A Flawed Superhero Can be a Powerful Role Model

What makes Daredevil so appealing?

Netflix debuted its original series “Daredevil” this month, starring Charlie Cox as the blind superhero created by Marvel comics back in 1964. Daredevil, aka lawyer Matt Murdock, grew up with his single dad, a mid-level boxer, in Hell’s Kitchen. An accident involving radioactive waste left him blind as a boy. (Luckily, he was not otherwise disfigured, since Cox is a heart throb.) His father insisted his son get a good education, which would serve him well in the daytime world. By night, his blindness would become an asset in the crime-ridden Hell’s Kitchen of the series’ present, dominated by evil real estate developers

Murdock is blind but his accident enhanced his other senses. Matt Murdock’s powers are increased by the effect of the radioactive poisons, but this is not just superhero lore: it’s well known that if one of the sensory pathways in the brain is not being used (thanks to blindness, hearing loss, a loss of taste, smell, touch) those pathways will be take over by the other senses. Helen Keller could recognize familiar people coming into a room by the vibration of their footsteps.

In his daytime persona as attorney Matt Murdock, as well as in his secret nighttime Daredevil persona, hearing, smell, and touch are all powerful tools for fighting crime. Murdoch can detect a lie by hearing the increase in a subject’s heartbeat. He can smell the cheap cologne on a bad guy pretending to be a cop when the intruder is still three flights away on the tenement stairs, with a closed door between them. The buzz of a fluorescent light tells him he’s not hidden by darkness. He picks out the sound of a chain clanging on a fire escape just to time to use it as a last-ditch defense. Standing on a rooftop, he listens to the noises of the city below until gradually one sound emerges, a kidnapped boy’s cry of “Daddy, Daddy, help me!”

But this strength is also his most vulnerable point, and this makes him interesting. Daredevil is human, and subject to human weaknesses. He’s a devout Catholic, with a strong sense of guilt about his nighttime vigilante activities, for which he asks forgiveness from his priest. He’s a complex, flawed character.

Daredevil was not the first Marvel character with a disability. Charles Xavier, leader of X-Men, is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. Each of the X-Men has a disability, “perceived or actual, mental, physical, or behavioral,” wrote Michael M. Chemers, Center for Arts in Society, Carnegie Mellon University in an essay in Disability Studies Quarterly in 2004. The X-Men, he wrote “confound the hyper-ableism that many superheroes of that era promoted.”

As for deafness, Hawkeye from the Avengers series becomes deaf. Recently, the Marvel illustrator began incorporating sign language into his panels. Marvel also created Blue Ear, who has hearing devices, in response to a mother’s request for a superhero her deaf son could relate to.

Last October Marvel teamed up with the Children’s Hearing Institute in New York to create a superhero with hearing loss, Sapheara, who has cochlear implants. The superhero and the partnership was the idea of Dr. Ronald Hoffman, director of the Ear Institute at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. The idea is for children with hearing loss to have a superhero they can identify with, as well as to use the Sapheara comic to educate children about hearing loss and to create tolerance for hearing loss.

Sapheara and the Blue Ear teamed up with Iron Man in a special one-shot comic, which is given out to children at the Ear Institute. The Institute’s hallways are decorated with images of Ironman and Sapheara.

Positive images of disability are important to all of us, but especially to children whose “differentness” can be psychologically as well as physically disabling.

Part of growing up is realizing that everyone has disabilities of one kind or another–some physical, some  psychological, some obvious, some covert. It’s here–in the example of these differently abled and often differently disabled superheroes– that teaching children about the acceptance of ‘differentness’ of every kind will lead not only to tolerance of and patience with each other about what they can’t do but admiration for what they can do.

This post first appeared on Psychology Today What I Hear, April 23, 2015.

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