’s actions counter this idea with perhaps it’s worth the effort for the small number who actually do reform.

Another vigilante also joins Daredevil’s cast of characters this season: Matt’s former girlfriend, Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung). While the methodical Elektra wreaks less chaotic death and destruction in Hell’s Kitchen than the brusque and violent Punisher, she is no less a contrast to Daredevil’s ethic, relishing the act of killing when given the opportunity and tempting Daredevil to give into his darker impulses. But ultimately it is Daredevil who redeems Elektra through his moral character and refusal to ever give up on anyone.

In his interactions when them, Murdock listens not just to the words of Castle and Natchios, but also what their actions say about their true characters. It is his ability to truly hear what they are saying through how they move throughout the world, such as Castle’s laser focus on targeting only the gang members who spurred him to take action, or Natchios’ joy and appetite for engagement with life and challenge as exemplified in their very first meeting, that allows him the ability to engage them. While Castle and Natchios tell themselves that only what they vocalize matters — that they are cold-blooded killers — Murdock has listened to what they also say in words unspoken, allowing him to not just best them in physical battle, but also change and become better heroes, better people.

Meanwhile, returning for season 2 are Murdock’s daytime counterparts Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). Listening is essential to the arcs of both these characters over the course of the season, as wel.; Nelson, for example, moves beyond his role as friend and protective voice of reason in season 1 to more fully respect and listen to Murdock — ultimately coming to respect who Murdock is, even if that means giving him space to put himself in harm’s way in the streets at night. In permitting Murdock to walk away from their joint law practice, Nelson proves he is hearing his friend out and allowing him the agency he needs.

Page, meanwhile, is taken by surprise by a conversation with Castle, who deduces that she is familiar with violence and death by the firearm she carries and the manner in which she speaks of violence. But even more poignant to Page’s journey this season are her interactions with newspaper editor Mitchell Ellison (Geoffrey Cantor), who first listens and then gently nudges her into action as an investigative journalist — filling in the gap left by Ben Urich’s death in season 1 — a voice of the public, caught in a world of super-powered individuals and systematic corruption.

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The most developed and complicated listener in the season by far, however, is Daredevil himself. In an important sense, of course, Murdock’s superior listening is largely sensorial, enabling him practically in his quest to bring justice to Hell’s Kitchen. Murdock’s biological listening superiority is his superpower, and he doesn’t hesitate to put it to use in directly combatting his foes. His ability to hear the heartbeats of his enemies, their weapons, and their movements, along with years of rigorous training under the guidance of his teacher Stick (a rugged, believable Scott Glenn) allows him to anticipate and counter their assaults and gives him the chance to take the upper hand in any fight. In one scene, for instance, when ninjas from the Hand who have caught on to what gives Murdock his edge set aside their weapons and calm their heartbeats during combat, Murdock is initially at a loss. Then, however, he uses his super hearing to listen to Stick, who whispers from another room, advising Murdock to change what he’s listening for: not their weapons or heartbeats, but their breathing. This enables him to thrash them handily.

But combat isn’t the only practical context in which Murdock listens to give himself an edge. During one courtroom scene, for instance, he listens to the whisper of a guard that tips him off that not all is how it appears in the moment. At another point, he scales a building and hides on an adjacent roof to an office building to listen in as Elektra conducts a business meeting, intent on drawing out the Hand to fight. In yet another scene, he perches from the ledge of high-rises to aurally scan the streets below to locate a bus full of hostages.

While these immediate tactile and tactical advantages help Murdock win his battles, though, he’s also good at listening in a more psychological sense — by paying close attention to what people actually have to say. Whether conversing with friends and foes, he isn’t intent on merely responding or giving the appearance of consideration; rather, he desires to understand their motivations and engage with their self-disclosures. It is in these moments that Daredevil earns his moniker “The Man Without Fear,” as it takes a kind of fearlessness to truly listen to what people are trying to tell you.

Early in the season, for instance, after a bloody battle with an Irish gang, Daredevil just sits and listens to Frank Castle’s story of how his family was killed — and it’s more cathartic for Castle than any of the violence that came immediately before it. This is matched by a scene late in the season where the two talk again. In this latter scene, Daredevil offers the possibility that maybe it would be okay to kill one, specific villain, and Castle rejects the idea saying, “Red, that’s not how it works.” ¹ This is an important interaction, demonstrating how Murdock’s empathy and the time he takes to listen to Castle creates a respect toward Murdock that his rival did not previously have. In fact, this allows Castle the opportunity to admit that his scorched earth approach to taking the lives of the villains may not always be the best way to win the fight.

Another scene that illustrates Murdock’s skill at listening features a rooftop discussion between Murdock and Claire Temple (played by Rosario Dawson, who returns all too briefly in season 2). When Temple urges Murdock to visit Foggy in the hospital and accept help from his friends, Murdock doesn’t argue back, storm off, or jump right into action; instead, he takes the time to listen to and consider the advice from a friend — someone with a completely different perspective from his own — and internalizes what he hears.

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In a recent interview on Conan, comedian Louis C.K. explains why he’s given up the internet. All jokes aside, though, his main argument centers around his level of engagement with his daughter: continuing to be distracted by his phone, he is disturbed by the fact that he isn’t listening to her, breaking off interaction after interaction to check his phone. In order to reengage and return to listening, he has to disconnect from distraction.

Louis’s routine reminds us that listening is not a passive activity; it’s proactive. It engages the speaker, whether they are literally speaking or communicating in some other way — even through their mood, their breathing, their heart beat. Listening respects and acknowledges the speaker and demonstrates a kind of promise with them to understand and make a connection. Strange as it may seem, this kind of listening is becoming something of a super power in our own world: the ability to listen to an individual instead of, and even in spite of, the constant conversations we are having with a thousand other voices.

That tension between activity and passivity, I argue, is the real crux of Daredevil’s second season. Although Murdock appears the martyr to some and a passive listener to others, he doesn’t stand by, waiting to be led to sacrifice, nor does he let himself be distracted. Instead, he takes action. He engages. He listens and perceives. And, perhaps most importantly, he believes what he hears. His interactions with Elektra especially provide her with the tools to make the ultimate sacrifice in the end and redeem herself in the process while saving Murdock’s life. It’s not just that villains are physically punished and brought to justice by Daredevil’s ability to listen; in addition, those who choose to engage with him are redeemed by it.

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¹ This interaction has basis in the comics. Again, M. S. Wilson notes:

In Daredevil Vol. 2 #87 (Sept 2006), after a massive prison riot, the two cooperate to escape the prison. In a helicopter after the escape, Matt thanks the Punisher for helping him see how low he’d sunk, and that it was time to start the long climb back up. The Punisher replies: “You’re hurtin’ a lot right now Murdock, with good reason. / But you don’t want to be me. / You needed to remember that.” This may be the most telling moment in their entire convoluted and contentious relationship, a moment of mutual respect and understanding between two men who probably have much more in common than either one would care to admit.