(WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Season 1 and Season 2 of Netflix's Daredevil. You've been warned.)
Andrew Taslitz, in his essay “Daredevil and the Death Penalty," states, quite simply, that “empathy makes it hard to enjoy another’s pain." It is a commonly shared idea that good people are not sadistic in such a way that they enjoy watching someone experience pain or suffering, despite whatever pain said person may have caused themselves. There are two sides of this pain when it comes down to the death penalty. Taslitz asks whether or not “the death sentence is [...] a punishment that [anyone] has the right to impose,” and further, if the death sentence is a punishment that anyone should have to endure enforcing.
The newest season of Marvel’s #Daredevil came out almost a year ago — a beautiful 13 episodes, rich with violence and fist-fights and the wonderfully deep antiheroes we have come to love from the show: this season’s being The Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Elektra (Elodie Yung), along with an ominous horde of ninjas known as The Hand.
Daredevil is a superhero-crime television show based on the Marvel comic about a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock (played by a charming Charlie Cox), living in the turmoil of Hell’s Kitchen, New York. By day, he is the second half of the law firm Nelson and Murdock, but by night he shuts down crime as the masked vigilante the city has named Daredevil, or The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. The show follows Murdock as he struggles to end corruption in the city using the legal system to his advantage and staying true to his devoutly Catholic beliefs.
Pointedly, the season dealt a lot with the virtues of Matt Murdock — his refusal to kill and his firm belief in redemption, even for those who are directly opposing him and his ideals — and how they play a role in his heroism. Daredevil is imbued with several Catholic symbols and motifs in order to illuminate Matt’s inner belief system and point out central themes of the show — the main concern being the immorality of putting a permanent stop (death) to even those who are evil. One of the characteristics of Matt’s Catholicism is his faith in a higher power, which plays a large role in the season when it comes to The Punisher, a man who believes that it is in his power to “[kill] those who need to be killed.”
What’s Cooking In Hell’s Kitchen: A Critical Look Into The Punisher And The Death Penalty
In the second season, Frank Castle is introduced as an unknown shooter, taking out the gangs and cartels that corrupt Hell’s Kitchen, making its streets unsafe for the innocents that live there. The city begins to refer to him as “The Punisher,” massacring gangs, cartels and thugs for his own personal vendetta in the guise of “punishing” them for their wrongdoings. He works as an almost opposing force to Daredevil, viewing him as “a half-measure.”
It may be assumed, therefore, that The Punisher is the bad guy, but he isn't. Instead, he's someone to have pity on, characterized this way before he is even presented as a character (in the first episode, when we only know of the existence of the character). The show does this through the dialogue and rumors surrounding Punisher. On multiple occasions characters call The Punisher “crazy” or “insane," establishing a sense that he lacks empathy — this necessary, human attribute that would enable him to understand right from wrong. The show puts an emphasis on the belief that what he’s doing is, in fact, wrong through the gore-filled imagery of his massacres (the Mexican cartel, for example, who were hung on meat hooks and left to die, not to mention the bloody mess the Irish cartel was left in).
But, to The Punisher, the deaths of the thugs, murderers, thieves and all manner of gang members that are on his hands are a sort of death sentence; one which he has called himself to enforce. It is his belief that these people need to be killed in order to ensure that they are never given another opportunity to hurt someone. While his massacres characterize him as gruesome, full of anger and hatred, he is still not a character for the audience to hate. He has been through too much to be hated — with war and the death of his family, including his young daughter. However, he is definitely broken, missing something that would enable him to understand the hypocrisy with which he is doing things — and we as an audience pity him for it.
In spite of this, pity is not the same as sympathy. The audience is supposed to recognize the point The Punisher is making — that there is evil in the city that needs to be put to a stop, which Daredevil cannot defeat by himself. Pity him for the loss of his family, but disagree with the way he is getting rid of corruption by “making the streets run red.”
Part of our disagreement is supposed to come from Grotto. Little, Irish Elliot Grote, or “Grotto” as he is referred to, was the lone survivor of The Punisher’s annihilation of the Irish gang (at least the part which was in Hell’s Kitchen). Grotto is another character to pity. With his gang massacred by The Punisher, he is very visibly terrified for his life, next on the Punisher's kill list. Pushing past his criminal history, Grotto hoped to get out of Hell’s Kitchen and start a new life with the help of Nelson and Murdock, Matt’s trusted law firm. Unfortunately, The Punisher got to him, and in the rooftop scene in New York’s Finest he is shot and killed. During the scene, The Punisher holds a gun to Grotto’s head and forces him to admit to murdering an old woman, trying to convince Daredevil of a need for Grotto to die.
