Netflix’s Punisher would be timely if it had anything coherent to say about gun violence

Nicole Rivelli /Netflix

It’s hard to imagine a worse time for a Punisher TV show. A little over a month after one of the worst mass murders in American history, in a country where mass shootings come at the rate of roughly one per day, the arrival of Marvel Comics’ favorite gun-wielding, spree-killing angry white man on Netflix is awkward, to say the least.

The Punisher has always been an antihero, a not-quite-good guy with a gun whose motivation for murder is initially sympathetic: bad guys killed his family, and justice has to be dispensed. When the Netflix series begins, however, he’s fresh from completing his quest for vengeance, and everyone on his original hit list is pushing daisies. If this were a movie, we’d be at the end, and it’d be time for Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) to put the guns down, get a lot of therapy, and move on with his life. But he can’t, because then Netflix and Marvel wouldn’t have a show, so he has to keep killing.

To their minor credit, showrunner Steve Lightfoot (a Hannibal writer-producer) and his team are smart enough to realize they have to say something about gun violence. Unfortunately, they never quite figure out what that should be.

Like numerous first-person shooter games that punch above their weight class, The Punisher tries to transcend its glorified violence by glazing the story with a thin sheen of social consciousness. It feints at addressing issues like PTSD, making America great again, and the experiences of veterans returning from war zones abroad. One of Castle’s friends, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) sets up Blackwater-esque military contracts; another, Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), runs a support group for veterans. But the show never reckons with deeper issues so much as it mentions them between fight scenes. It’s like tossing a thinking-face emoji into a gun fight, and hoping it comes across as self-aware and wise. It doesn’t. No matter how many sad faces Frank Castle makes about his trauma, The Punisher can never escape the terrible gravity that its most basic purpose is inviting viewers to enjoy watching an angry man murder as many people as he can.

It’s impossible to divorce The Punisher from guns; they are his costume, his origin story, his superpower. Lightfoot and his directors know this: the opening credits start with a slow-motion shot of a bullet firing, smoke billowing out from the barrel as the camera caresses the contours of various guns with an almost-pornographic delight. For those who might be slow on the uptake, the credits conclude with an arsenal of weapons slowly coalescing into the Punisher’s infamous skull logo. The Punisher equals guns. Got it.

This time around, Frank’s targets are corrupt military officials who are covering up war crimes in Afghanistan, like the so-called Agent Orange (Paul Schulze). The shadowy conspiracy spirals out to envelop former NSA analyst David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Homeland Security agent Dina Madani (Amber Rose Revah) and everyone’s favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe journalist, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll).

Photo by Nicole Rivelli / Netflix

Bernthal and the rest of the cast acquit themselves well with the material they’re given, but they aren’t given much. While Castle has a personal stake in this new drama — he served in the unit responsible for the war crimes — this series also marks the moment when he crosses the line from avenging his family to thinking he should just kill people in general, if he thinks they’re bad enough.

Gruesome revenge dramas have a long and illustrious history, from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. At their best, they explore the primal human desire to hurt those who have hurt us, and how this ethos usually multiplies tragedies rather than bringing them to an end. A smarter show might use the Punisher’s penchant for violence and guns to explore the folly of treating them as simple solutions, or consider how Frank Castle’s lethal war on crime might be feeding the cycle of violence, rather than extinguishing it. Unfortunately, that’s not on offer.

Instead, The Punisher returns to the well of the more common and exploitative form of the revenge story, one that imagines horrible crimes and injustices in order to justify the violence fans want to see on screen, and to absolve their consciences for wanting to see it. Each cruelty and mustache-twist of the villain stokes is calculated to enrage and horrify, until knives or bullets sliding into bodies is finally experienced as pleasure and relief.

Photo by Jessica Miglio / Netflix

Gerry Conway, who created the Punisher in 1974, originally conceived of him as a throwaway character who would try to murder Spider-Man for a few issues. But the character’s brutal “ends justify the means” approach made him a fan favorite in his own right. Conway, who filed for conscientious-objector status during the Vietnam War, finds the lionization of the character uncomfortable, particularly by the American soldiers fighting ISIS abroad who adopted the character’s symbol. “In my mind he’s not a good guy,” Conway told Time. He thinks that what makes the Punisher compelling to some people is precisely what makes him so disconcerting to others: his ability to shoot his way past the moral complexities of a situation and never look back. “Here’s a guy that never questions himself,” says Conway. “He never asks, ‘am I doing the right thing?’ I think there is something really attractive about that to people.”

