There's a huge problem with American moral culture.
Here's a huge problem with American moral culture.
Due to some unknown lifetime trauma I felt it necessary to watch the entire second season of Marvel's Netflix's Daredevil in one sitting. It reified something that has been congealing in my mind for awhile now, and previously was going to hold off until I got my triumphant hate-watch of Zack Snyder's Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of (what passes for) Justice, but there's a deeply troubling aspect to the new season of Daredevil that's difficult to ignore.
I want to talk about pedigree a little bit. I have the dubious privilege that no one is really going to question my expertise on comics because I'm a man and because nerd culture still has a misogynistic cancer in its heart, but let me tell you: I have read comics since i was a very small child. As in, before I could read, I "read" comics. Daredevil, historically, was one of my favorite superhero characters, and I also own this copy of Punisher: Born, drawn in by hand by Darick Robertson to return a favor. I happen know a lot about the publishing history, story, pathos, etcetera of these characters.
That being out of the way: I am of two minds. On the one hand, what remains of my teenage brain who read Frank Miller's contributions to the Daredevil mythos is on fire with the commitment to tone and subject the series has taken. This is commendable on the part of the show-runners, and as far as quality, the series is one of Marvel's more impressive efforts. Apart from some bad direction of the actors, another mis-stepped climax (third in a row for Marvel's Netflix's shows), and a few other all-to-convenient plot twists, it's overall a well-executed show about a borderline psychopath beating criminals with a stick.
I don't really want to talk about specifics of plot because the way it unfolds is pretty natural and overall entertaining. There are some cameos that are super great for people who are into Daredevil. But there is a massive blind spot in the series: the first season touched on whether or not Daredevil had any moral fortitude at all, if he was truly doing the "right thing" by using his abilities to beat the shit out of criminals. These themes emerged naturally, but remained sort-of unchallenging; they're no more complex than what the unconvinced viewer might evoke at first watch. For the new season, they introduce a character and plot that would be rife for examining the verisimilitude of Daredevil's moral argument in Jon Bernthal's play as the Punisher.
It should be noted that the Punisher was one of the earliest modern-era antiheroes, a reference point which would ruin superhero comics through the late 1980's into the 1990's. Confusing brutality for realism, man-child fans of the time rode a wave of euphoric violence-obsession that would see almost every popular character in superhero comics resort to gun violence as an end. This even included Batman, albeit not Bruce Wayne, a character popularly notable for his aversion to guns. So despite the presence of complex (and even entertainingly cartoonish) depictions of a character that recognize the contradictions and limitations of his existence, the widely-adopted portrait of the character is the always-right violence monger that gives proto-fascists sexual feelings they aren't really mature enough to process.
And Season 2 of Daredevil is not really ready to parse any of that out. It carries that baggage in without being thoughful of the potential implications. Sure, it at first treats the Punisher as ambivalently but it quickly acquiesces that he's just a guy with problems, and at first attempts to paint him as severely mentally ill. Sidestepping the patronizing bullshit that the genuinely mentally ill deal with constantly (mentally ill people actually commit fewer violent crimes than neurotypical population, and if anything are more likely to be the victim of violent crimes), their plot set up essentially argues that spree shooters and violent reactionaries shouldn't be held responsible for their actions. It exploits the worst impulses in the justice system to shoot first and cover later, to remove people from the equation entirely instead of recognize their basic underlying value and make even the most minor attempt at reform. He's every piece of shit killer cop who ever walked away clean, excepting for the propaganda that these cops "went through hell" to get where they did. The mere assumption that he's some kind of mass-murder genius who can presciently know exactly who to kill is only more mind-bendingly horrifying. By the end of the season, he's even graced with an extensive arsenal and personal iconography, a bullet proof vest upon which he paints his signature skull, a symbol with a certain amount of iconic heft that would not be lost on your average spree shooter.
An unsurprising disconcerting moment came in a red carpet promotional video for the season. Among cast interviews, Jon Bernthal said the following:
"it's a character that means a lot to a lot of people...this is a character that's been revered and respected and adopted by members of law enforcement and the military and I look at it as a responsibility."
Gives up the ghost, so to speak, regarding where the priorities of cops lie. Indiscriminate murder above investigation or introspection. It illustrates, with terrifying detail, the moral simplicity of our law enforcement culture, and its banner disregard for human life. This is, of course, entirely verifiable when perusing any police message board, which are typically full of violently racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist comments on every topic imaginable. There was, for a time, entire blogs dedicated toward screen-caps of police officers wishing they could do what the Punisher does, mass-kill with impunity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that law enforcement and its proponents are wholly willing to kill. This depiction of the Punisher and his appeal to law enforcement is only a barometer, and he’s wild popularity among men with severely under-developed senses of moral rectitude. The overlap with the population of people we have designated as the first administrators of state power is no surprise under the brutal hand of capital.
The betrayal here is to its own narrative. This could have been used as a narrative platform to establish why Daredevil has the right to protect Hell's Kitchen from the so-called forces of evil because he has a well-developed moral compass and some kind of system to actually prevent crime and alleviate some of its root causes. The procedural and character-driven aspects of the show are the perfect way to develop a morally complete character who has complex extralegal processes for actually administering justice. This should be a conflict which defines the entire series, but it fails under the first inquiry. The dichotomy that is drawn is never completed. No serious difference is drawn between Daredevil and the Punisher.
This decision is ultimately made in preservation of The Brand. The Punisher is popular, and therefore no serious critique of what he meant to people in the ‘70s versus now can take place because it might alienate those who identify with him, nevermind that to truly identify with his character is to admit psychopathy. One the immediate and basic privileges to which white men hold fast, the one that generates non-fault arguments against racism or sexism or even distorted counter-factuals about history, is the aversion to self-criticism. The more self-serious and grim these stories are, the more these brown-haired white boys believe it, internalize it, and ingratiate themselves to themselves. The more media builds the predominant experiences of the atomized benefactors of hegemonic white supremacy under capital the less vigorous and consequently more absurd these moral conclusions become.