Cringing for Punishment

When the trailer for the Netflix PUNISHER series dropped this week, I breathed an odd sigh of relief. I had quite liked Jon Bernthal’s performance as the violent, compromised Frank Castle, the gun toting vigilante taking crime fighting farther than even Charlie Cox’s Man without Fear was prepared to in DAREDEVIL Season 2. However, I had seen promising PUNISHER adaptations end as, well, pretty terrible enough in my lifetime to have some skepticism even after already seeing what Bernthal could do with Castle.

After the sigh of relief though, I felt a bit queasy.

See, because the thing is, I don’t really like the Punisher.

Or rather, I don’t like him the way a lot of other people like him.

In a lot of ways, for me, Punisher is that one family member you invite to a party that you are so worried people will not like and will ignore or, worse, be rude and dismissive too. The thought of that bums you out because, yes, Uncle Punisher is not exactly what you think of when you think of your family, but he’s still family.

Then, the party happens, and it turns out everyone thinks he’s great. Your friends cannot stop talking about him. The cops and military guys you knew seem to have fallen in absolute love with him to the point of deciding to put that symbol of his on their cars, their trucks, their body armor, and, some, even on their skin.

And you think, “wow, thank goodness.”

(Well except for the cops and military personnel. That part seems bad immediately to you.)

But when you go around talking to everyone, no one is saying, “Uncle Punisher really makes me think about how we train and treat our soldiers.”

Not one person describes him as, “A morally complex guy who really forces me to confront my thoughts on crime, heroics, and the administering of justice through extra-legal channels.”

And definitely no one tells you, “He’s such a compelling villain. I hate what he stands for, but he really illuminates the decency of our heroes.”

Instead you hear, “Did you see how big Uncle Punisher’s friggin’ gun is?!”

And, “Nevermind that gun, did you hear him talk about how he had to kill those 8 drug dealers with just a knife?”

Or, “I was thinking through Uncle Pun-Pun’s war journal and it is so AWESOME how he just, like, kills without worrying about the ramifications of his lethality.”

Part of this, I’m sure, is that I’m a Daredevil fan and I started being a Daredevil fan during a time when Marvel writers and artists had made sure to define them as the kind of figures that are so close to being one another that it makes them dislike each other that much more. They weren’t so much converses as standing shoulder to shoulder, just on the opposite side of a morality line.

Part of it is the glorification of Castle by the last people in society I feel comfortable holding up a gun toting lawless vigilante as a heroic icon: police officers and military personnel. Both are jobs that demand discipline and intensive attention to rules and codes of conduct. Both are jobs where the use of force is not intended to be a goal but rather a last resort. Both are jobs that nonetheless people associate with violent action rather than a commitment to protect.

In other words, both are jobs that you would prefer would elevate someone like Superman or Captain America to “I want to be like him” status not a violent killing machine who has abandoned both the military and civic justice codes he was trained to uphold. You’d prefer they see Punisher as an abomination, a warning, a murderer who justifies his vicious constant small overthrows of America’s Constitutional protections as something he’s entitled to because he’s been hurt.

Compound that with some writers, in recent years, using Punisher to make other heroes, especially heroes with intense moral codes like Spider-Man or Daredevil, appear foolish or out of touch with reality. Whereas they are hopelessly naïve dilettantes, Castle is a logical response to crime, a man-made case of walking karma, here to give the criminal element exactly what the earned the moment they broke the law. Mercy, arrest, trial? Who the hell has the time for that?

The thing is, I don’t hate Punisher, not really. I think he can be an incredible character, a prism that can reflect and reveal aspects of the super hero genre that we often refuse to reckon with and aspects of our kneejerk reactions to crime and criminals that we can usually hold without prosecuting. Greg Rucka’s 2011-2012 run—largely drawn by ‎Marco Checchetto— did tremendous work with this idea as well as themes of how vengeance is a like a disease that only demands more and more fuel once it takes hold and the how easy it is to lose everything when you decide that getting it done is more important that doing it right when it comes to law enforcement.

Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s work on the character started as an often goofy and often celebrating take on the Punisher but morphed into a true exploration of his taste for violence when it transitioned to the MAX imprint. While never a run I connected with, I appreciated that they explored the idea that Castle was just a man looking for an excuse. In the same way the Morrison once floated the idea that Batman was just as mad as the villains in Arkham—an idea I disagree with but feel is worthy of contemplation—Ennis and Dillon’s book often considered if Punisher was just as sociopathic and delighted in the violence he dealt as many of the criminals he hunted.

So to see people be excited for PUNISHER is, for me, a bittersweet affair. I hope they are coming around on Uncle Punisher because of the big ideas he provides a platform for us all to explore. I fear they are, instead, just impressed with how quick he can field strip his M16A4.

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