What can Matt Murdock and Frank Castle possibly have in common? I’ll be tackling that question in the third instalment of my Marvel Doubles series, looking at duality in Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil.
Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix is quickly becoming one of my favourite series of all time, and though season 2 never quite hit the highs of its freshman outing, it maintained a level of quality rarely matched in the TV landscape, especially comic book adaptations. One of the highlights of Daredevil’s sophomore season was Frank Castle aka the Punisher, played with sorrowful savagery by Walking Dead alum Jon Bernthal. His raging antagonist is miles from the insidious sophistication of season 1’s Kingpin, but they aren’t as different as they may appear. Along with Daredevil, this unholy trinity all have a deep-seated desire to rid their city of corruption, although that’s where their methods and motives diverge. Kingpin might take a few minutes smashing some guy’s skull into a pulp, but Punisher will just shoot you in the face. As for Daredevil, he’ll spend an entire evening handing out superhero platitudes.
Season 2 show-runner Doug Petrie cites Taxi Driver’s titular antihero Travis Bickle as an influence for this incarnation of the Punisher – a person taking the law into his own hands – and Frank Castle isn’t a man of half measures: he holds the mantle for the character with the highest body count in the MCU (65 victims, 17 of them named). Like most characters in Daredevil (though unique to any other Marvel Netflix show), Frank Castle has no supernatural abilities, but Jon Bernthal argues that his true superpower is his rage and resolve – once the Punisher decides to come after you, he won’t stop ‘til you’re six feet under.
*Spoilers for Daredevil Season 2 below*
A rogue by any other name
I’ve explored the meaning of Daredevil/ Matt Murdock’s names in the past, and Matt does seem to have given in to the macabre side of his moniker – at least in the promotional material, where a costumed Matt looks out at us with a blood-soaked smile in rather devilish fashion. Frank gives Matt a nickname of his own – Red, not just the colour of Daredevil’s costume, but evoking images of blood, anger, and Christian concepts (Pentecost, Passover). In scripture, the Devil is the ultimate punisher of sins in death, but in this show, the Punisher does the job of the Devil – sending his victims to hell as their final judgment, whereas Daredevil is more of a friar with an affinity for fisticuffs. However, the very focus of his alter ego name exemplifies the notion that ‘people say we must punish when there is wrongdoing, but if you punish you’re only punishing yourself. And what’s the point of that?’ (Alexander McCall Smith, from ‘The Good Husband of Zebra Drive’).
His first name ‘Frank’ suggests honesty, sincerity; the no holds-barred, no BS demeanour that characterizes him. The name has its origins in the early medieval Germanic tribe of Franks, a name which became synonymous with that of a ‘free man’, just as Frank Castle is a vigilante who works alone. His surname, Castle, has regal connotations, and also symbolises the fortress he has built around himself, or transformed himself into, after the tragedy of his family’s death – the castle of his soul is a crumbling monument, something which belongs to a time long passed. There are also connections with his chess piece namesake, also known as the rook, continuing Daredevil’s grand tradition of chess symbolism in its narratives – King(pin) and his Queen (Vanessa), (Frank) Castle/ Rook, though I’m not sure whether Matt is the knight or the bishop (or just a pawn?)
However, Frank’s full Christian name – Francis – ties him more closely to Daredevil than expected. Both Punisher and Daredevil bear saintly first names – St Francis (of Assisi) and St Matthew. The latter, one of Christ’s apostles and one of the four Evangelists, started out as a tax collector, a hated profession not unlike a modern lawyer (like Matt). The former is venerated as an all-round good guy and patron saint of animals – we know Frank likes dogs and, as we all know, being kind to animals is the cinematic/ televisual shorthand for ‘good person’.
Daredevil, as well as every major antagonist, has a fantastic moment where they finally accept and embrace the alter ego persona that they, and the city, created. Last season, we had Kingpin’s stirring ‘Good Samaritan’ speech, and here we have Punisher’s trial tirade on the stand: ‘You people, you call me the Punisher, ain’t that right? The big bad Punisher. Well, here I am! You want it, you got it! I am the Punisher! I’m right here! You want it, I’ll give it to you!’
Imagery, colour, symbolism
As is custom with the Marvel Netflix series (crucially Daredevil), the characters don’t tend to get their comic book costumes under the end of the season, and the Punisher continues this grand tradition. For the majority of episodes, he’s generally in dark clothing, camouflaging with night-time New York, which contrasts starkly with the bright orange prison uniform he later sports.
