Daredevil: Embracing The Punisher As A Concept And Not A Character


The appearance of the Punisher in Marvel’s Daredevil Season 2 wasn’t just the best one to-date, it was praised by critics and fans. We explore how Marvel Studios made the Punisher a success by embracing him as a concept and not a character.

I’m going to admit something that no other comic book fan should have to admit. I just finished watching Daredevil Season 2. What!? You didn’t binge watch it!? What kind of a comic fan are you, Steve!? I know, I thoroughly apologize. I’m aware how shameful that sounds. However, one good thing came out of watching the whole season day-by-day — it allowed me to ponder on what made the overall character of the Punisher and his story work.

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Season 1 of Daredevil has proven to be a tour de force of story, plotting, and character development — and Season 2 is no different. In fact, Season 2 is probably even more impressive by comparison. The show didn’t have to deal with an origin story or heavy world building. It was pure, unadulterated Man Without Fear action. To spice things up a bit more (like Daredevil really needed any more paprika), the writers decided to add in the Punisher as an, initial, antagonistic force.

And what a force he turned out to be. The Punisher, a.k.a. Frank Castle, exploded onto the scene and made his presence immediately known. What was most impressive was that this wasn’t done with him fighting or showing his rage-filled face — it was done with a barrage of bullets and leftover carnage. Yes, the writers chose to introduce our judge, jury, and executioner as a result and not as an embodied being. Because of that, this incarnation of the Punisher became not only the best one, but the correct one — a concept of black-and-white justice.

To understand why treating the Punisher as a concept works, we’ll need to first explore what didn’t work in past incarnations. The Punisher has had a pretty harrowing journey in live-action film. The first one was The Punisher (1989), which starred Dolph Lundgren. This direct-to-video debacle was derided by critics and fans of the character. Omitting large chunks of what made the Punisher compelling, the film was basically one long action sequence filled with brutality and violence. It also portrayed him as a mentally sick man.

The second try was The Punisher (2004), which starred Thomas Jane as the famous anti-hero. Although it was a slight improvement over the the 1989 film, it still didn’t capture the true nature and concept of the Punisher. Critics and fans applauded Thomas Jane’s acting, but the overall storyline and motivations for the character didn’t do the comic book justice.

The last film was Punisher: War Zone (2008), which starred Ray Stevenson. You would think that the third time’s the charm. Well, not in this case. The film was a box-office bomb and both fans and critics thought the essence of the source material was completely ignored.

So what makes this incarnation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so right and so compelling? Marvel Studios threw out the formula of treating the Punisher as a damaged man. Don’t get me wrong, the Punisher still has his issues. However, Marvel Studios understood that the Punisher is a concept, not a character. What’s the difference? A concept is unwavering. It doesn’t change. It’s also abstract. A character entails arcing and growing.

The day Frank Castle saw his family murdered before him was the day that character died, but it was also the birth of the concept of the Punisher. The Punisher doesn’t change, and he shouldn’t. Marvel Studios did the correct thing by introducing the Punisher as an initial antagonist to Daredevil — a character who has arced and changed since the last time we saw him in Season 1. Daredevil has learned not to kill, and that everyone, no matter how evil, deserves to live. The Punisher doesn’t see eye-to-eye with this idea.

At every moment, the Punisher challenges Daredevil’s notions of justice. These two forces juxtapose each other. Both have a mission to take down the bad guys, but with very different methods and metrics for success. Paraphrasing the Punisher, “When Daredevil hits his opponents, they get back up. When he hits them, they stay down.” The Punisher is the idea of the ultimate justice. Everything to him is an ultimatum. There is no rehabilitation. There is only retribution.

The Punisher also doesn’t tell his own story. He let’s other characters do it for him. Karen Page had to perform her own research into the identity of the Punisher and what drove him. It was only then that the Punisher confirmed her findings. And the confirmation is even more compelling. Though the Punisher is a “damaged” character, he’s not insane. On the stand, he reiterates his self-awareness. His acts are not the result of mental instability. They are the acts of commitment and the pursuit of a goal — total uncompromising justice.

Another scene that solidified the Punisher as a concept was when he was about to kill Colonel Schoonover. Karen gave him the ultimatum “If you kill him, you’re dead to me.” Ignoring Karen’s pleas, the Punisher carried out the execution without a second thought. Some may take it as a symbolism of the Punisher “already being dead.” However, I think the writers aren’t that shallow. The whole scene was to show the audience that you cannot reason with a concept. An idea is everlasting. It has no conscience, and it certainly doesn’t yield to emotional cries.

In past incarnations of the Punisher, the writers tried to explain the reasons behind the character’s actions. They tried to elicit sympathy. They tried to pose the question and theme of “What would you do if your loved ones were violently taken from you?” And they did that asking with a single lone character set up as a protagonist. Without an opposing view — or an opposing concept — the Punisher never gained the respect he needed in live-action.

Because we see the Punisher introduced in a world where a hero already exists, it makes his appearance that much more interesting. We get to see two sides of crime-fighting. At times, I found myself agreeing with Daredevil. But after seeing the Punisher’s reasons and his results, I was sold on his point-of-view. It was this back-and-forth debate that made Season 2 so engrossing. It’s basically a character, Daredevil, fighting against a concept, the Punisher. The Punisher, being the great abstract idea that he is, at one point, says this to Daredevil, “You’re one bad day away from becoming me.” This, again, reiterates that Daredevil, a character, could one day change and embrace the concept of an ultimate justice — the Punisher.

Marvel’s Daredevil Season 2 has now done what no other studio has been able to do — fully realize the Punisher in a live-action incarnation. The reason Marvel Studios was so successful was because they embraced the Punisher as a concept and not as a character. By showing the Punisher as an idea that went against Daredevil, Marvel was able to start a dialogue about justice and how it should be carried out. Concepts are more powerful than characters — and the Punisher was defiintely shown as a force to be reckoned with.