Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I watched several popular versions of vigilante films, notably starring Charles Bronson (Death Wish), Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, Hang ‘Em High), and Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack).
Simultaneously, I became a reader and collector of superhero comic books by Marvel. At the core of superhero comics—both the problem with and within the sub-genre—is the moral and ethical elements of vigilanteism and the tension between the rule of law and justice.
Virtually every superhero narrative is directly or indirectly addressing that moral dilemma, but many superhero characterizations have alluded to the real-world conflict between Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence as a path to justice and Malcolm X’s embracing “by any means necessary.”
Too often those allusions are simplified if not ham-fisted; consider for example Professor X and Magneto in both films and print comic books.
One of the better efforts to interrogate the role of violence in seeking justice, I think, is the Daredevil/Punisher arc in the Netflix Daredevil series. It is “better,” I think, because the characterizations of both Daredevil and the Punisher are messier and slightly more realistic than print comic books.
The Daredevil reboot in 2022, volume 7, has been working back to this confrontation. I have examined how this storyline initially made me very nervous, and then, in issue 6, took a turn toward the complicating elements that are at the core of the original Netflix series.
Issue 7 opens by framing the Punisher, Frank Castle as a murderer, insane, and a pawn of The Hand:
This framing complicates both the act of vigilanteism as well as the different moral imperatives that guide Daredevil and the Punisher. For Daredevil, he must see himself as substantially distinct from the Punisher in mentality, intent, actions, and outcomes; remember, Daredevil has evoked that he knows the mind of god:
Another excellent complication in issue 7 is the role of free will , a tension that rests at the center of faith, religion, and perceptions of g/God: If g/God is all powerful and all knowing, where does that leave human free will?
Daredevil, of course, must believe simultaneously in a world of god and that he has free will to behave in ethical ways, with moral imperatives that the Punisher chooses to ignore.
And here this issues evokes a powerful and, again, complex examination of the rule of law:
This is the sort of nuanced distinctions Martin Luther King Jr. made during his non-violent protests:
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.
Man-made law versus the law of God as well as the purposes and consequences of laws/breaking the law sits at the center of Daredevil’s quest continued in issue 7:
Directly and indirectly, Zdarsky has been exploring the tensions between capitalism/materialism and socialism/spirituality; here, the police state is framed as a tool of capitalism (“protecting property over people”), thus justifying Daredevil’s lawbreaking.
The code of ethics for the Fist becomes “help people” and “violence when necessary”:
While the narrative so far of Daredevil v7 has focused almost entirely on a new iteration of Daredevil, issue 7 reminds us that Matt Murdock is an (at least) equal partner in the quest for justice:
Daredevil as “decent superhero,” and Matt Murdock as “damned good lawyer” (with the added ironic layer of “damned”).
Bullet proves to be an important character in the Daredevil/Punisher dynamic because he adds complexity and confrontations to their differences and ultimately introduces important elements, a child and overt references to socialism/capitalism (linked to the philosophies of Jesus and property over people in the storytelling):
What and who is being consumed in capitalism/consumerism and who is allowed to go hungry —these social commentaries hang over the more melodramatic aspects of superhero narratives.
While great efforts (especially by Daredevil) are made to distinguish Daredevil from the Punisher, we learn that their common ground is children:
The issue ends by returning to enduring Biblical questions about the sin’s of the father and the sins of the son as well as the pervasive presence of evil.
Readers are now poised to watch mere mortals battle in the names of god and evil, and we must wonder if any real distinction exists when violence is always an option.
 The iconic aliens of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five marvel at the idealistic delusion of the human race when challenged by Billy Pilgrim about free will:
“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”[Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kindle Locations 1008-1010). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.]
If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away the happiness of thousands for the chance of happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula K Le Guin
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula K Le Guin