The first glorious season of Netflix’s Marvel’s Daredevil was all about the moral value of pain. Its second, also glorious, season did something similar. Without retreading the same paths, Daredevil Season 2 took the metaphors that guided it and turned them inward. Whereas Season 1 examined the utility of physical suffering – inflicting it on others and enduring it oneself, for reasons of coersion or redemption – Season 2 looks at the nature, causes, and effects of guilt: where it comes from, how it works, and, most importantly, what it can make us do.
Guilt is everywhere in Daredevil Season 2, and it is the primary force propelling the action of most of the show’s main characters. Matt Murdock himself is driven to be a hero, in part, by his feelings of guilt over the death of his father, Battlin’ Jack Murdock: Battlin’ Jack, a mid-level boxer who lost more than he won, but who was never knocked out, would sometimes take bribes from gangsters in exchange for throwing fights. Young Matthew, overhearing one such transaction with his superhuman senses, subtly encouraged his father to win the fight after all. Which Jack did, betraying the gangsters (although also winning a nice sum of money by secretly betting on himself to win, which he arranged to be untraceably held in trust for Matt). Predictably, the gangsters didn’t appreciate Jack’s victory. He was murdered, and Matt always believed that on some level he was at least partly at fault for his father taking the actions that led to his death.
Daredevil’s foil in this season, Frank Castle a.k.a. The Punisher, is also fuelled mainly by guilt. On the surface, the theme of Daredevil’s second season is “how far will you go to see that justice is served,” an extension of the first season’s contemplations of whether or not Matt should kill the evil Wilson Fisk if given the chance. Daredevil and Punisher both want the same things – for bad guys to be punished – but Murdock, although far from being above using violence and torture to subdue opponents and extract information, stops short of killing out of principle and delivers his defeated foes to the police and courts to take care of. Castle, on the other hand, refuses to deal with criminals in any ways that aren’t fatal – he regards Daredevil, he explains, as “a half-measure. You hit ‘em and they get back up. I hit ‘em and they stay down.”
And while the question of if and when the ends justify the means definitely continues throughout this season, the deeper meditation is on guilt in both of its aspects: legal/moral and emotional. Frank Castle is a man who has committed more thirty murders. He is also a man cracked from the inside by overwhelming feelings of guilt. But the guilt he feels is not the guilt that the New York State Supreme Court means when it sentences him to prison. His feelings of guilt are about the murders of his wife and children – murders he did not commit, but which he also was powerless to prevent. Much of Daredevil Season 2 is dedicated to problematizing the irony between the survivor’s guilt that Castle feels, and the legal and moral guilt that those feelings compel him to enact. He commits mass murder in the name of justice, but entirely suppresses the knowledge that his guilty feelings will not be assuaged even when everyone responsible for the death of his family are buried. Frank hadn’t done anything wrong before his family was killed; it was only his guilt that made him guilty.
My favourite Twentieth Century Philosopher, Martin Buber (I and Thou changed my life, seriously), wrote about guilt in these senses in an essay published in 1957. Buber sharply criticizes psychology for focusing exclusively on the feeling of guilt and not on what he called “guilt in the ontological sense,” due to the field’s adherence to either Freud’s materialism – which forced him to define guilt in the context of transgression against parental expectations and social norms – or Jung’s “modern, psychological type of solipsism,” that sees guilt (and pretty much everything else) as mere “’projections’ of the psyche, not as indications of something extra-psychic that the psyche meets.” In other words, psychology treats guilt as if only the feeling of it is what matters, rather than its relation to people and events in the real world. It fails to address the gap that separates the feelings of guilt from its objects, and as such it can never hope to resolve the problem of guilt since it denies either the soul (in Freud’s case) or the material world (in Jung’s). Daredevil Season 2 attacks that rupture by highlighting the irony of divorcing guilty feelings from the world that causes them and the world that is then forced to endure its consequences.
