Close your eyes and imagine a long-running battle between a hero and a villain coming to an end. It doesn’t matter which hero or which villain; they’re all interchangeable here. It doesn’t matter how long the two have been pitted against each other — ten episodes, maybe twenty, maybe 110 minutes of a two-hour movie.
It always comes down to this.
The hero, after coming this close to losing the last battle, finally has the upperhand. He stands over the villain who lies prone in the dirt, rain pelting his face, spitting out what he knows will be his last furious words. He’s killed dozens. Hundreds. Maybe thousands. Terrorized a city — or a country — or a planet. Caused untold pain and suffering. Yet, he’s still full of rage. The world is what’s wrong; not him.
You can see it in the hero’s eyes. He can finally end this. He can put the bad guy in the ground — end his villainy for good. He wants to. He knows he should.
But he hesitates. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a law emerges. A law which says he must be better than his enemy. And that means he, the hero, cannot kill the villain.
A (Problematic) Double Standard?
I’m not sold on the hero-can’t-kill-the-villain rule that seems to be the norm in the comic book-based TV and movie productions beloved by millions. Death, for some villains, seems justified in my opinion. Not long ago, I advocated that Supergirl & Co. would have been well within their rights to take the life of the Kryptonian Worldkiller Reign at the end of Season 3. But the decision not to is typical of superhero fare: heroes choose not to kill their archenemies either due to their own moral code (Batman vs. the Joker in The Dark Knight) or due to urging by a secondary character that the hero must be better than his enemy (Barry Allen vs. Eobard Thawne in The Flash). Admittedly, there is a smaller subset of stories where the villain dies at the hands of a secondary character (Catwoman vs. Bane in The Dark Knight Rises) or brings about his own death due to events already in motion or by forcing the hero’s hand (Superman vs. Zod in Man of Steel). But these climaxes only serve to keep the hands of the hero clean and uphold the virtue of the hero in the eyes of the audience.
Netflix’s The Punisher, however, introduces us to a “hero” who kills his enemies without compunction — with the cold conviction that Bad. Guys. Must. Die. That conviction carries through Season 1, with Frank Castle killing, or attempting to kill, numerous enemies — until the final episode when he faces his greatest enemy and the author of all his nightmares, his ex-military buddy Billy Russo. Castle opts to let Russo live, severely damaging his face in an attempt to force him to be reminded of his evil deeds for the rest of his days.
And, so, the most bloody, violent, and death-filled adaptation of a comic book property in recent history submits to the rule that the hero can only maintain his heroism by not killing the villain, no matter the villain’s crimes. Somehow, we’ve come to accept this as just and right.
In a cruel and ironic twist, Punisher Season 2 opens with Billy Russo suffering from memory loss — thereby escaping the punishment Frank Castle designed for him.
The oddity of Frank Castle not, well, punishing in his usual manner carries throughout Season 2 with Castle laying down his gun at times when he otherwise would have put a bullet (or several) through his adversary.
A hero’s motivations for killing (or, more likely, not killing) his ultimate enemy — and our (the audience’s) acceptance of these heroes’ stories — raise interesting questions about our collective perspective on life, death, and punishment in the real world.
No-Kill Rule? Y/N/IDK
Deep down, do we agree with a hero’s decision not to kill a murderous villain? Or are we simply committed to preserving our own high moral ground of never sinking to the level of our enemies — no matter how much they deserve it? Certainly, it makes us feel better to say we are superior to our adversaries.
But isn’t justice an eye for an eye? Or is there no more appetite for this brand of punishment in the present day (at least in the West)?
What about the families of those killed or otherwise affected by a villain’s actions? Is escaping a punishment that fits the crime justice for them?
What justifies letting a villain live if he has blood on his hands?
The Bible and The Punisher
I could argue from the Old Testament that The Punisher is an accurate depiction of biblical restitution. I could argue that even from the New Testament, for it’s in Romans that we read, “the wages of sin is death.” Sin — all sin, any sin — deserves death in God’s eyes. And maybe that’s why we as humans reject that view. If all have sinned, and the wages of sin is death, then all deserve death. But who among us will admit our own death-deservingness, and who among us will advocate for the death-deservingness of others? Humans, sinful as we are, seem to think we are more reasonable than God: that God is too harsh and that our ways are better, nicer.
In the Old Testament, God authorizes the death of the wicked, but also declares that He takes no pleasure in it and that He would rather the wicked repent than die. Similarly, the Punisher takes no pleasure in his kills. We never see him celebrating the demise of his enemies.
The debate over “gun culture” aside, can we, as a society, embrace a “hero” like the Punisher? After all, didn’t the “mighty men” and women of the Old Testament operate in the same vein? David slaughtered hundreds of Philistines, took the skin off their foreheads, and brought it to Saul. Ehud tricked the servants of anm obese Canaanite king so he would have the opportunity to stab him when his guard was down. Jael was celebrated for driving a tent peg through the skull of an enemy general whom she lulled to sleep in her tent. The newly-anointed King Jehu rode into Samaria and called for those “on the Lord’s side” to throw the wicked Queen Jezebel out of an upper story window, after which he trampled her under his horse’s hooves, and left her body in the street for the dogs to eat. And can we forget Elijah’s slaughter of the 400 prophets of Baal? Or Samson’s slaughter of hundreds of Philistines in brutal fashion on multiple occasions?
Fine. Take a breather. Let’s say it was a wilder, rougher, more difficult time then. Things change. The world changes. Even God told David he didn’t want him to build his Temple because he had so much blood on his hands.
Ethic of Life
Is the superhero ethic of life comparable to the New Testament ethic of mercy and grace? Could it be an embodiment even? When the Punisher decides not to kill, is he making a more ethically and morally commendable decision? Is he making a godlier choice?
Maybe our support of the tendency to choose life — even for the worst of villains — shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Maybe this is progress.
Maybe it’s a move toward a godlier, nobler, more life-embracing world.