The Punisher, who murders dozens, if not hundreds, of people in the second season of Netflix’s “Daredevil,” is actually the most moral character on the show.
Yes, the gun-wielding vigilante who kills instead of arrests his criminal adversaries is, in fact, the good guy here. He’s a better guy even than the title character himself. Why? Because he’s doing what’s necessary within the world he resides.
The Punisher doesn’t exist within our universe. He lives in the comic book universe. In our reality, especially in America, law enforcement more or less effectively deals with outlaws and the criminal justice system more or less effectively punishes and often even rehabilitates them. In the comic book universe, the same can’t be said.
Comic book police departments are generally completely corrupt with one or two courageous holdouts (that’s certainly true in Netflix’s “Daredevil”). Comic book prisons are just as corrupt and act more like hotels than penitentiaries (clearly that’s true in “Daredevil’s” second season). Helping “arrest” a comic book villain and send him to “prison” is simply an exercise in futility (something Daredevil learns, as literally all of the villains he helped put away in the first season are back again in the second—even the petty criminals).
Daredevil Is a Coward
The only moral thing to do to criminals who murder at will in a world where the government authorities are, at best, ineffective or, at worst, corrupt is stop them for good. Kill them. Make sure they can’t kill any innocent people ever again. Here’s how the Punisher himself puts it in a particularly illuminating exchange with Daredevil in episode three:
The Punisher: I think that the people I kill need killing. That’s what I think.
Daredevil: You left men hanging from meat hooks!
P: They got off easy, in my opinion.
D: You shot up a hospital!
P: Yeah, nobody got hurt that didn’t deserve it. […]
D: You run around this city like it’s your damn shooting gallery.
P: Yeah, what do you do? You act like it’s a playground. You beat up the bullies with your fists. They throw ‘em in jail. Everybody calls you a hero, right? And then a month, a week, a day later they’re back on the streets doing the same goddamn thing.
D: Yeah, so you just put ‘em in the morgue?
P: You’re goddamn right I do. […]
P: I think that this world, it needs men that are willing to make the hard call. I think that you and me are the same.
D: That’s bullshit, Frank, and you know it!
P: We’re the same! Only I do the one thing that you can’t. You hit ‘em and they get back up. I hit ‘em and they stay down. It’s permanent. I make sure that they don’t make it out on the street again. I take pride in that.
In the same scene the Punisher labels Daredevil a “half measure,” “a man who can’t finish the job,” and a “coward.” He’s right.
The Only Thing Daredevil Doesn’t Do Is Finish the Job
Daredevil, who’s willing to break every law and ethical rule on the road to putting villains in useless prisons but unwilling to go any further, willingly participates in a vicious cycle that makes a mockery of justice. Allowing the revolving door of crime to continue ad infinitum is naive at best and immoral at worst. The Punisher realizes this and attempts to end the cycle instead.
When Daredevil asks him what he’s going to do, The Punisher responds, “I’ll do what’s required.” I think that sums it up pretty well. Heck, even Daredevil himself eventually admits the Punisher is right.
(There’s some question about whether even The Punisher goes far enough. After all, the second season of “Daredevil” also features undead ninjas. In the comic book world even death doesn’t seem to put an end to the cycle. Deadpool is the only comic book character who seems to have grasped the absurdity of it all. He tried to put an end to the insanity that is living in the constant peril of the Marvel universe by killing everybody in it and, hopefully, grinding everything to a halt.)
A Real-Life Comparison
Of course, the comic book world isn’t much like our own, but that’s not to say there’s no real-world example we can look to when judging the Punisher. One particularly interesting parallel exists: Los Pepes.
Los Pepes, short for “Those Persecuted by Pablo Escobar,” is the murderous vigilante organization that killed dozens of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s criminal cohorts during his outrageous reign of narco-terror in the 1980s. After Escobar slaughtered his way to the top of the Columbian drug trade, bought off a large number of Colombian police, won a seat in the country’s parliament, and killed a number of top Colombian officials, Los Pepes was formed to kill the drug kingpin.
Escobar’s rampage was so beyond comprehension that he could be considered a real-life super-villain. He’s responsible for the murder of thousands, some in the most theatrical way. He cut down one presidential candidate in the middle of a public rally. He blew up a commercial jetliner in a failed attempt to murder another. He organized a paramilitary assault on Columbia’s supreme court.
Eventually Escobar cut a deal with the government that saw him imprisoned in Colombia instead of extradited to the United States. He ended up designing his own prison palace, where he ran his drug cartel with more ease than before. Later, after the government eventually caught on to the farce it had created, he easily escaped his “prison.”
What to Do When There Are No Good Options
The Colombian government formed its own pseudo-military force, the search bloc, to fight Escobar, but it was never as effective as Los Pepes. Los Pepes killed and intimidated Escobar’s closest allies and associates. They applied the pressure that forced Escobar into hiding and, eventually, into the gunfire of the search bloc, who killed him.
Los Pepes operated in a reality where there were no good options and vigilantism may well have been justified. Like the Punisher, they did what was required. Of course, the Punisher wasn’t exactly like Los Pepes. He was better, actually. Los Pepes is thought to have attacked Escobar’s family members and likely included rival drug dealers among their ranks. The Punisher is a decorated veteran who’s motivated by the tragic murder of his family and only kills criminals he knows to be murderers themselves.
The fact that the Punisher is easily the most interesting and entertaining character on the show helps makes his arguments hit all the harder. The show drags a bit for the episodes where he’s put out of commission by either his trial or brief imprisonment. His fight scenes and the ones he instigates are fast-paced and engrossing, but also realistic and brutal—his diner fight more closely resembles Israeli anti-terror tactics than comic book kitsch.
Entertainment value aside, though, he does what he must to alter his reality for the better. In our world, where the rule of law reigns and justice is far from dead, the Punisher’s tactics are immoral and appalling (so are Daredevil’s, for that matter), but in his world, where chaotic corruption reigns, his one-man revolution against the tyrannical rule of blood-soaked criminals is the most moral.