Reading Buber, you could be forgiven for thinking that he’s talking specifically about Frank Castle:
A man stands before us who, through acting or failing to act, has burdened himself with a guilt or has taken part in a community guilt, and now, after years or decades, is again and again visited by the memory of his guilt. Nothing of the genesis of his illness is concealed from him if he is only willing no longer to conceal from himself the guilt character of that active or passive occurrence. What takes possession of him ever again has nothing to do with any parental or social reprimand, and if he does not have to fear an earthly retribution and does not believe in a heavenly one, no court, no punishing power exists that can make him anxious. Here there rules the one penetrating insight – the one insight capable of penetrating into the impossibility of recovering the original point of departure and the irreparability of what has been done, and that means the real insight into the irreversibility of lived time, a fact that shows itself unmistakably in the starkest of all human perspectives, that concerning one’s own death. From no standpoint is time so perceived as a torrent as from the vision of the self in guilt. Swept along in this torrent, the bearer of guilt is visited by the shudder of identity with himself. I, he comes to know, I, who have become another, am the same.
So you can see why he’s my favourite modern philosopher, right? Anyway, this describes Frank Castle’s dilemma (and, to a lesser extent, Matt Murdock’s) quite perfectly. Castle’s guilt originates in his profound, unimaginable loss – but it goes beyond the mere, and rational, grief that anyone feels after (God forbid) losing a loved one, particularly under such violent and unexpected circumstances. Frank feels guilty not because he had anything to do with his family being murdered, but because he didn’t stop it – that is, he feels that he failed in his moral duty as a husband and father to protect his wife and their children. In no way is he legally responsible for their deaths, and no just God would ever punish him just for failing to die alongside them despite the bullet in his brain that nearly caused just that. On the contrary, Frank doesn’t believe in any God (as we learn in the just fantastically written and acted conversation between Murdock and Castle in a cemetery in episode 4 – and if Jon Bernthal doesn’t win an Emmy for that performance there is something deeply, deeply wrong with the world), and he considers himself absolutely one hundred percent justified in killing the thirty-plus people he kills who were in some way connected to the disaster that stole his family from him. The crimes for which he is legally guilty have no connection to his feelings of guilt, except that the feelings motivated those crimes. There is, in Buber’s words, an ontic relationship there, a deeply ironic one, between guilt and guilt feelings.
Murdock who, in his daylight role as defense attorney has taken on the captured Punisher as a client (not because he believes him to be innocent but because he opposes the death penalty that Castle would be subject to if convicted), calls a psychiatrist to the stand who attests that Castle was so traumatized by the death of his family that he can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. Castle vehemently opposes this reading, for the same basic reason that Buber rejects the psychiatric vision of guilt in general. To explain – or explain away – the feelings of guilt and the events that they cause to occur in the world is to deny the ontological reality of guilt itself. Frank Castle knows perfectly well that his family is irretrievable, that no amount of justice will ever bring them back. That isn’t the point. Rather it is to take a stand against time, to force those actively responsible for his family’s deaths to confront that “starkest of all human perspectives,” the way that they force him to confront it every minute of every day.
The show sets all this up in contrast to Daredevil’s similar feelings of guilt but quite different – at least in terms of degree – actions. Arguably, Matt’s responsibility for his father’s death is greater than Frank’s for his family’s – there was nothing Frank could have done in his situation, but if Matt hadn’t convinced his father not to throw that fight, the man might still be alive. Matt lost his father by encouraging him to do the right thing, to be honest rather than deceitful, and it came back to bite him. Yet, when given the chance to do precisely what Frank Castle has devoted his life to doing – exacting justice on the ones who destroyed his family – Matt demurs. In a flashback, Matt’s college girlfriend and secret ninja Elektra has Roscoe Sweeney, the man who killed Jack Murdock, tied to a chair and helpless. She urges Matt to kill him, to take revenge. But he doesn’t, he can’t. This is how we know Season 2 shows us the real, when-it-all-comes-down-to-it moral difference between Daredevil and Punisher: as much as Matt agonizes over his own methods, as much as he tortures himself over enjoying inflicting pain on people who deserve it, Daredevil is still not the Punisher. Regardless of whether or not killing Sweeney would have been justified (and there are good arguments for both sides), Daredevil is opposed to killing period.
