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A lying hero and a truthful villain: what Daredevil is saying about secret identity

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

A busy month has meant that I've been unable to mainline as much Daredevil as some of my coworkers, but I was struck by a certain dichotomy as I finished episode 10, "Nelson v. Murdock." Daredevil has given us a villain who is entirely honest with those closest to him, and a hero who has been lying to his loved ones about his identity and perceptions for years.

The show establishes, and re-establishes, that Wilson Fisk's romantic relationship with Vanessa is predicated upon expectations of complete honesty. Right hand man Wesley recognizes exactly when his boss needs support that only Vanessa can provide. Fisk gets that support because of how honest he's been with the two people closest to him.

On the other hand, it's entirely possible that spending most of his life as a human lie detector has warped Matt Murdock's perception of how other people perceive falsehood. He hasn't told his friend of half a decade that he isn't strictly blind in the way that everyone thinks. Even when his coworkers decide that it would be a good idea to threaten the public image of a businessman whom he knows to be a ruthless mob boss, Matt attempts to divert their actions rather than telling them the truth.

Instead of protecting them, lying to his friends has actually harmed them

Naturally, this truth/falsehood divide doesn't sum up or even describe the overall behavior of Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk. Fisk freely lies to his enemies and the public; Matt refuses to bend the truth for the law. But it does say some things about the quintessentially superheroic idea of the secret identity, a first for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Until now, Marvel's cinematic efforts have simply sidestepped the whole idea of secret identity, following the emphatic final scene of Iron Man like a call to arms. Thor is simply himself. Bruce Banner's anger problem is publicly known. Black Widow and Captain America are internationally infamous government agents who pretty much only interact with other government agents, and whose personal information (and by association, Hawkeye's) is deliberately exposed at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The secret identity is indelibly associated with the idea of the superhero, and we all know why they have them. It's a protective measure taken to insulate their loved ones from reprisal from their enemies. This idea is supported by coincidence: The secret identities of most well-known superheroes are either famous figures or familiar people to their biggest enemies: Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are recognizable by any stranger on the street. Peter Parker and Harry Osborne are friends, while Clark Kent and Lex Luthor have interacted in the course of Clark's professional life. The idea that a major villain would instantly recognize a superhero's naked face if revealed is so universal that Justice League Unlimited's Lex Luthor/The Flash mind-swap episode got one of the show's cleverest jokes out of it.

However, a superhero's need to lie to the public about their identity doesn't necessarily translate to a need to lie to their loved ones. If the public knows who Spider-Man is, that's a danger to Mary Jane. But so long as they have an established relationship, it's a danger to her whether or not she knows who Spider-Man is. As Foggy angrily points out to Matt in "Nelson v. Murdock," there's no possible way that he and Karen wouldn't be, at best, brought up on charges of conspiracy if Daredevil were to be arrested and tried, or worse, targeted by trained killers if his identity became known to criminals. The idea of them having no knowledge of or involvement in Matt's vigilante work would seem ridiculous in the extreme to any outsider.

Instead of protecting them, lying to his friends has actually harmed them, for all the times they've feared the actions of the Man in the Black Mask or for Matt's safety as a disabled man living in a crime-ridden neighborhood. In fact, it's actually put them in danger, as they walked into situations more risky than they could know, or when Karen goes out to find Matt on a bomb-ridden night in Hell's Kitchen. Because of his honesty, Fisk's associates, even those not directly involved in illegal activities, have been given the freedom to choose whether or not to be endangered by becoming close to him.

Daredevil isn't doing away with secret identity entirely, as other Marvel films have. But it isn't taking the concept for granted either, and that's rare to see in Marvel projects so far. In fact, it's rare to see a movie or show where the betrayal and confusion of realizing that a loved one has been leading a secret (if superheroic) life isn't rushed through to get to the imminent make-out or final battle montage. And it's pretty refreshing.

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