One of the main themes throughout Daredevil season 2 is the question of what vigilante superheroes should do with criminals once they’re apprehended. There’s the approach taken by the title character: Work within the law as much as possible and trust the system to reform the individual. Contrasting this is Frank Castle’s idea that criminals are irredeemable and the legal system doesn’t go far enough to punish them. While it’s appreciated that the writers don’t take sides and leave the viewer to decide who’s right or wrong, Daredevil’s argument is completely undercut by the narrative and its failure to properly reinforce his ideals.
The theme of trusting the law is apparent throughout all of season 2 but it’s best encapsulated in the third episode. Daredevil is chained on top of a roof by Frank Castle (aka The Punisher) and the episode revolves around the two of them debating their approaches. The relevant exchange is posted below with Daredevil’s words in red.
“I’m not a bad guy, Red.”
“You wanna explain that to the orphans and the widows of the men you killed?”
“For Christ’s sake, that’s what you think? I’m just some crazy asshole going around unloading on whoever I want to?”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I think.”
“You think you’re anything else?”
“I think that the people I kill need killing, that’s what I think.”
“You left men hanging from meat hooks!”
“They got off easy, in my opinion.”
“You shot up a hospital.”
“Yeah and nobody got hurt who didn’t deserve it.”
“Oh, yeah. What about you, Frank? What happens the day someone decides you deserve it?”
“I tell you what, they better not miss.”
“Come on, you run around this city like it’s your damn shooting gallery. You think you do–“
“Yeah, what do you do? What do you do? You act like it’s a playground. You beat up the bullies with your fists. You throw ’em in jail, everybody calls you a hero, right? And then a month, a week, a day later, they’re back on the streets doing the same goddamn thing–”
“Yeah, so you just put ’em in the morgue.”
“You’re goddamn right, I do.”
“You ever doubt yourself, Frank?”
“Not even for a second.”
“Really? Really? You never think for one second, ‘Shit, I just killed a human being’?”
“That’s being pretty generous.”
“A human being who did a lot of stupid shit, maybe even evil, but had one small piece of goodness in him. Maybe just a scrap, Frank, but something. And then you come along and that one tiny flicker of light gets snuffed out forever.”
“I think you’re wrong.”
“All of it. I think there’s no good in the filth that I put down, that’s what I think.”
“And how do you know?”
“I just know. Look around, Red. This city, it stinks. It’s a sewer. It stinks and it smells like shit and I can’t get the stink out of my nose. I think that this world, it needs men that are willing to make the hard call. I think you and me are the same!”
“That’s bullshit, Frank, and you know it!”
“Only I do the one thing that you can’t. You hit ’em and they get back up. I hit ’em and they stay down. It’s permanent. I make sure that they don’t make it out on the street again. I take pride in that.”
“Let me ask you this.”
“What about hope?”
“Come on, Frank–“
“You wanna talk about Santa Claus?”
“I live in the real world too and I’ve seen it.”
“Yeah. What have you seen?”
“Ah, Jesus Christ.”
“It’s real. And it’s possible. The people you murder deserve another chance.”
“What, to kill again? Rape again? Is that what you want?”
“No, Frank. To try again, Frank. To try. And if you don’t get that, there’s something broken in you you can’t fix and you really are a nutjob.”
Clearly, Daredevil believes criminals can rehabilitate themselves or, at the very least, deserve the chance to do so. Unfortunately, the narrative completely undercuts his entire argument. He believes in the law despite admitting that it sometimes isn’t always enough to do what’s necessary, thus it’s acceptable to act outside of it. His criticism of The Punisher’s actions and motives are understandable, they are also completely unsubstantiated. Also, while Daredevil is convinced people should have a shot to redeem themselves, there’s no one in the story who actually does this.
It’s a bit hypocritical for Daredevil to be chastising The Punisher for operating outside the law when he has no qualms himself. He even admits to his best friend, Foggy Nelson, that operating within the law has its limits. His admission comes an episode after going to a warehouse with the intent to kill Wilson Fisk, to which Foggy responds, “It’s not enough playing judge and jury? You gotta add executioner to the list? What happened to all that talk about going after him through the system? Making the law work for us?” Daredevil’s reply: “Sometimes the law isn’t enough.” The Punisher’s absolutely right when he insists there’s no difference between the two of them other than methods.
Speaking of The Punisher’s methods, Daredevil’s critique of them is understandable but also unsubstantiated. Punisher’s right that nobody got hurt who didn’t deserve it when he “shot up” the hospital (i.e. nobody died and anyone thinking about the cop who got assaulted should remember most cops outside of Brett are corrupt and easily bought off by someone with power and influence). Leaving criminals hanging by meat hooks is a valid criticism in Daredevil’s favor but can be countered by the bone-breaking interrogations he often commits. Basically, if a vigilante is going to operate outside the law, what good does it do to half-ass it (other than to morally justify what they do)?
Daredevil believes in criminals having a chance to redeem themselves but so far, no one on the show has been able to successfully rehabilitate themselves. Turk, for instance, is still a career criminal who (despite being monitored by the police) has gone from human trafficking to dealing in illegal weaponry. Wilson Fisk is hellbent on becoming the Kingpin of crime in New York City again and seeking vengeance on the people who put him away. The only person who can even be remotely argued to be “rehabbed” is Melvin, who was only threatened into making ballistic vests for Fisk. In other words, if there was someone who had been engaged in serious criminal activity and then changed their ways, Daredevil’s argument that “people should have the chance to redeem themselves” would have some weight to it. Instead, everyone on the show doubles down on being a criminal and Daredevil’s belief relies on a viewer’s preexisting beliefs to trust him. A character who was once a criminal and turned away from it to the side of good would have been much more effective.
Ultimately, Foggy Nelson’s belief that it’s better to operate within the law has more merit than Daredevil’s approach. However, if the drama of the show is going to revolve around how far vigilantism should go, than it’s no surprise The Punisher’s methods win out. Daredevil’s argument lacks substance because he really is an ineffective half-measure. Belief in people redeeming themselves is a nice sentiment but it’s not a practical one, seeing as how no one in the series has been able to turn away from their criminal nature. Is it any surprise then that people empathize with The Punisher and support him over the archetypal superhero?