Marvel trades in superheroes, but the Punisher is not a hero. He is a protagonist, with all the threat of moral ambiguity that entails. The costumed vigilante first appeared in a 1974 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man as a foil for the title character. Where Spidey catches criminals in a big net, razzes them a little and leaves them for police, The Punisher shoots them in the head. He is an answer to the question that people who don’t read superhero comics invariably ask. Why doesn’t Batman just use a gun? Because he might like killing a little too much.
The Punisher’s many, many guns symbolize his desire to skip to the last step of justice, where the bad guys are dead. His lack of scruples about how he gets there — no courts, no banter, no manful insistence on fighting fair — blurs the line between crime-fighting and revenge. When Peter Parker fails to use his new abilities to stop the criminal who eventually kills his uncle, he learns that with great power comes great responsibility. When Frank Castle’s family is killed by gangsters, he resolves to murder every criminal in town. There is something wrong with this plan, probably because he finds it too satisfying. Justice calls on him to do the awful things he wanted to do anyway.
The Punisher is just pitiable enough for readers to enjoy his bloody exploits, even if they remain uncomfortable with what he does. He has a code — he doesn’t kill cops or civilians — that represents what remains of his humanity, but he is profoundly isolated and seems like he could cross over into psychosis at any time. The Punisher is a compelling character because his soul is in danger. His stories are interesting because they take two values we care about — justice and compassion — and pit them against each other.
At least that’s why the subtext of The Punisher is interesting. The text is interesting because it is a series of ambushes and military-style assaults. The Punisher is doing war at home, in an urban environment, and the appeal of his early comics was the appeal of violence itself. I started reading the long-running Punisher: War Journal comic when I was ten. At that time, I was less concerned with the delicate interplay between justice and revenge than with how The Punisher could trick a drug dealer into looking through a telescope so he could shoot him in the eye. It was a comic about meticulously planned murders, but it was okay because the people getting murdered were criminals.
This aspect of the early Punisher reflects the time when he caught on. War Journal ran from 1988 to 1995, as the war on drugs was cresting to absurdity. The name of that dubious agenda reflected America’s desire to transcend criminal justice and unleash the raw power of war; we had a righteous cause in the Reagan-Bush-Clinton revolution, but druggies and punks and urban super-predators refused to get on board, not because it didn’t work for them but because they had no decency. In his contempt for punks, the Punisher resembles that other icon of his era, Charles Bronson in Death Wish. He is more like the Bronson of the sequels, though, when questions of fascism and complicity have been cast aside and he’s just very good at killing people.
You can read The Punisher as a meditation on the relationship between justice and revenge, or you can read it as a fantasy of the id released from the superego. Frank’s dead family is an excuse with a universal adaptor on it. The Punisher series that premiered last week on Netflix, however, picks up where this excuse stops working: after he has killed the whole crime syndicate responsible for his family’s deaths. At this point, further killing would just make him a murderer, so the series gives him a fresh tragedy and a new syndicate to kill.
Steve Lightfoot’s Punisher reweights the balance between hero and murderer. After a cold open that shows him finishing off the Dogs of Hell bikers — the last of the criminals responsible for his family’s death — Frank takes a job at a construction site, where he spends all day breaking down walls with a sledgehammer. This metaphor establishes a level of subtlety that will persist throughout the series. He tries to disappear into a normal-albeit-depressing life, but an attempted murder at the site draws him back into punishing.
The show emphasizes his trauma to relieve him of agency for what he does. Because his PTSD is beyond his control, he is free to kill a bunch of people, and we are free to enjoy it.
He also has a lot of dreams and flashbacks — a crazy-making number, at a rate of more than one per episode. The new Frank Castle is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is consumed by PTSD, not revenge. As a Marine, he participated in a secret CIA capture-and-kill program that, unbeknownst to him, also involved smuggling drugs out of Afghanistan in the bodies of dead soldiers. During this program, he connived in the interrogation and eventual execution of a prisoner who was supposed to be a terror suspect, but was actually an Afghan police officer. The cover up, orchestrated by a mysterious CIA administrator known as Agent Orange, is what really led the New York drug cartels to murder Frank’s family. This plot gives him a fresh conspiracy to punish, but it also gives him a fresh trauma.
