There's a strange dichotomy within the concept of the screen villain. Some of the most iconic characters in the history of cinema and TV, from Darth Vader to Norman Bates, Cruella de Vil to the Joker, have been bad.
The simple fact is that we derive great pleasure from bad behaviour. There's a distance between the manipulative, often murderous antics of a true villain and the morals we aim for ourselves, and that makes the concept of "being bad" alien to us. And, therefore, exciting.
The antagonist paradox
The paradox comes into play when a movie or a TV show introduces an antagonist and asks us to indulge in their villainy, but then refuses to allow that person to be truly, irredeemably bad.
Darth Vader is perhaps the most pointed example of this. He may be the most revered screen villain of all-time. He exudes badness. He speaks through a voice box. He murders the mentor who gave him the very skills that facilitated his rise to power. For the love of God, the man wears a cape which swirls even when there's no breeze. The cape, a non-sentient piece of fabric, responds to Vader's pure evil.
Despite all of that, Star Wars felt the need to redeem Vader in his dying moments, to acknowledge a degree of good in him, the suggestion being that his death wiped the slate clean, as though the idea that a person can be bad beyond the point of return is too much for an audience to deal with.
Sometimes it's OK to be bad
This brings me neatly to Daredevil season 2, and specifically to Frank Castle, the new antagonist of Netflix's beautifully dark, brooding superhero show. Before I say any more, check out the new trailer for a preview of the Punishment season 2 has in store.
If we're splitting hairs, the Punisher traditionally falls into the category of an anti-hero, on the basis that there's something motivating him beyond mere evil, madness or bloodlust.
In several Marvel comic arcs, and presumably in Daredevil, Frank Castle is a mercenary on a mission to avenge the murders of his family. He does so by shedding blood. A lot of it. Blood all over the joint. The man is brutal, and Jon Bernthal has that whole grim reaper-with-guns aesthetic down to a tee, which should guarantee that this portrayal of the Punisher is utterly faithful.
But if that's the case, are we expected to sympathise with Castle? Are we meant to believe it's okay for somebody to kill if it's born out of personal hurt? And does it not detract from Castle's downright badass-ery if a connection has to be drawn between his own bloodthirst and the presence of a vigilante in Hell's Kitchen? As Karen Page puts it in the trailer...
We never stopped to think that the Daredevil's actions could open doors for a man like this.
I'm not throwing mud at the Punisher's comic book beginnings. It's a classic origin story, and having a window into the mind of an antagonist is a good thing, at least in the context of a gritty, grounded series like this. (In contrast, I never need to know what's motivating Cruella de Vil beyond her fundamental need to look fabulous in fur.)
What I am saying is that, if Daredevil really wants to be bold, it won't ask us to feel too much for the Punisher, and it won't go out of its way to redeem him. It won't feed too much into the notion that Matt Murdock is guilty of bringing this monster to Hell's Kitchen. It will simply allow him to be bad.
And that takes balls.
Frank Castle brings Hell to Netflix from March 18th.