Early on in the series, we see an x-ray of Frank’s skull, not-so-subtle foreshadowing, but I’ll take it – and later, we see him spray-painting a skull onto a black bulletproof vest – the living embodiment of death; if you see him coming, you’ll be that skull in no time. His look, and Daredevil’s relentless pursuit of him, reminded me of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, particularly the very first line which sets the scene for the rest of the story: ‘the man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed’. Punisher is death manifested, Daredevil’s costume evokes blood and hell-fire. Frank’s dark clothing called to mind the Johnny Cash song ‘The Man in Black’, which referenced the deeper meaning of his choice of stage attire:
‘Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black’
Frank’s origin story has always reminded me of Martin Riggs or Charles Bronson in Death Wish – Frank is the ‘lethal weapon’ of the MCU, a man with a death wish and a very strict moral code that paints a bullseye on anyone who breaks it. He is haunted by the tragic and brutal death of his family in a mob deal gone wrong, where the Castles were innocent civilians who were quite literally caught in the crossfire. War never haunted Frank – he admits to feeling nothing when his squadron buddies were gunned down or when he was called upon to kill – and the only thing which evoked emotion in him was his family.
His signature phrase – ‘one batch, two batch, penny and dime’ – has tragic origins too. When he returned home from the war, he reunited with his loved ones, but he seems to love one above all others: his daughter. He recounts the tale of him surprising her at school in poignant, beautiful terms, when conversing with Matt in the graveyard scene; how the sight of her running to greet him made him openly weep, and how he was so weary from the war that he couldn’t read her favourite bedtime story – ‘one batch, two batch, penny and dime’. Tragedy struck the next day, and he’d never be able to read her that story, so now he recites it like a prayer, like a mantra, like a verdict before he brutally – but efficiently – dispatches those he finds guilty.
Matt has also suffered from the loss of a loved one (his father), whose death left him feeling lost and alone in the world. This happened to him when he was young, with life’s potential still spread out in front of him and a father figure to guide him in the form of his warrior mentor Stick (a charmingly crotchety Scott Glenn). Though his methods were tough and often cruel, Stick gave Matt hope that he could mitigate the debilitating effects of his blindness and use his enhanced senses to defend himself – which evolves into Matt fighting crime in Hell’s Kitchen as the titular masked vigilante we all know and love.
Though he lost many loved ones, either through death or disappearance – his father, his mysterious mother, Elektra – Matt has cultivated a small but loyal circle of friends in Foggy and Karen (and, though off-screen, a revolving door of lovers). Though he still finds it difficult to let people in (so far, only Stick and Elektra have gotten close to seeing the ‘real’ him), Matt does value human connections, however few, but Frank doesn’t; at least, not anymore. His wife and children were the only connections tethering him to humanity, and now they are gone he has forsaken the luxury of his humanity. You’ve never been in a war, so don’t talk about it – that’s one of Frank’s stipulations to Daredevil. Just as Matt has lost a parent, but never a partner and children, he can never truly understand the loss and so can never truly empathise with how Frank became the Punisher. Just like Matt, Frank’s vigilante crusade has the effect of ridding Hell’s Kitchen of corrupting influences – but it also gives him an outlet for his rage. Which of these factors is more motivating than the other is left to our judgment.
Conceptions of justice/ moral compass
Frank has a very simple mission in life – to kill anyone he believes breaks his strict moral code. He isn’t a man of many words, but when he uses them he sure doesn’t mince them. ‘I’ll do what’s required’, he bluntly states during his rooftop encounter with a chained-up Matt, before explaining the key difference between the two: ‘you hit them and they get back up; I hit them and they stay down’. It’s also the fundamental purpose of vigilantism that he describes – when law and order fails to keep a criminal down, vigilantes and superheroes step in to fill the gap and succeed where the law fails.