The series reinvents The Punisher — not as a pulpy inquiry into the relationship between justice and revenge, but as a melodrama about a veteran haunted by the horrors of war even as he recreates them in civilian life. This shift is important, because how do you write the Punisher in an era when isolated white men regularly use guns to kill large numbers of people? Netflix was supposed to host a Punisher panel at last month’s New York Comic Con, but they canceled it after the Las Vegas shooting. As Graeme McMillan pointed out in Wired, there seems to be no good moment to release a show like this in a country that, in 2017, has averaged one mass shooting per day.
The Netflix Punisher manages this problem by relentlessly emphasizing Frank’s personal pain. Nearly every episode beings with a recurring dream in which his wife gets shot in the head. They begin in first person, in a gauzy suburban bedroom where she leans into the camera and tells Frank how glad she is to have him home. The first time a masked and camouflaged soldier appears behind her and puts a gun to her head, it is terrifyingly jarring. The camera doesn’t cut away for the bang, either. By the time this series is over, we will see Frank’s wife get shot in the head many times. This choice reflects the aesthetic of a show that is more comfortable with graphic violence than it is with moral ambiguity.
The variations on this dream, in which the shooter lifts his ski mask to reveal his shocking identity, symbolize Frank’s feeling of complicity in his family’s death. More importantly, they drive home the ineluctable power that his past has over his present. They repeat a message: He isn’t out there punishing because he lost his faith in justice or his ability to forgive, or because he believes what was done to him justifies whatever he does to anyone else. It’s because he can’t help it. The show emphasizes his trauma to relieve him of agency for what he does. Because his PTSD is beyond his control, he is free to kill a bunch of people, and we are free to enjoy it.
Most episodes of The Punisher start with some horrifying flashback and end with an outburst of brutal violence. The middle parts tend to alternate between the B-plot — in which Agent Madani of the Department of Homeland Security investigates the killing of the Afghan police officer that set everything into motion — and people talking about the trauma of war. That means the plot is almost always advanced through dialogue. In addition to solving some budget problems, this expedient lets The Punisher guide our understanding of the philosophical implications of punishing, through scenes where two characters talk about what’s happening in the show.
The scenes also give the writers opportunities to leaven some of the fascist overtones of the source material with conspicuous wokeness. Madani’s boss at DHS sexually harasses her on her first day. SPOILER ALERT: He’s crooked. An ostensible war hero in an NRA hat turns out to be a phony, but not before an aggressive cop silences his constitutionally protected speech. Despite these gestures, and despite the recurring internet complaint that Marvel has become unduly concerned with social justice, die-hard Punisher fans do not seem troubled. Maybe that’s because the Punisher is such a fundamentally conservative character that he is impervious to suspicions of political correctness. Or maybe it’s because fans of the Netflix series are in it for the violence, and the violence is badass.
Never forget that the Punisher is for 12-year-old boys. This new series plays to that, pivoting from the ethical questions of retributive justice to the fun we can all have when violence is justified. That’s what got me, when I was a kid. I might have stayed for the drama of watching a haunted man try to buy peace of mind with what little humanity he had left, but I came for the fantasy of justified revenge.
Isn’t that what got us into Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place? The CIA really did torture people for information, and we really did send our special forces to kidnap and kill. We didn’t do it for revenge, though. It was justice for what happened to us on September 11. We didn’t do it to ordinary people, either. We only did it to terrorists. In the 21st century, America has gotten more comfortable with violence and less comfortable with moral ambiguity, and this less ambiguous, bloodier Frank is a Punisher for our times. He is a veteran and a hero — flawed, yes, but only in ways he cannot help. His is the triumph of unstoppable power unimpeachably wronged. His work is dirty, like ours, but like us he has no choice. Like us, he tries not to think about the cost of his revenge.