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Mutually Assured Punishment} ?> There are two things the Punisher doesn’t waste: words and bullets.
The Punisher’s first and only word in his Daredevil debut tells me everything I need to know about him. He’s already blown away a bar full of Irish mobsters and most of a hospital security team, barely pausing to reload, and now I know he doesn’t blink in the face of a superhero.
While the Punisher lives in a world full of heroes with colourful costumes and catchphrases—do-gooders who want to save the world—the dark paladin pretty much has one solution to any problem: murder it.
And it’s when he and Daredevil start trading blows that things get really interesting. Daredevil is steeped in a Catholic ideology of law and order—he refuses to kill because he believes that judgment is better left to God or the law. The Punisher sees the broken system laid out before him and decides his justice is better than none, so he will be judge, jury, and—most notably—executioner.
The Punisher subscribes to a theology of redemptive violence. He doesn’t believe what he’s doing is “good” or “right,” only that it is necessary. When Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson lead the Punisher’s defense in court, they try to leverage his military service to the jury and explain his murderous rampages as a form of PTSD, but the Punisher wants no part in it.
He has no delusions about what he’s doing. He tells Daredevil, “You hit them and they get back up; I hit them and they stay down.”
Daredevil believes if he takes the high road long enough, the world will take notice and shape up. It’s a fairly Christian worldview (if you overlook the savage beatings he doles out). The problem with Daredevil’s theology in the face of the Punisher’s is that in their world, God doesn’t exist.
Marvel’s universe is full of warring space aliens, artificial intelligences, and reality-altering sorcerers. Any idea of a Christian God doesn’t fit into that universe. Daredevil is a Catholic who believes in a god who isn’t real, who doesn’t act or speak.
Rewatching Daredevil with that in mind reveals a very different story than if a God like ours existed and acted in their world. Daredevil justifies his own moral code by aligning it with a higher power and believing it absolves him of the wrongdoing he commits along the way. He uses his guilt from belief in a dead god as a salve for his own emotional wounds.
The Punisher, on the other hand, requires no such false justification. If there is no god, no higher moral calling to which he can ascribe, his definition of justice is as valid as any other. If he rids the world of bad people, is the world not made safer for it?
The Punisher represents an idyllic—if extreme—situation for some people. The idea of taking justice into your own hands and righting wrongs on your terms is very attractive. It makes perfect sense in a fictional world where no god exists. I can even see how people who don’t believe in God might see it as a viable option in our world.
What’s wrong with ridding the world of bad guys when the justice system does such a poor job of it?
There’s nothing wrong with it, unless you believe that humankind has a greater moral calling, or that we’re more than warring animals with opposable thumbs. The Punisher’s brand of justice is not just. He believes he’s acting out a form of justice that nobody else has the will or the stomach to carry out, but justice and punishment are not the same thing. Justice in its purest form is completely objective. The Punisher follows the path of “an eye for an eye” with no regard for whom he blinds so long as those left sightless deserve it.
Even on our best days, we’re imperfect. There is nothing for us to do but attempt our best version of justice, but to act as the Punisher sets a dangerous precedent. It says we have the power to determine when someone doesn’t deserve a chance at forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead of saying, “go and sin no more,” we’d be saying, “if I kill you, you can never sin again.”
The Punisher sees himself as an avenging sword from an empty heaven, cursed with life. His only reason to live is bringing pain and death to those who might bring it to others. He has attached his life to the very evil he hopes to destroy. That’s not justice; it’s mutually assured punishment.