Although lauded as a badass by fans who appreciate the moral simplicity and confidence of rampant, uncaring destruction, Frank Castle is better described as a tragic character, a deeply traumatized man unable to stop killing not just because of his own fictional compulsions, but because the popular mythology of the Punisher requires it. If he were allowed to heal from the wounds of his family’s deaths or his military service, he would be a different character entirely. So he’s doomed, like a blood-drenched Sisyphus cursed to push a murder-boulder up a hill forever.

In that regard, he shares a surprising amount of thematic overlap with Batman, a similarly vengeful crime-fighting vigilante who can’t ever end his protracted crusade against wrongdoers. Both characters had their families brutally gunned down, and they responded by creating alter egos who could dispense the justice they never received from the system. But they’re most interesting in the places where they diverge. Where Batman responded to his trauma by becoming fervently anti-gun, Frank Castle swung in the other direction, by arming himself to the teeth and firing bullets in the direction of anyone he deems worthy of death. There’s a simple reason for this, from a narrative perspective: guns are expressly designed to kill. If you don’t want your vigilante hero to be a murderer, don’t give him a gun. Conversely, if you do want to see him murder people, give him lots of guns.

Photo by Nicole Rivelli / Netflix

And he certainly has murdered a lot of people. The Punisher isn’t the first member of the superhero set to wield guns or take lives, but as is often the case with gun violence, the issue is a matter of scale. Marvel Comics editor Steven Wacker estimated earlier in 2017 that Punisher has killed 48,502 people since his first appearance, a death toll that would likely make him the worst mass murderer in history. That’s more than 16,000 gravestones for every member of his family who was killed, a vast overreaction by even the most vengeful standard.

Much like Batman will brood forever in his underground man-cave, and Spider-Man will swing forever through the streets of New York City making quips, the Punisher will always kill, because that’s what he was made for. In that way, he is very much like the weapons he carries, constructed for a singular and terrible purpose: death. It’s no surprise that he delivers on the promise, or that viewers might find something exciting and even heroic about a working-class man wielding these tools of terror on behalf of underdogs and little guys. It's hard to think of a Marvel character that better channels the mentality at the heart of the American gun epidemic; it's too bad The Punisher has so little to say about it.

The Punisher debuts on Netflix on November 17th, 2017.

Comments

This reminds that in the 80’s (or 90’s?) the FBI published an image on tons of games and movies "Winners don’t use drugs". I don’t think it helped, not even a bit.

Politically speaking, both the left and right agree that gun violence is a bad thing. However, the right and the left have totally different solution. The left wants more regulation, while the right (and the NRA) tries to push guns everywhere and few months ago there was a bill that was signed that would allow mentally people to purchase guns (see here).

I’m pretty sure Netflix do not want to get into this mess. After all, their revenue is from subscribers, and the last thing they want to have – is loosing customers due to statements that can be interpeted either as a "left" or "right".

Doesn’t need to make a statement anyway. It’s entertainment and plenty of people on the left love the punisher as is. So do the right. Netflix made the right call and The Verge’s suggestion would alienate too many viewers to be worth it.

Besides, Netflix already has a Marvel series to be preachy with (Daredevil).

Preachy with? Media has always been rooted in politics. There’s plenty of easily digestible bullshit out there for you to watch already.

Calm down buddy, you don’t need to take a comment on the internet so personally.

Doesn’t need to make a statement anyway. It’s entertainment and plenty of people love Pawn Stars as it is. History made the right call and The Verge’s suggestion to make better TV would alienate too many viewers to be worth it.

We can only have TV shows that appeal to the lowest common denominator/widest audience, lest we risk offending the NRA and its supporters.

I hate the NRA as much as anyone, but The Punisher doesn’t need to make a stand about gun control.

Thank you! Not everything has to be a statement these days. I love the Punisher and I love a good revenge story. I don’t want to be preached to while watching this show. Let me sit back and enjoy a good story.

