Given that this piece involves Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition so prone to amateur diagnosis you would think half the world were heading towards eternal rule by autistic overlords (an autistocracy), I feel like it’s important to open with a disclaimer — this is a fictional character analysis, undertaken by someone graced with more expertise in reading an ungodly amount of comic books than in any psychological or developmental fields. Applying the ‘methodology’ I use here to an actual person would not only be terribly unwise and misinformed, it would also make you kind of a dick. Not that I myself am exempt from being kind of a dick, but I choose to think that’s separate from my desperation to prove that Daredevil and I have something (oh please, please, anything) in common.

My only ‘credentials’ are that as a teenager I was diagnosed with mild AS, and that I’m incredibly nerdy. The first I’ll back up with a psych report that bought me many an essay extension in college. The second is probably pretty evident in that after I re-watched the first season of Daredevil before bingeing on the second, I decided to write this thing. ‘Nuff said.

On the subject of my bingeing, this is pretty much purely an analysis of the Netflix incarnation of Matt Murdock. Both because that’s the incarnation which inspired this train of thought, and because going through fifty plus years of character history, and the various interpretations within, is a feat of geek masochism beyond even me. Finally, there will probably be some spoilers. The solution is to watch more Daredevil. It’s surprising how many problems you can answer with that.

My main point here will be that, whatever the intentions of the show’s writers or Charlie Cox, it’s easy enough to think of Cox’s Daredevil as having Asperger’s Syndrome — often colloquially referred to as ‘autism-lite’ — or otherwise as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum, since it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference even for people a lot smarter than I am.[i] It’s something that occurred to me after a serious binge of the show and looking a bit more at the way Matt Murdock is portrayed by Charlie Cox. This is more along the lines of what you’d call ‘headcanon’ than anything else; Charlie Cox isn’t returning my calls so I can’t confirm whether this was his actual intention.

In his defence, the man probably gets a lot of calls

Hopefully it will also serve well enough as a general character analysis, since part of the reason why I like this idea, and perhaps this show, so much is that it demonstrates that being on the autistic spectrum does not constitute the whole of someone’s personality, and further discredits the rather narrow portrayal of such persons in a lot of media.

There are several elements of Cox’s Daredevil that could be interpreted as signs of autism. Some are traits he shares with his on-screen antagonist, Wilson Fisk, who is more commonly ascribed with some form of autism by various sources — for example by Zack Budryk’s article, ‘Fiskal Responsibility’[ii], which points out that Fisk is very autism-coded, and a more nuanced, realistic portrayal of an autistic character than you would normally find.

Both Matt and Fisk can be very calm and placid, but also explode in sudden fits of temper when provoked. Though it is more subtle with Matt, there is a certain unusual cadence to their speech, evidence of an almost pedantic level of care when talking. They even have similar ‘tics’ — Fisk rubs his cufflinks when nervous, and Matt grips his cane with visible force when stressed. So is it possible that Matt, like his antagonistic foil, possesses traits typical of a person with autism? This random dork on the internet says “Maybe, please read my stuff.”

It’s possible (probable) that I was just out of the loop as a child, but I’m pretty sure famous Supreme Court justices are not a typical interest of pre-teens. Yet in the episode ‘Cut Man’, we see a flashback of Matt Murdock practicing his Braille by reading about Thurgood Marshall, proceeding to quote the man to his father. It’s possible this is some sort of homework assignment — as the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court, Marshall is certainly an historic figure — but Matt displays a keen interest in Marshall, evident in his reading, that his father notes as impressive.

This affinity for Marshall lasts into adulthood, as we see in the later episode ‘Nelson V. Murdock’. We can see from Foggy’s reaction to Matt saying he’s been reading Thurgood Marshall that he already knows what quote is coming, as Matt makes to dissuade Foggy from working for an evil law firm (redundant?) just for free bagels. I’d say this also demonstrates a simplistic understanding of morality, because where free bagels are concerned, everything becomes a grey area. But the things to take from the scene is Foggy’s ‘here we go again’ groan and “Oh shit, not Marshall”, and later finishing the quote and telling Matt (and us) that Matt has read it to him “a million times”.