Buber also gives us insight into this: Matt is still a Catholic. Although his faith wavers, ultimately he believes that life and death should reside in God’s hands and God’s hands alone. It isn’t heavenly retribution that he fears, but only a recognition that he has no right to take away what God has given. Frank Castle, who admits to having once been Catholic, is on the other hand entirely lapsed. He only fears earthly retribution because being caught and incarcerated or executed would prevent him from being able to complete his mission.
Season 2 negotiates this difference between Punisher’s guilt and Daredevil’s guilt with its portrayal of Karen Page’s guilt, which is quite different than either man’s but very much in line with the contradictions that the show is interested in exposing. When we first met Karen in Season 1, she was being accused of a murder she did not commit. By the end of that first season, she actually had committed a murder – or at least a homicide, arguably in self-defense – when she killed Wilson Fisk’s assistant and best friend forever James Wesley. No one knows about this but Karen herself, and the guilt related to the event, as well as her wavering resentment toward Matt and consequent sympathy toward Frank, become an important emotional undercurrent for her character. Very near the end of Season 2 we learn (obliquely, and partly by inference) that Karen had a brother who was killed in a car crash when they were teenagers, and there is a strong implication that she had some responsibility for that event, or at least that she feels that she did.
And Karen Page completes the triangulation of the disconnect between the feeling of guilt and guilt itself, ontic guilt, that Daredevil Season 2 sets out to explore. Matt Murdock’s guilty feelings are related to a failure to act, but its relationship to events in the world is tempered by his religious beliefs. Frank Castle’s guilty feelings are also because of a passive occurrence, but in the absence of God and an indifference to the punishments of the earthly court, the actions fuelled by his guilty feelings are unrestrained. Karen Page actively ended the life of at least one person; she’s not much into religion but perhaps legally and for certain socially, knowledge of the event would carry quite real physical repercussions.
Buber himself references this sort of triangulation in his essay, when he writes “I have seen three important and, to me, dear men fall into long illnesses from their failing to stand the test in the days of an acute community guilt. The share of the psychogenic element in the illness could hardly be estimated, but its action was unmistakable. One of them refused to acknowledge his self-contradiction. The second resisted recognizing as serious a slight error he remembered that was attached to a very serious chain of circumstances. The third, however, would not let himself be forgiven by God for the blunder of a moment because he did not forgive himself. It now seems to me that all three needed and lacked competent helpers.
Bouncing these three characters, Daredevil, Punisher, and Karen Page, and their their of emotional and existential guilt off one another, showing all the ways they interact and interfere with each other, exposes the cracks in our philosophical understanding of the symbiosis between the mental and physical worlds, our lack of competent help – guilt is no epiphenomenon, existing in the mind without relation to genuine states of being in the world. Guilt is real and must be treated as any other existing thing must be treated. Otherwise, guilt will get away with it.
I think the punisher has to be one of my favorite characters in the marvel universe, if not for his character alone than the reframing of any story he stumbles into. One thing that I was thinking of when watching the Netflix daredevil series was the Punisher Max series of comics, which shows Castle in his old age. [WARNING, spoilers for Punisher Max below]
The cause of Frank’s brutality and determination is closely examined through these books, but what is really interesting (to me at least) is the arc where he meets Bullseye, who heavily implies that Frank let his family die. Given his near superhuman combat skills, Frank should have been able to detect and do something about the thugs who ended up killing his family. With Frank’s abilities and inclination towards violence it appears that he thrives in a combat environment, and perhaps wanted to return to the exciting life he knew.
The way that I like to view the punisher is a man whose own selfish desire for excitement cost him dearly. He is driven by his guilt, but also freed from his obligations as a father and member of society. This allows him to avenge his family and “protect” others while allowing him to feed his own selfish addiction. It is perhaps a darker take on Punisher (if that is even possible) but in my opinion a more humanizing one.