Madness & Sanity
Surprisingly, Frank describes himself in a line that evokes the Joker, Batman’s insane nemesis, who seems miles away from the straightforward, every-man that Frank once was: ‘you know, you’re just one bad day away from being me’. This is almost word for word the Joker’s chilling conclusion in Alan Moore’s ‘The Killing Joke’. In an interesting reversal, the Joker’s insistence that ‘I’m not mad at all – I’m just differently sane!’ wouldn’t seem wholly out of place in Frank’s testimony. In Issue 1 of the Punisher MAX comic book series, Frank claims that ‘the world went crazy on a summer’s day in central park… and now every night I go out and make the world sane… It’s not crazy when the state of the world makes you want to kill everyone responsible. It’s crazy when it doesn’t.’ There are lots of discussions about Frank’s mental state in the Netflix show – Karen’s ‘not so sure he’s insane’, Foggy believes he’s ‘at least driven past Crazy Town’ – but Frank denies any speculation of insanity:
‘I know who I am … I am smack-dab in the middle of my right goddamn mind, and any scumbag, any- any lowlife, any maggot piece of shit that I put down, I did it because I liked it! Hell, I loved it!’
One of the most interesting aspects of Frank’s trial was the jury selection scene, in which each juror had a different, divergent opinion of him. The scene is beautifully scripted and edited so that each POV bleeds into the next, creating a confusing cacophony of opinions on just what kind of person Frank Castle is, or at least how he is perceived. Opinions vary from a ‘sick twisted animal’ to a ‘hero’ to a ‘fascist’ to being ‘the only thing protecting us’. [A side note: there seems to be a gender issue here with the jury selection – most of the male jurors condemned Frank’s actions, whereas most of the female jurors applauded him]. Matt’s calm, introspective demeanour may seem miles from Frank’s brand of courtroom clamouring, but even he is linked with ideas of madness later in the same season. Despite his protestations that he just wants to clean up Hell’s Kitchen, Foggy criticises Matt’s methods: ‘You don’t get to create danger, and then protect us from that danger. That’s not heroic – that’s insane.’
The Man, the Myth, the Legend
Daredevil continually attests to the fact that his vigilantism is simply down to just wanting to make his city ‘a better place’; ‘the city needs me in that mask’, he declares with super-heroic pomp and ceremony. Similarly, the Punisher, like his antagonistic predecessor the Kingpin, just wants to clean up NYC: ‘This city, it stinks. It’s a sewer… I think that this world, it needs men who are willing to make the hard call. I think you and me are the same!’ Matt even concedes to the similarity between them when the Punisher says ‘sometimes I think you just might really be the devil’, to which he replies ‘Sometimes I think I might be, too. But the differences abound; Matt worries about how longer it will take before ‘innocent people start getting caught in his cross-fire’, and where Matt classes these missteps as ‘murders’, Frank refers to them as mere ‘mistakes’.
Frank appears to be of the same mindset as Saint Augustine in that ‘punishment is justice for the unjust’, but Matt counters his view with Barbara Deming’s belief that ‘punishment cannot heal spirits, only break them’. Punisher presents his prey with a paradox, a test to challenge Daredevil’s refusal to kill. He takes a man hostage; a low-level gang member responsible for the death of a local woman, gives Daredevil a gun with a single bullet, and forces him to make an impossible choice: shoot and kill Punisher, or he would kill the gang member. Either way, Daredevil would be responsible for causing someone’s death, either by act or omission – perhaps not by law, but certainly in Matt’s own mental courtroom. Matt refuses to give in, instead using the bullet to free himself from his chains, but the man dies at Punisher’s hand nevertheless. Punisher’s values echoes the words of Genghis Khan: ‘I am the flail of god. Had you not created great sins, god would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.’ In contrast, Matt’s attitudes are encapsulated by Criss Jami: ‘Always seek justice, but love only mercy. To love justice and hate mercy is but a doorway to more injustice… God judges men from the inside out; men judge men from the outside in’.
Frank starts to believe his own myth – ‘you want the big bad Punisher? Well, here I am!’ Matt never has an explicit Harry Potter-esque ‘but I am the Chosen One’ moment like Punisher does, but he accepts his vigilante side just as much as Frank does. In his very first scene as a grown-up Matt, he confesses to the priest something his aunt always said about him and his father: ‘those Murdock boys, they got the devil in them’, and by the end of season 1 he has commissioned a super suit that specifically resembles that devilish side of his character. He also has a sense of his importance to the city – and to his own crusade of following in his father’s fighting footsteps: ‘if I take a night off, people get hurt’. In this way, neither Punisher nor Daredevil are willing – or able – to walk away from their missions.
