The Punisher is one of those comic book characters who has become a figurehead for the all-American, hyper-masculine fanboys of comics. Which, mind you, wouldn’t be a problem if people cared about his PTSD and the emotional complexities of a man who is motivated by seeking cold justice in an unjust corrupt system. But, just like his other traumatized and emotionally broken bothers in hyper-masculine glory, Wolverine, and Batman, that is not really what makes people like him.
Conversations about the role of The Punisher in our alt-right, massive gun-violence culture were in full blast back in 2017, because the Netflix spin-off show featuring the character was planned on being promoted and released soon after the deadly massacre in Las Vegas last year. This led to a promo being cut from New York Comic Con that October and the release date for the show being pushed back a month. Many critics of television review sites were wondering before the show was released: do we need a show like this right now?
Well, the reality is that The Punisher has sustained himself as a popular character since the 70s despite some terrible comic book runs and films; he’s not going anywhere. You go into a comic book store and you will see Punisher shirts. You date a guy into comics you will see Punisher shirts. The Punisher is a part of the comic book zeitgeist, so erasing him is impossible, which is why writing him well is so important.
In TMS’s review of The Punisher Kaila praised the show for dealing “with PTSD and the lingering traumas of war and loss as much as it doles out bloody vengeance.” The show and Jon Bernthal, who plays our Punisher, understand that while gun violence is at the core of the character, it also shows how being behind one dehumanizes people and where that ability to do so some comes from.
In an interview with Esquire Bernthal was very frank (haha) about his own history of violence and how now as a father “I know now life is more about working things out and heading off that violence,” and that “extremism and lack of compromise is the enemy of what I want to teach them.”
A message that can seem antithetical when he plays a character who is loved for going to extreme places on a monomaniacal journey for revenge. Yet, Bernthal isn’t someone who believes in absolutes one way or the other, except when it comes to Nazis.
“Should there be a way that a guy with mental issues like the asshole in Texas can’t get guns? Absolutely. We have to have a dialogue, and that’s not happening.” I noted that the Punisher’s symbol, a skull with long fangs, has been spotted on military helmets in Iraq and biker jackets, and was seen on the shoulders of alt-right protesters at the white-supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I feel honored to play a guy who people putting their life on the line identify with,” Bernthal said.
And the alt-righters?
Let me be clear, liking The Punisher doesn’t make you a member of the alt-right. I like The Punisher because I grew up watching action movies of all kinds with my mother. I’ve been watching Clint Eastwood movies with my mother for years and Rambo is one of my favorite action films. Hell, my first rated R movie was Gladiator in theaters at eight years old and now I write for a feminist pop culture site, so the idea that absorbing violence cinema at a young age makes you inherently violent or prone to a certain ideology is not a philosophy I agree with.
As a child, I knew the difference between reality and fiction and I knew that the cool white men I saw do these things on television would be terrifying if they were actually real. The concept of a lone white gunman swooping in to save civilization from itself is a great American myth. And it’s just that a myth because the reality is that the real-life version of those characters aren’t heroes. They are terrorists.
Plus there are still a lot of films, like the remake of Death Wish, that not only look like hot garbage but are completely tone deaf to the realities of how things have changed with it comes to gun violence. The Dirty Harry character cannot exist with impunity in this era, not without dealing with the realities of how gun violence affects people, and how the idea of a sole white guy with a gun protecting the “hood” is laughable at best to fans of color.
At the end of the day, if you think Frank Castle is a great character because he kills and don’t see the painful tragedy of a character so consumed by vengeance nothing else can make him happy, and think “yup that’s the face of true masculinity” then I put you in the same category of person who thinks Rorshach is right in Watchmen. You can think that, but if you are—you are reading the story wrong. Watching The Punisher should make you want to donate to your local VA, not pick up a gun.
(via Esquire, image: Netflix)
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