Jon Bernthal in Netflix's The Punisher
Photo: The Punisher, Netflix

ARTS & CULTURE

Is a white, male gun-toting hero what we need right now?

A new Netflix series of Marvel's The Punisher could do more harm than good, says David Barnett

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By David Barnett on

There's a new Marvel hero hitting our screens today. Frank Castle, aka The Punisher – a vengeful man with an arsenal of weapons whose idea of fighting crime is to conduct a murderous, violent rampage – is making a much-awaited debut on Netflix. Castle, a former US military veteran, is the comic book hero who straps on a bullet-proof vest ostensibly in the shape of a skull and wages war on the bad guys.

But there’s no hi-tech super-suit here, no indestructible shield or mythic hammer. Such comic book gimmicks are not for Frank Castle. What he uses to take out his enemies is guns. Big guns. Lots and lots of big guns. Which begs the question: is a white bloke wielding a gun really the hero we need right now?

Maybe I’m coming across as some sour-faced latter-day Mary Whitehouse, pursing my lips at something I find unpleasant – and it should be pointed out that The Punisher has already received rave reviews. I haven’t seen the show but, like many others, I’m familiar with The Punisher thanks to a lifetime of reading Marvel Comics. I think I still have the first comic I bought featuring the character. It was a Spider-Man comic, and the cover showed the grim-faced Punisher bringing the web-slinger into focus in the telescopic sight of his rifle. Even from a young age, I felt that the appearance of a man with a gun in the brightly-coloured world of a teenager who donned a red and blue costume and fought baddies with webs and quips was jarring and dark. In 2017, it’s arguably even more so.

Like in the comics, the Netflix version of The Punisher – who debuted in the Daredevil TV series – has what is considered suitable motivation for his war on evil. His entire family was slaughtered, and he seeks redemption by bringing his military training to bear on rooting out bad guys wherever he finds them, and blowing their heads off. In short, he’s a psychopath.

The Punisher targets only bad guys. But he gets to decide who the bad guys are. Just like every mass-shooter gets to decide who he thinks the bad guys are

The Netflix series brings in a whole host of other factors, including Homeland Security, the suggestion of government-level corruption, and hints that Frank Castle was involved in something big while serving in the Middle East that’s being hushed up. There’s also discussion about how conflict veterans are treated after they return home, and exploration of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and its effects. The Punisher, then, is not just some trigger-happy guy with an arsenal. He has reasons.

But therein lies the issue: validation. Doesn’t every mass-shooter have reasons? Don’t we always look for motivation, for inciting incidents, for beliefs that lead to the shocking tally of gun-related tragedies that mount up week by week in the States?

The Vegas shooting that left 58 dead was the deadliest in America in a single incident, but this year alone the same number of people have died in gun violence in 28 days in Chicago; the same deaths in 68 days in Baltimore. Last year 64 per cent of all killings in the US were gun related, compared to 4.5 per cent in the UK.

The Punisher targets only bad guys. But he gets to decide who the bad guys are. Just like every mass-shooter gets to decide who he thinks the bad guys are. Just like Devin Kelly had his reasons for opening fire on a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Just like Omar Mateen had his reasons for storming the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando. Just like Stephen Paddock had his reasons for slaughtering dozens of people in Las Vegas just last month.

The Las Vegas shooting occurred right in the middle of New York Comic-Con, one of the major events in the industry calendar. It’s where big comic adaptations on film and TV are teased and trailered. Marvel were due to give The Punisher an all-singing, all-dancing launch at New York. Then Las Vegas happened, and it was deemed inappropriate, and the event WAS pulled. Which speaks volumes.

By putting The Punisher front and centre as the star of his own Marvel show, it is implicit that he is a hero. He might be an anti-hero, he might be troubled, and gritty, and dark, but Marvel doesn’t give headline gigs to villains, right? So even if the show ultimately decries and condemns his methods, it’s still his name up there in lights. And while there will surely be enough people who get what Marvel and Netflix are doing here, couldn’t there be as many, perhaps more, who nod their heads and say, yeah, right, this is how you solve problems: you start spraying bullets?

Of course, Spider-Man solves problems as well. So does Captain America. And Thor. But we can’t get bitten by radioactive spiders. We can’t be infused with a super-soldier serum. We can’t be Asgardian gods. But we can be The Punisher. All we need is a grudge, a skewed idea of who the bad guys are, a conviction that we are right, and a Walmart where we can go and buy a gun.

The series is aimed at an adult market, so kids probably won’t be asking for Punisher costumes for Christmas. But perhaps it’s not the kids we have to worry about. Perhaps it’s the adult, gun-loving alt-right who in The Punisher might finally feel that they’re getting the hero they deserve.

@davidmbarnett

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Photo: The Punisher, Netflix
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Netflix
Gun crime
America
Arts & Culture

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