Daredevil continually fights against others’ perception of him, especially during the first season where a mysterious masked man beating up criminals in Hell’s Kitchen struck fear in the heart of even the most law-abiding citizens. It took time for Matt to refine his alter-ego persona – whereas Punisher just strides into a crime den and shoots up an Irish gang. Daredevil wears a mask and operates in the shadows of the night; Punisher strides bare-faced into a packed hospital ward and opens fire on a sinner. In fact, he explicitly despises the idea of secret identities, a concept pivotal to comic books (but not to the other Marvel Netflix characters): ‘soldiers don’t wear masks, [only] vigilantes do’. Matt is able to play both sides of the justice system through his split self – by day, he is Matt Murdock, a defence attorney who navigates the complex criminal legal system, and by night, he is the masked Daredevil who steps in to find justice for people where the law fails them. However, this deception may be more dangerous to Matt than he realises: as George Bernard Shaw states, ‘the liar’s punishment is, not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else’ (from ‘The Quintessence of Ibsenism’). The entire Netflix show can be summarized by another George Bernard Shaw saying: ‘Criminals do not die by the hands of the law. They die by the hands of other men’ (from ‘Man and Superman’).
Frank vs. Fisk
Frank, like Wilson Fisk before him, believes that the ends justify the means – both men are prepared to make themselves monstrous in order to hunt monsters. They stare into the abyss and it stares back into them. Daredevil is the antithesis – no matter how heinous the villain, no matter how much he may want to kill the criminals he hunts, he will never cross that final, fateful line. He takes the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ very seriously – classic Catholic guilt in action, but also true of pretty much every superhero. The threshold between killing and not killing is often the very fine line which separates hero from villain, and villain from villain. Villain to villain confrontations are rare and good ones rarer still – and Frank and Fisk’s first meeting doesn’t disappoint.
Frank is just as tough towards Kingpin as he is to Daredevil: ‘I don’t help shit-bag has-been mob bosses.’ [Side-note: Vincent D’Onofrio’s facial reaction to this was priceless]. But Fisk isn’t perturbed, because he has the unique talent of seeing the gifts of others – when he values people, he truly sees their worth. Yes, he might be using them for his own gain more often than not, but he genuinely sees their best qualities. ‘You have a gift, Mr Castle’, he says with perfect sincerity; ‘and when one comes across someone with such talent… with such a gift… well… you don’t let that go to waste’.
Fisk is slowly but surely creating his comic book persona – when we meet him in season 2 he’s bereft of his tailored finery and garbed in garish orange (which you can see physically pains him), but he knows that ‘if you want to survive, you adapt’, and that’s exactly what he’s done. The title ‘Kingpin’ is reserved for the most prestigious prisoner, and Fisk is determined to earn it. He sees prison as a place where people become ‘savages’; to him, it’s a ‘perfect microcosm of the animal world. When an animal wants something, when it needs something; other things… need to be stepped on’. He’s caged but once he’s out he’s going to win a war and he wants Frank on his side. Fisk knows how to spin a yarn, and, in a twisted version of Foggy and Karen’s pleas to the jury, tries to sell Frank on an empathy pitch:
‘If I were in your shoes… I would use this opportunity to find your justice, to kill your way to justice! And not for me. Of course not. Not for yourself. For your family. For them’.
In Fisk’s retelling of the Good Samaritan story way back in season 1, where do Matt and Frank fit in? There is the victim, the man of ill intent, the priest, the Levite, and titular saviour. Fisk is the ill intent by his own admission, but do Matt or Frank map onto the victim or the Samaritan? Matt plays the Samaritan to save his city, but is often the victim of his own actions. Frank also plays the Samaritan, but brings with him more than a little ill intent. Perhaps they would each categorise each other as the priest or Levite, whose actions do not serve the one in need. As Fisk admits, ‘even the best of men can be… deceived by their true nature’. One thing is for sure, as Frank tells Fisk: the next time they meet, ‘only one of us walks away’. Maybe Hell’s Kitchen has earned this unholy trinity of vigilantes because ‘every society has the criminals that it deserves’ (per H. Havelock Ellis).
Frank & Karen
Frank’s unusual, tentative bond with Karen Page is one of the more fascinating elements of season 2. Karen is empathy incarnate, perhaps because of her own mysterious and checkered past, and she takes a special interest in the Frank Castle case. Both Matt and Foggy find Frank to be beyond help, but Karen does not – she sees something redeemable about him; she is the first to discover that he is a war hero, and more than that, she is able to look past the ‘big bad Punisher’ exterior that even Frank begins to embrace, and sees the man behind the monster:
‘Just for a minute… try to be Frank Castle. To be solely fuelled by… by a single cluster of seconds. One moment in… in your entire life… And every time you close your eyes, you relive that moment. And every time you open them, you find only the… the briefest peace before you realize that that nightmare is real. That nothing has changed. Your family isn’t coming back. And so you watch them die… all over again right in front of you. We’re not talking about something that happened to Frank Castle, we’re talking about something that is happening to him.’
