Interview with Stephen E. Henderson
(January 2018)

Last year, the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law published an article by Professor Stephen E. Henderson from the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

In the article, Henderson analyzed the "moral vigilantism" of Matt Murdock and his activities as a superhero.

If you haven't read it, go read it and come back:

LINK: Daredevil: Legal (and Moral?) Vigilante

Here we discuss his background, how Matt Murdock, Wilson Fisk and other characters compare and what it really means to be a "moral vigilante". Many thanks to Prof. Henderson for his time, and hope you enjoy the interview!

Kuljit Mithra: I stumbled upon your article late last year and it’s always interesting to see these types of academic papers about Daredevil. Can you give a brief bio and what was your interest in writing this analysis?

Stephen E. Henderson: Absolutely. In my day job, I’m the Judge Haskell A. Holloman Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma. My field is primarily criminal law, everything from the core requirements of criminality to the constitutional restraints on policing and adjudication. These are inherently fascinating topics, so it’s not a bad gig. But it’s just a gig all the same.

So, like most, I think, I spend my ‘off’ hours with friends and family, looking to be entertained and to learn something about this bizarre world in which we live. I haven’t recently found a much more rewarding source than Netflix’s Daredevil. Add to this that one of my too-early-deceased mentors and friends was a great fan of comics, including Daredevil, and it seemed an opportunity to combine an outside interest with the day job: are there moral vigilantes, and, if so, is Matt Murdock one?

Mithra: You do a great summary of Daredevil from the comics, the movie and show. Now I know you aren’t a fan of the movie, but of the comics and show, which one are you more drawn to? For what reasons?

Henderson: Great question, and probably time for a confession, because I don’t want to seem something I’m not. I’m a casual comic fan. I enjoy them a great deal, but don’t know them like real fans do. (Your amazing website is a testament to what real fans know!) So, I came to this backwards—first I watched the show, then I went back and read Daredevil, both Stan Lee’s original and issues thereafter, and then Frank Miller’s modernization. (And, yes, I also watched that Ben Affleck deal, and I’m still trying to forget that.)

Now that I’ve done that (enjoyable) homework, am I more drawn to the comics or the show? I think I’ve got to call it a toss-up. Of course Stan Lee’s work is mired in its era, and that can be embarrassing, especially when I see it through my daughters’ eyes—the “gorgeous Karen Page” is not easy to stomach. But we all improve—if we even do—by standing on the shoulders of giants, and these great stories began with Lee. The next giant seems to be Frank Miller, whose characters are tremendous and, it seems to me, get even better over his years. And then comes the show, which seems the sum of all of these parts. So, I’ll call it a tie!

Mithra: You touch on a lot of themes in Daredevil, but considering your background, I’m curious to get your thoughts on how both the comics and show represent the law. Can the law ever be represented properly and keep it “exciting” for readers/viewers?

Henderson: Definitely. And other than the occasional unforced error, the show does a nice job in this regard. Matt and Foggy have to discuss some strategy, so why not have them cite the actual New York Penal Law? It’s an issue whether or not The Punisher deserves death—is that justice?—and so why not discuss extradition to Delaware, which at the time had the death penalty? Fantasy is most powerful when it touches real life, and the law is merely one more way in which an author can do that.

I know that Breaking Bad took advantage of a chemist as a meth-cook consultant. Why not do the same for the law? (Because, frankly, yes I do want that gig.)

Mithra: The main focus is vigilantism and I like how you also do some comparisons with Wilson Fisk, alongside Matt Murdock and Punisher. Is there truly no good guy or bad guy here?

Henderson: One of the hardest aspects of writing the article was that vigilantism is a question of philosophy of law, and philosophy is really hard. (Perhaps especially when one is not a philosopher!) So, I tried to do some good work without overplaying my hand.

Still, even as the show did a great job of humanizing most everyone, I think our basic human intuition is clearly right: Wilson Fisk is a bad guy. Sure, as lawyer and social reformer Bryan Stevenson reminds us, nobody is as bad as the worst thing they have done. That’s true for Fisk too. But Fisk does really, really bad things. And he does them often.

What is hard, then, is to articulate a moral philosophy of just what it is that makes Fisk bad. Obviously it is not merely that he breaks the law—any vigilante must do that, and I agree with those who have argued some vigilantism can be morally justified. Is it that Fisk kills? Well, there are deep philosophical debates about the circumstances in which it can be morally justified to kill, but I agree with those who think a moral vigilante might intentionally kill.

So, I’m confident Fisk is a bad guy, but I’m not yet sure about Matt and Frank. I know I’m personally drawn to them both, and to their internal moral debate, but I don’t think legal or moral philosophy has yet worked out answers for us, or even—more realistically—a full debate. So, there remains good work to be done.

Mithra: I won’t spoil the conclusion of the article, but I wanted to know if your opinion on Punisher has changed since his show came out.

Henderson: This sounds like a great topic for another article! More seriously, without trying to dodge the question, I think I’ve got to give a lame answer: I’m not sure. I too won’t spoil the contents of that show, but there are certainly important differences, including the core of what Punisher is fighting for. Problem is, without a careful, coherent test for what constitutes a moral vigilante, one still can’t answer this ultimate question. My view is that we still lack that test.

Mithra: Thanks for your time.

Henderson: A real pleasure!

(c) 2018 Kuljit Mithra & Stephen E. Henderson
Daredevil:The Man Without Fear

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