However, because the audience is supposed to pity Grotto and find him to be pathetic, this is not very convincing; even ignoring the way in which Grotto admits to his crime, groveling on the floor at the feet of a man who holds a gun to his head, apologizing. This is persuasive evidence from the show that The Punisher is brutal, unsympathetic and that his argument is wrong, because in spite of there being a chance of Grotto returning to his criminal lifestyle, there was also a chance of him turning his life around and getting out of the corruption of Hell’s Kitchen.
The argument Daredevil presents through Grotto is that there is no one person who is entirely evil or bad, or who has done entirely evil or bad things in their life — it’s not possible. In Grotto’s funeral scene, the priest — Father Lantom (Peter McRobbie) — puts forth the idea that “one person is not just one person” because “in each of us there is a world." This suggests that the Punisher’s application of justice — his own “death penalty” dealt to the criminals around him — is a murder of worlds. No one person is black and white because each one is so complex as to have layer upon layer of personality, thought and hidden depth.
While there is no justification for murderers, there is also no justification for loss of life— any life — or the terrorizing of a city. The strategy used by Daredevil to persuade the audience of this viewpoint is to convince us that the Punisher’s is wrong via characterizing him as a half-sane killer who does not recognize the need for redemption or mercy.
No Rest For The Wicked
According to the 2017 fact sheet from the American Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), capital punishment has declined in recent years, but has not altogether died out. As outlined by the DPIC, there are many logical, economic reasons to outlaw the death penalty, such as the fact that enforcement of the death penalty costs states more than if they simply “[punished] all first-degree murderers [to] life in prison without parole." However, an important issue that this source fails to address — as most do — is the question of morality, which is the heart of the problem, and which is an important part of anti-death penalty discussions that Marvel’s Daredevil re-introduces into this public debate.
Moral reasons against the death penalty are, more often than not, glossed over by society as being too “religious," and therefore dismissible. However ungrounded moral reasoning may be — and while it is hard to argue on a basis of morality or personal values — it is important to address issues from this standpoint: Humanity follows a moral, emotional structure; religious or not, it is existent. We do what we feel is right.
Daredevil addresses this moral structure in its second season, as Daredevil and The Punisher battle between which is the “right” heroism. While both have understandable arguments for and against the death sentence, ultimately, Daredevil wins out. The Punisher goes to jail, the victory is given to the police, and the bad guys (for the moment) are dealt with. It presents a strong argument from the show that the good guy doesn’t kill people, even those who represent a threat to society.
In “To Kill or Not To Kill,” an article by Christine Hanefalk, she argues that the death penalty is unethical based on the fact that “its finality requires a degree of certainty that no legal system can provide.” While I can agree, there is more to it than just the “certainty [...] no legal system can provide.” There’s a broader question at play here, and that is: Should any system, or any person — even with such a “degree of certainty” — be given the power and permissibility to end a life?
It all depends on the weight we put to the concept of justice versus the concept of the worth of life. The “good guy” does not kill people — not merely because he is naive or sympathizes with the “bad guys,” putting that above the justice of consequence — but rather because he notes that death should not be a punishment, in any sense, period. To sentence someone to death is, in a way, to be hypocritical. Is that not what said person is being punished for — unlawfully, unsystematically “sentencing” someone to death of their own accord? The differences are slight and very alarming.
This is precisely the hypocritical circle The Punisher unknowingly finds himself in — “killing those who need to be killed” for killing. Is the difference in intent? Of course it is! The more important question is: Does that matter when it comes to life or death?
Life, in and of itself, has an inherent value, but so does choice, and following that, consequence. It is a fight between these that makes up a system of justice and rules to be followed. If the consequences violates the inherent value of life, it is not only morally correct for it to be abolished, but, in this circumstance, logical too (when we allow all of the economic facts to come into play). And if both ethics and logic are trying to tell you something, perhaps it is time to listen.
Despite all of this, I'd like to take a moment to say that, while The Punisher, Frank Castle, is a means to get all of this across to an audience, his character is not merely this; you're right, this is the part I've been keeping from you: I actually like The Punisher. This does not mean I condone or agree with any of his actions, because I think he's wrong, and I think he could learn that he's wrong, but he doesn't. And this is his fatal flaw.
What are your thoughts on the morality in Daredevil?