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
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.]