Tragically, Matt couldn’t appreciate that his childhood hero used to be quite the looker.

By this point Matt is interning at a prestigious law firm and so it’s rather less surprising for him to be quoting Marshall than it was when he was a child, but the fact that he’s been reading that quote for over a decade, and quite frequently going by Foggy’s exasperated reaction, is indicative of an unusually focused interest — narrow interests being one of the more obvious traits of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome.[iii] In this case, unsurprisingly for a vigilante/lawyer, Matt’s lasting and intense interest is justice. Or perhaps more accurately, JUSTICE, preferably screamed out into the night sky while standing over bloodied ne’er-do-wells.

It’s a common misconception that aspergic/autistic people are all possessed of some inborn ‘special talent’; this is usually confusion over someone’s particular focus on something resulting in a great knowledge of whatever that something is. Matt’s early interest in right and wrong becomes the basis for a huge portion of his adult life, as well as several prohibitively long conversations with his priest. That keen focus on questions of morality resulted in someone who is acknowledged as both a skilled lawyer and hallway-clearing ninja.

It’s in Matt’s rigid moral code — itself sometimes seen as an indicator of Asperger’s[iv] — that we can see signs of his inflexibility, a common autistic trait. Matt believes in the necessity of his vigilantism, and he often viciously beats the criminals he comes across, often torturing them for information simply because his abilities as a human polygraph make it the most expedient method to extract information from them — people cannot lie to Matt to make him stop. In the episode ‘Speak of the Devil’, Matt tears through low-level drug dealers both for clues and to vent his palpable rage. We can see from these actions that Matt has a certain disdain for all criminals, though he saves his most vicious actions for those who target the defenceless — his aforementioned rampage is in retaliation for the murder of a particularly vulnerable individual. But this often brutal behaviour contrasts with his other life — that of a lawyer known for his strong sense of ethics.

And his improbably well-styled hair.

The paradox of Matt’s double life is brought up several times. Notably, in ‘World on Fire’, Matt responds to the very straightforward “Lawyer by day, vigilante by night. The hell does that work?” with a self-effacing “Yeah, I’ll let you know when I figure it out.” Even Daredevil recognises that his being Daredevil is more than a little weird, even by whatever standards you would usually apply to someone using enhanced senses and martial arts training for… aggressive community work. Foggy also confronts Matt on this issue with much less good humour in ‘Nelson V. Murdock’.

But no matter how many times the questionable ethics of his activities are brought up, Matt doesn’t pull a Spider-Man and dump his ‘beating people’ outfit in the bin. He maintains that sometimes the law isn’t enough. It’s an incredible rigidity in thinking — when the law fails him, Matt ultimately decides that his personal ethics supersede the confines of the law, and seemingly uses a form of ‘doublethink’ to let himself continue as both lawyer and vigilante. Admittedly, not everyone who feels let down by the legal system is a superhuman who is also part of a quasi-mystical martial arts legacy, so perhaps this is the natural reaction.

The moral code Matt uses is something he sticks to with conviction. His major disagreement with his mentor, Stick, is that Matt refuses to kill. He will go so far as to defend criminals, even murderers, from being killed by others. There are only three instances in which Matt knowingly pursues the death of another, and all are fuelled by extreme circumstances inciting him to rage. Otherwise, Matt considers killing as a course of action only where it would prevent the death and suffering of many others, and even then he clearly suffers over even thinking such a thing. It’s a rule born out of his Catholicism, yes, but Matt adheres to this particular tenet more than others.

Matt has subtle character development over the course of the first season in that he gradually accepts the help of others and their advice. Earlier on, he tends to dismiss outside opinions. It is frequently brought up that he should be wearing something sturdier when fighting dangerous criminals, but Matt simply declares that any sort of armour would only slow him down without bothering to really debate things beyond that or to investigate any alternatives. It’s not until ‘The Path of the Righteous’, near the very end of the season, that Matt decides this is an avenue worth pursuing, and only after having personally encountered a special lightweight armour that he feels could aid him without inhibiting his many, many spin-kicks.

