Following the recent Las Vegas shooting, Marvel Entertainment withdrew their promotional event for The Punisher from the New York Comic Con schedule. The decision was a sensitive one; in an official statement, Netflix and Marvel felt it “wouldn’t be appropriate” for The Punisher to have a place at the event in the wake of the tragedy.
The choice is interesting, though, not only for the tacit acknowledgement of a connection between The Punisher and gun violence, but also for the question it raises. What is the place of a Punisher TV show in 2017?
All media, in its own way, is a commentary on society. Superheroes are as popular as they are, and as enduringly prevalent as they are, because of how they speak to certain base desires. Where Superman, for example, represents a desire for someone to protect us, Spider-Man might speak to an awkward teenager’s desire for escapism, the Punisher can be read as something simpler. Fundamentally, Punisher is about taking back control – in the case of Frank Castle specifically, after a tragedy that took his family – and getting things done. To take revenge and to punish people, definitively and ultimately. It’s a power fantasy deeply tied to American individualism and a fascination with guns.
Frank Castle, the Punisher, is an anti-hero. A vigilante who embarks on a one-man war against crime, killing those he sees as guilty. Undeniably, he’s an interesting character; Daredevil season 2 made great use of him as a foil to Matt Murdoch, exploring Matt’s heroism as Daredevil and its limits. Positioning the Punisher as a more straightforward protagonist, however, the anchor of his own show, presents some different concerns.
While it’s perhaps a little gauche to draw a causal link between The Punisher and gun violence, it’s worth taking a moment to pay heed to the potential for normalisation and glorification of such behaviour. If someone is depicted as a hero, if enjoyment is derived from the hyper-violent, it follows – or more accurately, can follow – that some will want to model themselves on the character. There’s a precedent, too; work on the 2008 film Punisher: War Zone was delayed by the revelation that Seung-Hui Cho, a shooter who killed 32 people, was a Punisher fan who styled himself on the character. Director Lexi Alexander spoke about how, in light of that, she made the conscious choice to present the violence as camp to avoid what was effectively the fetishization of murder.
This discussion has started because of the Las Vegas shooting – the deadliest shooting in modern American history, coming just 476 days after the previous deadliest shooting in modern American history – but it’d be one worth having regardless. On average, there’s a mass shooting every nine out of ten days in America; Punisher exists in a cultural context that makes the character, if nothing else, an uncomfortable reflection of a very real and very present problem.
All of that said: What’s the place of a Punisher TV show in 2017? From the optics to the thematic content – how is a lone-wolf vigilante, taking the law into his own hands to murder those he deems guilty, a straightforward protagonist?
The answer is obvious, granted – he’s not a straightforward protagonist, and there’s a need to hold that understanding across the text. With Steven Lightfoot – previously of Hannibal – as executive producer and showrunner, there is, in fact, every chance The Punisher will be a compelling deconstruction of its morally questionable lead character.
In any case, though, it’s a discussion worth having. If nothing else, it’s interesting – interesting to evaluate and critique the characters that are prominent in our culture, and what they say about our society, accordingly. While the release date of The Punisher is still unknown, it won’t be long until we see Marvel’s answer to the question.
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