A quick note before the piece proper: while I don’t go into specific plot points here there’s perhaps “thematic spoilers” regarding Season 2 of Daredevil, which is to say I do go into how I feel some of themes of the season resolve. So, I don’t know. That happens.
In a summer blockbuster season poised to be a war of battles between superhero ideologies last weekend’s opening salvo may ultimately prove to be an early and decisive victory.
This week Batman and Superman will duke it out over “what it means to be a man” and in May, Captain America and Iron Man will clobber each other over government oversight, but Dawn of Justice and Civil War both have their work cut out for them, because the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil has the Man Without Fear and The Punisher waging an ideological fist fight between life and death. It’s a conflict that not only proves exciting for a Daredevil story, but ultimately necessary for the health of the superhero narrative at large.
There is no perfect superhero. Whether their code is one of great responsibility or sheer willpower or truth and justice there is no superhero that can take on every shade of evil world has to offer. For instance, heroic as he is there’s a cruelty to Hell’s Kitchen that Daredevil’s acrobatic beatings just can’t account for. There are crimes that a black eye can’t avenge. Rather than cover up this glaring hole in Daredevil’s modus operandi and let it slowly eat away at the credibility of the character and his world Daredevil Season 2 shines a skull-shaped spotlight on it in the form of The Punisher.
The Punisher is the kind of guy who’d call Batman out on his bullshit and blow the Joker’s brains out with a sawed off. He ends crime by ending criminals. Season 2 of Daredevil is largely built on top of the fundamental conflict between The Punisher’s more absolute methodology and Daredevil’s “Beat The Shit Out Of ‘Em And Let God And/Or The Criminal Justice System Sort ‘Em Out While They Recover In A Hospital Bed” strategy.
As a society we want to believe in Daredevil’s methods because in a sense civilization depends on Daredevil’s methods. Civilization depends on a belief there’s a good reason Batman doesn’t kill the Joker. We want to believe that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, but it’s an argument that never completely closes the loop around that last gnawing inch, that feral, animal cruelty of the world that defies logic and philosophy. There’s a certain inhuman brutality the world can display that Batman and Daredevil just can’t salve. A brutality that can seemingly only be punished with an equal and opposite severity.
Enter The Punisher.
Jon Bernthal turns in what may be his best performance, no small feat for an actor of his caliber, as The Punisher. His Frank Castle is the fourth live action iteration of the character but the first to really take on The Punisher’s larger mythological connotations – the personification of the Old Testament justice that stirs in our gut in the face of particularly pungent sadism. The Punisher’s world is one of absolutes. It’s a streamlined world free of checks and balances but it’s also free of accountability. It’s free of aspiration and hope and ascendance because it depends on reacting to the world we have rather than striving for the one we want.
Daredevil’s methods may leave victims wanting, and it may let the worst society has to offer off easy, but they also account for higher ideals like hope and redemption. Daredevil’s ideology hinges on a faith in the world that The Punisher’s doesn’t allow for.
Matt Murdock and Frank Castle’s philosophical fisticuffs boast no shortage of thrills and excitement but they also prove incredibly thoughtful. The master stroke of the show’s second season is that Daredevil is never proven right and the Punisher is never proven wrong. The end result is a nuanced and open-ended meditation on the imperfections of justice that proves to be one of the best stories Marvel has ever put on film.