Karen is presenting the ultimate subjective approach here – imagine what it’s like to be Frank Castle, not some idealised objective reasonable person, because how could a person who has suffered as much as Frank even be judged in that way? Her words inspire Foggy, who still has reservations about Frank, but who is moved by Karen’s plea for empathy. Everyone has an opinion on Frank Castle – painting him variously as a psycho, a saviour, a sadist. Karen is the only person to see Frank as a human being and, more than that, a product of Hell’s Kitchen for whom they all share responsibility:
‘Maybe we created him. All of us. The moment that we let Daredevil, or the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, or whatever it is… Daredevil practised vigilante justice in our backyard and we applauded him for it. I know that I did. And we never stopped to think that maybe… his actions could open the door for men like this. Men with guns. Men who think that the law belongs to them’.
Stranger still, never did I imagine I’d see a bruised and battered Punisher sitting in a diner offering romance advice to Karen Page, or how sweet this scene turned out. Frank and Karen are the mirror image of Matt and Elektra (an interesting pair for a future doubles-based blog post) – not necessarily romantic, but two people who understand one another, accept each other, but try to make the other realise who they could be – as John Myers says in Hellboy (2004), ‘we like people for their qualities but love them for their defects’. Just as Elektra says she’s glad she didn’t destroy Matt’s innocence, so does the Punisher also decide to protect Matt’s purity. Towards the end of the season, Matt seems to be starting to bring Frank over to his way of thinking:
Matt: ‘I can’t let you start a war for the wrong reasons.’
Frank: ‘Maybe a war is what I need. Maybe I need that. These people, they took my children from me. They killed my kids! Don’t you get that?’
Matt: ‘Then do right by them! Help me, work with me to find the man who gave the order.’
Just when we think this is the way the show is going, the roles get reversed. A few episodes layer, Matt, jaded and cynical and feeling hopeless to stop the Hand from destroying Hell’s Kitchen, tells Frank that he’s prepared to kill in order to save his city – and Frank doesn’t let him. It’s a really beautiful moment where these two very different people finally and completely understand one another – after disagreeing with Frank’s methods, Matt ultimately realises that his way may be the only chance for saving the city; and after calling Daredevil a ‘coward’ and a ‘half-measure’ who ‘can’t finish the job’, Frank refuses to let Matt see killing as the only solution: ‘you cross over to my side of the line, you don’t get to come back from that’. It’s Frank’s job to take on the Dexter-esque ‘dark passenger’ of blood on his hands, and his first act of pure heroism is to save someone else from that fate.
Some final thoughts…
Jon Bernthal’s Punisher is yet another masterpiece of this uniquely nuanced Netflix series – like the Kingpin before him, he is a creature that we can understand, sympathise with and grow to love despite the egregious and gruesome acts he commits. Both Punisher and Kingpin are on a mission to rid their city of evil, and embrace the need to commit bad things to accomplish long-term good. However, their missions are arguably foils for their true goals – Kingpin wants to prove he isn’t the monster he father was, and Punisher wants to seek revenge for his family’s death by cutting through swathes of crime rings as a way of dealing with his grief. Punisher struck such a chord with Daredevil fans that he’s getting his own series next year (and may appear in the Netflix team-up show ‘The Defenders’ in a few months’ time); Dr Henry Jekyll assures that ‘you must suffer me to go my own dark way’, and perhaps we must do the same for the Punisher.
There’s a throwaway moment where Frank confesses to liking the song ‘Shining Star’ by Earth, Wind and Fire – a brief moment of levity in an otherwise heavy show, but the lyrics are surprisingly meaningful when you imagine a bruised and battered Punisher singing along:
‘Give you strength to carry on/ Make your body big and strong
Born a man child of the sun/ Saw my work had just begun
Found I had to stand alone/ Bless it now I’ve got my own…’
Punisher Top 5 Tracks:
- Animal I Have Become: Three Days Grace
- The Pretender: Foo Fighters
- Seven Nation Army: White Stirpes
- Another One Bites the Dust: Queen
- Paint it Black: Rolling Stones
Previous entries in my Marvel/ Netflix Doubles blog series: