The Punisher – An Artfully Crafted Moral Vacuum

Not a review exactly – minor spoilers.

First debuting in Netflix’s Daredevil Season 2, the TV version of Marvel’s Punisher now has his own Netflix series. It is good in lots of ways. Jon Bernthal is a talented actor who pulls the contradictions of Frank ‘The Punisher’ Castle together convincingly. The dialogue and performances of the broader cast is effective. While slow moving at times, each episode remains compelling to watch.

There are generic flaws – the first episode is somewhat disposable and as with the other Netflix Marvel shows, some of the middle episodes are actually inconsequential and without them the series would have been tighter. I get an overall impression of a set of writers and directors who have looked at prestige TV shows and figured out what to do. So while the show isn’t The Wire, it is a show that is aware that such a show existed and that TV can be shaped in a particular way.

But this is not a general review. What I wanted to discuss was the wisdom of making the show in the first place. I certainly had my doubts when it was announced and it was also clear that Marvel were nervous about making a show centered on a character defined by his gun-fueled killing sprees. While any of the TV/Movie versions of Marvel characters have some scope for re-invention, The Punisher has to act as a one man extra-judicial death squad. A plot line can expand his motivation or show other aspects of his character and he doesn’t even need his distinctive skull logo but sooner or later if he doesn’t kill lots of bad guys then he simply isn’t The Punisher.

As such, Frank Castle is an extrapolation of the ethical problem of most superheroes. If they act as agents of the state they are one thing (glorified police officers?), but if they act as figures of law and order and the status quo but without state sanction then what are they? Part of the attraction of the X-Men as a franchise is that they can be a third thing – people with powers acting against the society (or at least an aspect of it). However, in general the major comic book publishers are not keen on the notion of revolutionary superheroes.

Yet the space superheroes can map onto into our real world falls into three regions:

  • Agents of the state
  • Vigilantes
  • Revolutionaries

Each of which are unpalatable in their own ways for populist stories that avoid taking too much of an ideological stance. So, you can see in the positioning of characters in Marvel properties a quest for some fourth thing or things that characters can be.

  • Jessica Jones – is a private detective. Neither a vigilante nor an officer of the state but in a legitimate role.
  • Luke Cage – not yet a ‘hero for hire’ in the TV version but primarily trying to help people out as a man with social responsibilities. He sits on the other side of a line from ‘vigilante’ in so far as he is trying to just be a good person who happens to be bullet proof.
  • Dr Strange and other similar characters defend a different kind of status quo in a different domain. Supernatural and otherworldly threats provide an alternative role for the superhero – fighting forces that only they can fight. Notably, the Netflix Defenders series took this route for the combo of Cage, Jones, Daredevil and Iron Fist.

But this fourth space for superheroes to occupy for non-otherworldly threats poses problems for Marvel (and for DC). This vacuum was eluded too but not examined in Captain America: Civil War. Captain America’s stance not to sign the Sokovia Accords was not well examined or explained. Instead, the rightness of his stance is largely just assumed as an extension of Steve Rogers own integrity. That manages to just about work in that film so long as you don’t pay too much attention to it but on closer examination Rogers really has to choose to be either an agent of the state or a vigilante. If you call yourself ‘Captain America’ then you can either be a soldier employed and held accountable by the state or your indistinguishable from a nutty ‘militia’ hiding in a compound and plotting against the BATF.

The Punisher series gets this. It really is genuinely aware of these issues – mainly because they become unavoidable when your central character uses military equipment to murder criminals without trial. It even gets that there are issues with all the alternatives. Aside from the first episode, the antagonists in the story are variously:

  • An megalomaniac CIA official
  • a US Army death squad operating in Afghanistan
  • A Blackwater-like independent military contractor
  • A Timothy McVeigh-like far-right terrorist

Each of these (except the first) are presented with some complexity. It isn’t a spoiler to reveal that the death squad mentioned above is part of the series origin story for Frank Castle. In this regard, the show really is trying to work out a position but in truth it can’t find one because the moral space the show is looking for doesn’t exist.

Castle, as a character, isn’t the problem. Mainly because Bernthal has found away to be this absurd character convincingly, Castle manages to be plausible and sympathetic. Rather than following a ‘good psychopath’ trope, the TV-version Frank Castle is a man in near constant emotional pain from loss, guilt and past trauma. The killing he does is not out of rage but rather the opposite – he is presented as a man who gets to be emotionally numb when he is conducting a military operation. So while ‘revenge’ acts as a motive to organize his campaigns of violence against those he blames for his family’s death, his killing people is (mainly) emotionless – a means to an end and a means he only adopts because he just so happens to be particularly good at being a one man army.

The problem is the wider issue of Castle firstly being presented as a ‘heroic’ rather than just damaged and the characters around him that justify his status as heroic. This done by defining him by what he is not. While we learn that he was part of the corrupt US death squad in Afghanistan, we also learn that he was following orders (hmm) and not corrupt (i.e. unaware of the unsanctioned nature of the work and its connection with the drug trade) and that he is traumatized by his actions. Castle’s trauma and guilt is contrasted with others involved who are not traumatized by their involvement – an at times heavy handed way of underling that Castle is not like ‘them’. Likewise, Castle is overtly contrasted with the far-right terrorist character who sees themselves as being inspired by The Punisher – again the show goes to some pains to underline that here is another ‘them’ that Castle isn’t. We also get a cowardly pro-gun control politician (who more obviously is not like Castle), an ex-comrade of Castle’s running his own legitimate security/military contractor business. But describing what Castle isn’t doesn’t help them define what he is.

For plot reasons and continuity reasons, that role falls on Karen Page. Page, originally a paralegal from the Daredevil series is now an investigative reporter. Given her experiences both with Daredevil/Matt Murdock and with Castle (Daredevil season 2), Page gets to be the non-superhero character who has to occupy the pro-superhero vigilante position. That’s a tough gig. Consequently she has to be both the liberal centrist with a strong faith in justice with a concealed carry permit who gets to counter the pro-gun control politician’s position. The script almost collapses under its own contradictions at this point – with guns providing no defense against a determined killer in body armour and a body count rapidly mounting, Page has to argue absurdities. She has a gun in her purse to defend herself from killers, but the killer she is danger from this time has no problem killing highly trained and highly armed ex-military specialists. Oh and the killers she previously had to protect herself from where supernatural undead ninjas (Daredevil season 2 and also The Defenders). Page needs an infinity stone rather than a handgun.

Her arguments are given weight by the politician being a bit of an arse but otherwise this not much a debate. The show can’t take a stance without either being absurd or rejecting its own premise. So we are left with an absurd attempt at balance – an earlier pro-NRA 2nd amendment conspiracy theory nut was shown to be ‘fake valor’ fraud and the pro-gun control politician is shown to be a coward and an implied hypocrite. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle! Gosh and in that middle we find the VACUUM. The superhero genre and the crime-fighting subgenre at its heart needs this same fourth space to exist.

The Punisher ends up highlighting this vacuum because the superpower is made real and manifest in the form of modern military weapons. With great power comes great responsibility simply doesn’t cut it with a device so easily obtained. Superheroes aren’t a single metaphor but the analogy between superpowers and individual arms is a hard one to avoid, and The Punisher as a character is an avatar for that analogy. Yet the superhero genre, at least in the form of DC/Marvel, wants to sit at a political centre and hence needs an ideological space in which we are all Karen Page – liberal minded defenders of common rights and the basic status quo but also wanting to be able to take the law into our own hands and have the same military power as the state.

To be fair to Marvel, they have at least attempted to look at this but clearly they only have absurd answers. Which, maybe, that’s OK if it is Steve Rogers or The Hulk but they needed a better answer with The Punisher. Is it Ok to elect yourself judge, jury and executioner? No, it can’t be because no society can exist where that is the norm. There isn’t a viable space for that as a hero*.

 

*[OK, there is a whole OTHER essay that I won’t write about Judge Dredd at that point. Suffice to say that’s a whole other issue again but which rests on the capacity for Dredd’s stories to run a gamut from social satire to Dredd as the villain to Dredd as a hero in a way that a conventional comic book character can’t.]

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28 comments

  1. Andrew

    “Captain America’s stance not to sign the Sokovia Accords was not well examined or explained. Instead, the rightness of his stance is largely just assumed as an extension of Steve Rogers own integrity.”

    I was really puzzled by how the Sokovia Accords played out in the movie – as if none of the Avengers had even followed the debate until the moment signatures were required. I have to conclude that Tony signed the Accords, in full knowledge that he wouldn’t be following them (Tony has no problem breaking a promise), while Steve refused to sign them, since he knew that someday he’d face a situation in which he couldn’t obey them. In a better story, Steve would have participated in the debate, helping produce Accords he could sign.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Cora

        I like the movie, too, but Steve’s motivation makes no sense and makes him come across as a jerk who draws others into his mess. Plus, there is that scene where Steve and Bucky fight the GSG9 (German special police unit) which infuriated me, because they’d never use American cops or soldiers in contemporary uniforms as disposable bad guys, but it’s totally okay to do that with German police officers. See also Atomic Blonde.

        Coincidentally, the big airport fight scene was shot in the town of Schkeuditz, where Halle Leipzig Airport is located. My great-aunt lived in Schkeuditz and we visited her every year in the 1980s and early 1990s, so I always get a kick out of that scene and Captain America Civil War is actually known as “The Avengers in Schkeuditz”.

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      • camestrosfelapton

        I actually meant to write about that here. in The Punisher this ‘rule’ is more overt – basically Castle will hit and otherwise assault police officers and US soldiers but won’t kill them. Random other guys he kills.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Cora

        I don’t mind if certain franchises have a rule that police officers and soldiers must not be assaulted on screen (and note that the cops who attack Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier are fake cops), but they should apply it equally to police officers of all nations or at least democratic nations. Because otherwise the doublestandard is jarring. Blue lives matter, but green lives don’t?

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  2. KasaObake

    1) I had no idea The Punisher was out – guess I know what I’m watching this week (in between keeping up with the silly Arrowverse and Modern Life is Goodish of course)

    2) I’m actually quite surprised, given recent events, that the Punisher has actually aired. Marvel must surely know that in the gun-happy climate in the US now that any show like this is going to be hugely controversial and that their floppy non-answer will get both sides riled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • camestrosfelapton

      Of the right wing blogs I monitor only the Castalia House blog has reviewed it so far and they liked it – which is possibly the worst endorsement I could imagine.

      I assume that among all the misdirection Marvel is hoping nobody notices the non-answer the show gives. If people project their own views onto the plot they can avoid outrage from every side.

      Still Bernthal is very good – I’m guessing that’s what convinced them to make the show.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. KR

    Ummmm….. I can confirm that if one takes a 13-year old to the bookstore and let’s him pick out whatever he wants from the youth section — and he picks The Punisher and you say OK ’cause it’s on the shelf right next to Wonder Woman and Lego Batman and what not and you figure hey, it’s fine — his mom is going to be mad at you and make you take it back. She may even text you nasty and violent and misogynist passages from it periodically throughout the rest of the day.

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  5. Mark Hepworth

    I think the Punisher was my least favourite part of the Defenders mini-continuity, because he’s just miserable and brutal, but I tried the first couple of episodes.
    I could see that they were at least taking it in a sensible direction, but it was still miserable and brutal so I stopped. I might watch a bit more for completeness, but not in a hurry.
    What I did notice was the repeated hitting the viewer in the face with “look, he’s motivated by revenge, because his wife’s dead. See, here she is dying. Here he is looking miserable. Shall we just show you that again?” So clumsy, they may as well have just written that on a title card and held it up to the camera.
    And then they had him reading Moby Dick. I bet someone in the writers room thought that was *really* subtle.

    • Cora

      I haven’t even tried this one yet. The Defenders TV series have been very hit and miss for me in general and the Punisher is a character I’ve never liked, not even in the comics. Of course, the Marvel movies and TV shows have caused me to reevaluate some characters I never particularly liked in the comics such as Thor and Captain America or in the Defenders verse, Karen Page. But with The Punisher, what I didn’t like about him is very much the core of the character.

      What I find interesting about the Defenders characters is that several of them (Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher, Claire Temple) were exploitation characters, created to cash in on a pop culture phenomenon. Iron Fist was created to cash in on the kung-fu movie wave of the 1970s, Luke Cage was created to cash in on blacksploitation movies, The Punisher is Marvel’s take on 1970s men’s adventure paperbacks like The Executioner and The Destroyer, Claire Temple/Night Nurse originally was a 1960s nurse novel in comic form. Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel was another Marvel exploitation character and Marvel’s attempt to address the second wave feminism of the 1970s. I have some mid 1970s Ms. Marvel issues and they’re painfully earnest.

      But by now, all of those characters have long outlasted the pop cultural phenomena that inspired them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cora

        Well, the 1970s men’s adventure paperbacks and their highly morally questionable protagonists really are phenomena of a different time, even if some of the series are still being published. No surprise that Marvel would want to divorce the Punisher from those origins. Meanwhile, blacksploitation films are considered cool (and the ones I’ve seen were very entertaining), so it’s still acceptable to homage that element of Luke Cage’s origin.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Matt Y

    I thought it was the best of the Marvel shows so far, partially because of the moral vacuum you mention. Instead of presenting gun violence as good/bad it instead showed a wide variety of shades of grey and didn’t seem shy about also showing the ridiculous layers of justifications.

