“You’re just one bad day away from becoming me.” – Punisher
One sentence. One sentence that separates the psycho vigilante from the morality obsessed Matt Murdock.
One sentence that sent my mind rewinding, cartoon-style, to the following panels in the original Civil War comic series.
“Are you kidding me? Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam. Same guy, different war.” “Wrong. Frank Castle is insane.”
Those panels gut me every time. Every. Single. Time. Now, for what it’s worth, I’m never Team Cap. Never. I might be Team Chris Evans Is Adorable. I’m never Team Cap. He’s too self-righteously milquetoast for me. So, in the interest of honesty, I admit to a major bias. While watching Daredevil Season 2, my brain kept coming back to this scene. Cap punching Punisher after Castle has just blown away a bunch of villains attempting to join Cap’s team, and Cap calling him a murderous piece of trash. Gutted, I tell you.
Murdock’s boy scout morality in Daredevil, reminiscent of Captain America, and the continual facepunch of righteousness was possibly one of the few things that I found full-on annoying throughout Season 2. Admittedly, I feel that Marvel did a great job engaging all of us in the upcoming Civil War discussion. To the extent that the movie follows the general premise of the books regarding registration, yadda government yadda, the Castle/Murdock morality paradox is almost the defining discussion. In the same way that Comic Book Cap doesn’t trust Punisher because he’s insane, Netflix Daredevil doesn’t trust Punisher. And yet, as Shiri pointed out, Punisher is probably the most predictably moral character in all of Daredevil Season 2.
The difference between Civil War and Daredevil, of course, is that we feel bad for Punisher getting his heinie kicked by his hero in Civil War. Punisher, however, manages to beat the everloving crap out of Daredevil several times. Taking the pathos out of the scene, to me, removes some of what’s most important. In Civil War, Cap’s continuous pummeling of Punisher begs the question: who’s really insane?
All of this, then, sent my little researcher soul into a tizzy. I wasn’t reading Punisher when the book first came out. So, how can I even begin to geekalyze this? I need primary documents, y’all. And off to my Marvel Unlimited account I went. (Totally not paid for, that plug. I just totes love my Unlimited account for this kind of thing and for teaching.) Lo and behold, in Punisher #1, a private non-governmental entity engages Punisher to help protect New York. But let’s take a look at some of the imagery. After Punisher kills a whole mess of Rykers Island’s “Most Wanted,” he is revealed in all his muscular glory as the warden, a quasi-police/military figure, tells the guards that Castle is to be left alone:
Something about this image struck me. I went back to Captain America #1, and all y’all, I was mind-diggity-blown:
Let’s not forget that the vague green tint to Punisher evokes the Hulk’s rage monster qualities. However, first keep in mind, in Hulk #1, our favorite green rage monster wasn’t entirely bright green but a gray-green. Second, the first transformation of Hulk is in a several-panel series as opposed to Cap’s back-to-us transformation. In both Captain America #1 and Punisher #1, the titular characters gain authority from officials with their back to the audience in similar stances. The physical imagery in these works is utilized to show the transfer of physical power and moral authority to these characters.
The contrast in the images, however, speaks more loudly than the similarities. Cap is pictured as having a white halo of light emanating from his body while a blue light is cast upon Frank’s body. While Cap’s power comes from within him, Frank’s appears to be cast upon him without his consent. This imagery shows the difference between their moralities. Steve Rogers chose to take the side of righteousness of his own volition. He volunteered to speak for the weak and to stand up to those who would do evil. Frank Castle had injustice showered upon him in a rain of bullet fire killing his family. He chose his path not out of a sense of righteousness but out of a sense of vindication for the innocent. There’s a difference. Although both fight for the weak, their methodologies differ.
These methodologies are both visually and narratively based in their first issues. Steve Rogers volunteers to be a solider, causing the government to transform him into his alter ego. Frank volunteers to be a soldier, and later, his alter ego Punisher is asked to avenge a helpless city. Steve represents the naïveté of a New York City engaging in a battle overseas. Frank represents the cynicism of a New York City engaging in a battle with its own people. Captain America desires the end of the inhuman, un-American violence raging in Europe. Punisher desires the end of the inhuman, un-American violence raging in his own city. Their desires are the same. Their origins are different. Their morality is the same. Their methods are different.
Morality is one of those mushy amoeba things. We want to think that there is a right and a wrong. We want to think that morality is black and white. “Oh no, I’d never kill someone,” we tell ourselves. But then, as parents, we look down at our children and realize that we would kill someone if it meant that was the only way to protect our kids. “Stealing is wrong,” we say. Then we imagine ourselves in a Jean Valjean-style situation, and we realize that we would indeed steal that loaf of bread to feed our family. In the end, we’re all just one bad day from being Frank Castle, even when we really want to be Cap.