I disagree. I think it’s a fair criticism to look at portraying a mass murderer as a "hero" in light of this country’s crisis of gun violence. As a long-time self-described comics nerd, I’ve never liked the Punisher as a character, because well, heroes don’t murder people. And to glorify him now, in the wake of Las Vegas and all the other recent (and continuing) horrific acts of gun violence, I think it’s tone-deaf at best, and morally reprehensible of Marvel to do.

Thanks for the article, I’ve been thinking the same thing. If you don’t critically look at the media you’re consuming, then you likely won’t see any issues around a series dedicated to the crimes of an unhinged, gun-toting, murderous White man. Luckily there are many folks who do.

I’ve never liked the Punisher as a character, because well, heroes don’t murder people.

Sounds like this show isn’t for you then. Problem solved – easy!

haha, he was created in the early 70s, not 2017. Chill out dude, he’s fictional.

I think it’s a fair criticism to look at portraying a mass murderer as a "hero" in light of this country’s crisis of gun violence

He’s not even a hero, he’s an antihero. And the show actually addresses that issue if you watch it. I just did over the weekend and a big theme is whether or not he’s a terrorist. One thing for sure is that he’s not a hero. He’s out for revenge, not to save people.

Not saying don’t write this article or criticize The Punisher. Just pointless for his show to support or be against gun control in my opinion.

because well, heroes don’t murder people

So you don’t like any comic book heroes, then?

You’re comparing drug use and gun violence? Okay there. Americans.

Are you honestly telling me you don’t like any action movie which has non critical gun violence in it? Read basically 99.9% of action movies released in human history? If the answer is "yes there were some that I enjoyed" how are you not a hypocrite?

That’s such a bullshit argument I don’t even know where to start.

please elaborate

Does it make you an hypocrite to not allow your kid to drink alcohol because you got drunk when underage?
With that logic you couldn’t criticize anything without 100% hating it or you would immediately be a "hypocrite".

How is your example in any way equivalent? In this example it would rather be criticising somebody for drinking vodka because of the alcohol in it, but at the same time drinking whiskey and liking it and yes, I would consider that hypocrite.

You can like or enjoy something and at the same time realize that it is harmful and not good. I drink beer and like it. I know it has alcohol and alcohol is poisonous. I still like Kevin Spacey movies and at the same time don’t like sexual predators hitting on underaged boys. I can like an action movie. Doesn’t mean I can’t criticize uncritical and unreflected use of violence in that same movie. Doesn’t make me an hypocrite. Things are not black or white.

So let me ask it this way: Do you honestly want no action movies anymore with uncritical gun violence? No James Bonds, no Tarantino Movies, no Westerns, … I could go on forever.

I sometimes like to watch these and I would see it as a value loss if we would lose them.

Yes, I would greatly prefer if those movies would critically reflect the violence they show (note: being critical about gun violence is not the same as removing gun violence). It would simply make for better, more intelligent movies. I like to watch better, more intelligent movies. If the newest James Bond or John Wick movie doesn’t do that I will still enjoy it – but I will also roll my eyes hard everytime they gratuitously shoot people as if they are lifeless props.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag_AFraxj-4

I disagree. One aspect of watching a movie is to escape reality. If a director wants his movie to be in a reality where the protagonist can shoot guns (may it be real ones or laser beams or old ones for a pirate movie or …) without being horrified about the potential consequences, I see no problem with that.
Movies are entertaining because they show stuff you would and can’t do normally.

Just out of interest – What is your stance on gun violence in games?

Again: I have nothing against fictional violence. I can also enjoy movies or games with needless violence. But I also recognize said needless violence and wish it could be less needless and I wish shooting people would be less fetishized. My top movies and top games are the ones that have more to offer than "look how cool he can shoot people". I can wish for smarter things. I don’t see why you wouldn’t wish for things to be smarter. Escapism, sure, yeah, whatever… but I don’t understand why for you it seems to be a contradiction to have something wildly entertaining and still smart in it’s underlying theme. I don’t think it is a necessity for an action movie to be "dumb" in order to be fun.

Nobody said it’s a necessity. But I don’t want to ban ideas. If a director has a very cool vision for a universe in which guns are used without thinking about it and it works then I’m all for it.

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