Or this sweet jump-punch/crotch shot combo.

There are also many cases of the ‘Murdock’ in the Nelson & Murdock law firm making unilateral decisions for the company. In ‘Rabbit in a Snowstorm’, Matt first rejects a client he feels is shady while Foggy, his legal partner, wants to accept the fat cheque on offer. Of course, Matt isn’t wrong about the man that’s come to see them — who makes snide comments to their secretary about her dropped murder charge, that he logically shouldn’t know about, and doesn’t give his real name or adequately explain who he works for — or about the man he’s hiring them to defend out of nowhere, who turns out to be a contract killer.

Subsequently, when Matt learns taking the case could bring him further insight into the city’s rocketing criminal activity, he makes an abrupt about-face without explaining anything to Foggy about his reasoning for doing so. By this point, Foggy has been talking to the prospective client and is profoundly unnerved by his conversation with someone who is clearly a psychopath. Then Matt strides in, explains that they need the money, something Foggy knows is not Matt’s main concern, and decides that they’re taking the case.

Even in the first episode, Matt is making the decisions, beginning with their very first appearance on-screen when Matt decides they’re taking the office without actually discussing things with Foggy, who clearly wants to talk it over before they move in. And yes, Karen Page needs lawyers regardless of whether she can pay or not, and her imprisonment would be a miscarriage of justice. But while Matt knows, for certain, that Karen didn’t commit the murder she is accused of, he can’t explain this to Foggy. He just steamrolls over him and convinces him to take the case, despite Foggy having very pragmatic reasons not to — not only is there no financial benefit, Karen’s case initially looks completely impossible to swing in their favour. Foggy is unaware of Matt’s abilities as a lie-detector so, to him, Matt is insisting they go on a hunch.

Pictured: The appropriate response

Despite being friends with Foggy for several years, and despite them being incredibly close (seriously, they’re basically married), he never willingly lets Foggy in on the secrets that increasingly become tied up in their legal firm, only when circumstances force him to. So Foggy gets explanations that involve vague hunches and sudden ethical reversals, sometimes given in relation to taking on murder cases. And Matt makes it pretty clear he’s not going to budge on these matters, leaving Foggy to essentially throw his hands up in the air and roll with it.

Admittedly, you can’t blame Foggy for playing second banana to his best friend — not only is Matt a demonstrably strong personality, he’s also academically successful, implied to be romantically so off-screen (you cannot call Matt’s on-screen romances ‘successful’), and he’s played by Charlie Cox. If Matt Murdock were your best friend, I’d kill you and take your place, but also, you’d probably have self-esteem issues.

The really sad thing is that Foggy drinks to forget that he’s not the guy he’s drinking next to.

Of course, Matt’s occasional lack of social graces or empathy often occurs in situations where it might be intentional on his part. In ‘Shadows In The Glass’, when discovering that Foggy and Karen have been running their own investigation into Fisk, Matt makes a point of tearing down their reasoning and exposing every flaw in their plans. It seems like he only just stops short of outright calling them stupid. It’s clear that he acts this way only because he thinks his friends are in over their heads and, when he can’t convince them to stop, he quickly takes charge and establishes ground rules for their investigation. In ‘Speak of the Devil’, Matt bluntly advises that a client should capitulate to the pressure to abandon her tenement and take a buy-out, feeling that her safety is at risk otherwise.

Clearly Matt has a ‘cruel to be kind’ mindset when dealing with people he thinks are making dangerous life choices. People other than himself, anyway. Sure, Matt is pretty cruel to himself about his dangerous lifestyle, but that’s mostly about how it affects others, and also an excuse to get some of the Church’s fancy espresso off of Father Lantom — the real ongoing conspiracy of season one.

