What frustrates me most about Netflix's The Punisher is that it could have been so powerful. At a time when mass shootings, gun control debates, and domestic terrorism are all over the news, a show insightful and brave enough to critique our culture of violence might have had a real impact.
The Punisher is not that show.
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Instead, it seems eager to vindicate Frank Castle's murder journey by suggesting that his actions, while not great, come from a place we can all identify with. Look at this guy, the show urges. He used to be a nice, loving family man. You have a family, like Frank did, don't you? If someone had your wife and kids killed to get to you, the show implicitly asks, wouldn't you want to track them down before emptying a clip into their skull? And if everyone were out to get you, wouldn't you be willing to kill them before they could pull the trigger? As the man himself said in Daredevil's second season, "You're one bad day away from being me." The idea that anyone can become violent under the right circumstances is chilling, but probably not in the way the showrunners intended.
It's not Frank's fault, the show argues. Just like it wasn't really his fault when he participated in the torture and murder of a Lebanese cop during a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was just following orders. The higher-ups who gave the orders, and who later had his family killed, were to blame. They made Frank the Punisher. And so on throughout the show, so that Frank never has to take ultimate responsibility for his actions.
Real-life mass shootings are often considered in a similar way: a male "lone wolf" who only did all those murders because he was mentally ill. Not only does this entrench the stigma against mental illness—I live with mental health issues and know many others who do, and none of us have ever shot anyone—it indirectly asks us to excuse the shooter's behavior. (If the destruction is wrought by a non-white person, the impulse is usually to blame terrorism or some nominally known ideology.)
That's the context in which Netflix's Punisher asks us to sympathize with, or at least forgive, Frank's life choices. Because make no mistake, they are choices. Even though this show takes so many elements from Garth Ennis's writing on the Punisher MAX comic, it ignores what is possibly the most crucial point of the entire series: Frank chose to become the Punisher.
It's laid out in this moment from Ennis and Darick Robertson's miniseries Punisher MAX: Born, wherein Frank makes a deal with some nameless entity that could be Death/his own darker side/the Devil (the comic leaves it ambiguous).
"Say yes, and I'll give you what you've wanted all these years," the mysterious entity tells him. "A war that lasts forever, a war that never ends, but you have to say the word, Frank...".
And Frank says an emphatic "yes." He doesn't choose begrudgingly; he wants this. Notice that when the entity informs him, "There'll be a price, but nothing's free," he doesn't pause to wonder what the price is or whether it's worth taking that gamble. He just says yes, because he wants that never-ending war more than anything. Here's what the price turned out to be, by the way.
Why have a nice domestic family life when you can devote your existence to a perpetual compulsion to fight? Ennis's Punisher is the only iteration of the character that makes sense: a man so desperate not to abandon his own war that he'll sell the one thing that keeps him tethered to humanity in order to continue being a ruthless killing machine. Sure, we might feel a dark thrill as he wastes human traffickers or corrupt, torture-loving government operatives, but we're always reminded that Frank's bargain is one we should never make for ourselves. His world is steeped in gore, and those stains will never come out.
If that's an uncomfortable thought, it should be. We shouldn't ever be wholly at ease with the guy whose superpower is "being extremely good at shooting people;" the Punisher should make us very, very uncomfortable.
Yet for some reason, Marvel's Netflix offering takes pains to maximize our comfort with Super Murder Guy. Nothing takes the edge off ultraviolence like lots of growly banter about conspiracies that are "bigger than [both/all] of us," a few brief fights in enclosed spaces, and then more conspiracy talk. Too much talking, not enough Punishing and reckoning with consequences. It's almost as though the show wants to drive home, ad nauseam, the notion that Frank is only ventilating all those skulls because he's the victim of a conspiracy. It's not his fault, you see. He was just pushed too far by extenuating circumstances. Now you don't have to face any ethical quandaries about watching.
Ideally a Punisher TV show should be so bloody that you'd have to clean your screen after each episode, because his story at its core is about violence: where it originates, what it does to those who perpetrate it, and the uneasy relationship between condemning and enjoying it from our consumer perspective, especially in a society where angry men with firearms leave so many in their wake.
If Netflix's Punisher pushed itself that necessary bit further, we could be enjoying a narrative that addresses these complex real-life issues. Instead, the show asks us to share in a mindset that acquiesces to, rather than questions, the problems underlying those issues, and becomes just one more pernicious voice assuring us that the status quo is fine.
What did you think of Netflix's Punisher? Let us know in the comments!