    Ahoy SPOILERS

    (I initially wrote that I had a few thoughts, then I wrote a wall of text as thought few thoughts reproduced like tribbles, my bad) I thought the first episode and side story were important to begin with because it begins with Castle believing he got his revenge and no longer having anything to hold onto. He doesn’t have his family or the war he created for himself, and I thought it immediately changed things by setting it up as being post-revenge for his family. In the episode a character who is just trying to fit in ended up helping a robbery. I mean technically he’s a good example of why Punisher shouldn’t rush to judgement and kill, I mean this kid just made a couple wrong choices and could’ve been one of Frank’s victims instead of being saved by Punisher.

    During the rise of the bomber the media paints him and Frank as both being domestic terrorists, and I thought that the show struggling with trying to show the difference between them and having trouble was intentional. Frank rejects that they’re the same, but his reasoning is that bombs are a cowards way while he does it face to face. Which reminded me some of DD Season 2 the episode where Punisher and Daredevil are arguing what’s really the difference between what Frank does and what DD does. In episode ten Frank’s not even really defending the idea that they’re different, he says they maybe the same, it’s mostly other characters trying to justify Frank by that point and after.

    I didn’t think the show was trying to find space for him to be a hero rather than a tragic figure. During Ennis’s run with the comic he toyed with the idea that Punisher was secretly glad for what happened to his family to have an excuse to do what he does which is why he’s continued killing so many for so long after he must’ve had his revenge. In this series he does stop killing, falls off the wagon to try and protect someone, before finding out there’s more to what happened. But the Netflix series shows that he’s always felt guilty for what happened to his family, blames himself for it and so the revelation that it was connected to his service sort of confirms his belief that he’s the one to blame. He’d doing this because he believes he deserves to have anything else. At the end when it flashes back to his wife saying they’re losing him to the war and he will have to make a choice where his home is, and then later he’s dying and his wife appears to be welcoming him to join them and he rejects it. There was nothing heroic there, only tragedy. This Punisher isn’t continuing his one man war because of a higher purpose, a noble ideal, because he’s the only one who can, or because he’s a sociopath who enjoys it, the Netflix Punisher showed us that he’s doing it because he thinks that’s all he deserves.

    Curtis, Karen, Micro and Madani don’t admire him, they pity him. They’re the heroes in the show, for trying to help others who feel there’s no place for them, Micro for risking his family to try and expose the abuse of power, Madani for taking the hard path despite every opportunity and pressure to do so, and Karen for continuing to try to report on it all despite having her life jeopardized almost constantly. They all try to justify Frank because they sympathize with him but I think the justifications are intended to ring hollow to the viewer. I agree that as a hero there’s no viable space for the character to exist, but as a tragic character that can be used to highlight some of the contradictions and fallacies of vigilante justice and violence being used as a tool to solve violence I think the character works well.

    Aside from that I also thought it was one of the better Marvel shows from beginning to end with a better balance between the protagonists and antagonists, giving side characters important roles and development, etc. Though man the dialogue of episode 10 wasn’t subtle for a show that hammered away at the viewer already.

    Liked by 1 person

    • camestrosfelapton

      I think Page, Madani, Micro and even Curtis cross from sympathising with Castle to actively helping. In Micro’s case he has his own motives but the others at various times help him be The Punisher.

      Otherwise I agree with you 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Matt Y

        That is a good point. I hope if there’s a season 2 (considering Disney/Netflix agreement) that they would make that a focal point, exploring where the line between sympathy ends and enabling his destructive self loathing begins. I also kinda want to see Punisher/Luke Cage crossover as I could see Castle chasing his personal demons into Harlem and Cage unlikely to put up with Castle shooting up his neighborhood regardless of the reasons behind it and able to just call it out as bullshit. Cage really needs a strong antagonist to play off of, and figure out who he is and a bullet proof guy versus Punisher would be interesting. I just don’t know if that would be too close to feeling like Punisher/DD.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. KasaObake

    Started watching and aesthetically, Marvel nailed it. You’re right that Bernthal absolutely nails the role too.

    Gripes about the gun issues aside, I’m really liking it so far. It provides a nice contrast to the far more obviously silly Arrowverse shows from DC.

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