Matt not only dominates most of the conversations in which he engages, even excluding the ones where he’s dangling someone off of a roof or punctuating his sentences with punches (‘punch-uation’, if you will), he utilises this sometimes socially grating quality to succeed in the courtroom. Matt is acknowledged as an excellent lawyer and a lot of that prestige seems to resolve around his speaking skills. Matt is generally trusted with making the big speeches in courtroom scenes, to the point that Foggy is terrified when he doesn’t show up to make the opening statement in ‘Guilty as Sin’ — it’s also only after being forced to make the statement himself that Foggy realises his own skills as a lawyer, implying that it’s generally Matt who handles in-court work.

Later in the same episode, Foggy gets Matt to do the questioning, admitting that it’s an area where Matt is stronger. Part of this could be because Matt’s senses let him read people very well, but he doesn’t even actually question the witness in this instance, instead using the opportunity to make a speech. In ‘Rabbit in a Snowstorm’, Matt’s final summation for a case is acknowledged as “a hell of a speech”, and even when he takes a solid minute of seemingly inexplicable silence (to listen to the jury’s heartbeats), Foggy absolutely trusts that he knows what he’s doing.

Admittedly, Foggy is pretty biased. Look at the love in those eyes. If Matt could only see that, this would be a very different show

There’s a certain element of both Cox’s and Skylar Gaertner’s (child Matt) performance that is especially notable in scenes with Matt’s dad or with other born-and-bred New Yorkers — it’s that they don’t really share elements of that accent. Jack Murdock has a very strong ‘New Yawk’ accent and there’s no hint of that in his son. Both ‘Matts’ speak with very precise, clear diction.

You could put this down to the actors, but it’s worth noting — if, say, for some profoundly strange reason, you wanted to do an overly-long Daredevil character study that’s also about why the protagonist might be a high-functioning autistic — that autism does affect speaking, sometimes to the point where a child will have an accent differing from that of their peer group.[v] Matt’s clipped tones, especially evident in court scenes where he has prepared what he has to say (‘Semper Fidelis’ shows him rehearsing his opening statement), are typical of Asperger’s speech patterns — speaking idiosyncrasies that also include verbosity and an unusually sophisticated vocabulary at a young age[vi], characteristics Matt also displays.

Nearing the end, and I feel compelled to add another disclaimer: if you’re autistic, don’t blind yourself with acid or radioactive material. I mean, don’t blind yourself if you’re not, either; that’s also important. However, it’s not just general life advice, but has particular relevance here: people with Asperger’s are often over or under-sensitive to sensory input.[vii] Seriously, put down the nuclear waste. Matt’s abilities aren’t a combination of being blind and being an aspie, because if they were I’d have seriously purchased some acid by now. But the way he reacts to the increased input is pretty typical.

In ‘Into the Ring’ and ‘Stick’, we see that, as a child, the noises Matt heard caused what essentially look like panic attacks, especially in the latter episode. In ‘Dogs to a Gunfight’, Matt reacts to a sudden change in his senses by screaming for an unseen period of time and then being very still, staring blankly, until his hearing returns to normal. This high stress response is reminiscent of how those with autism and Asperger’s are found to respond to sensory issues.[viii][ix] Matt also comments in ‘Stick’ that he owns silk sheets because “cotton feels like sandpaper on [his] skin”. Tactile sensitivity is also pretty common, with some commenting that certain tactile sensations make their “nervous system whimper”.[x]

“Ugh. What fabric softener do you use?”

The way Matt deals with this issue, or is taught to, can be seen as similar to the way some aspies learn to tune out certain sounds[xi], though brought to an extreme. In his adult life, Matt has learned to focus on particular sounds, to the point where it seems like he misses things because he is not concentrating on them, rather than struggling with hearing too much at once like when he was a child. For instance it is shown, in ‘Speak of the Devil’, ‘Guilty as Sin’ and ‘The Dark At The End Of The Tunnel’, that Matt focuses on people’s heartbeats so much that, when it is unexpectedly not there while they are moving (and trying to kill him), they are essentially invisible to him unless he finds something else to focus on — this despite the fact that Matt is shown to be able to pick up on several other elements of a person, from smell to the temperature of their skin, several times in the series when he has time to focus on them.

