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).
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.
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.
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.