On the opposite end of the scale from over-sensitivity, it is repeatedly brought up that Matt has an exceptionally high pain threshold, a trait possibly inherited from his boxer father. However, this is also common to aspies[xii], for example one case in which a boy did not react with much distress to several days with a twisted testicle.[xiii] This is especially relevant considering that Matt treats cotton sheets as a more unpleasant prospect than any number of the blows he takes over the series, and often deals with his many injuries with only cursory complaints.

Something fun that I discovered while researching AS and autism for this: it turns out that, of the several conditions that often come along with AS, one of them is synaesthesia, where people perceive one sense within a different sensory system, such as seeing colours when hearing sounds.[xiv] In ‘World On Fire’ we see that, from Matt’s perspective, his enhanced senses show him a “kind of impressionistic painting” composed of various shades of red (hence the episode title). On re-watching, someone pointed out to me that, symbolism aside, it’s weird that there are colours involved in Matt’s perception of the world at all, let alone that they’re varying shades of red. Even if it’s just coincidence, and it’s certainly possible that everything in this article is, I thought it was pretty cool how this particular example of unusual sensory processing managed to link up with my theory here.

How different synaesthetes interpret Rosario Dawson has been known to vary.

That’s about all I have to say on this, at least until I think of something I’ll regret not putting in. Again, it’s just a bit of fun and I’m as far from any kind of professional as you can get, so don’t go pointing at someone you know, then pointing at bits of this, then screaming “Aspie!” or something. I’d be flattered if you took me that seriously, but I’d also heavily advise against doing this in any situation whatsoever, let alone one as potentially offensive as that. Hope you enjoyed. Go watch Daredevil again and get back to me so we can chat about it.

[i] http://www.journal-imab-bg.org/issue-2012/book3/JofIMAB2012vol18b3p334-336.pdf Journal of IMAB — Annual Proceeding (Scientific Papers) 2012, vol. 18, book 3 Stefan Todorov, Mariana Arnaoudova, p. 334–336

[ii] http://www.themarysue.com/fiskal-responsibilty/ Fiskal Responsibility by Zack Budryk

[iii] http://www.autism-help.org/aspergers-characteristics-signs.html

[iv] Understanding Autism by Susan Dodd, p. 136

[v] Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals by Tony Attwood, p.79

[vi] http://www.autism-help.org/aspergers-characteristics-signs.html

[vii] http://www.aspergerfoundation.org.uk/infosheets/sensoryissues.pdf

[viii] http://www.autism-help.org/adults-aspergers-stress.htm

[ix] http://www.autism-help.org/comorbid-sensory-problems.htm

[x] https://befcfdde-a-62cb3a1a-s-sites.googlegroups.com/site/blakemorelab/Articles/Bla_AS_BC06.pdf?attachauth=ANoY7coOIuqS2o0d0iZIYexUvEjLOzt2eh4sCl20_JJatFtaIXIH_X4MqfRHJAHJk0_9X82nRca5G0F8InRahXBvPSna1Qs7i9fctaoSuHx1RfY3cpQ21WM2eRAo72QWUkxuBlBP1mw3ZIfJ5QaTzCjRlnngtqNac3MgNjdDqC1HRhcT8hmyHKem3ocWh1j8F_5BEXYfuxe8QXxXLWWsDOedFzd9zsPw7WInzjfIY5V1DWM1YV8TAJ0%3D&attredirects=2 S.-J. Blakemore et al. / Brain and Cognition 61 (2006) p.5

[xi] http://www.aspergerfoundation.org.uk/infosheets/sensoryissues.pdf

[xii] http://www.aspergerfoundation.org.uk/infosheets/sensoryissues.pdf p.4

[xiii] The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome Tony Attwood, p.301

[xiv] The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome Tony Attwood, p.301

Originally published at rorywithanohwhy.wordpress.com on April 4, 2016.



Writes between bouts of teaching and nerdery.

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