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AiPT! Roundtable: On the Punisher's place in American culture

Comic Books

AiPT! Roundtable: On the Punisher’s place in American culture

Is it the right time for a Punisher series? Is it ever?

The time is finally here! Marvel’s entire 13-episode Punisher series, starring Jon Bernthal, is now on Netflix!

But do you really want to watch it? The Punisher is not a good guy. Or is he? Is Frank Castle doing what needs be done, or is he just a maniac with good aim? We asked actual Punisher fans here on the AiPT! staff to tell us why they think the character is compelling, and if a show like this one can find its place in the modern setting.

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AiPT! Roundtable: On the Punisher's place in American culture

How do you feel about The Punisher, as a character? Is he a hero?

Connor Willesden: The Punisher as a character, to me, is not a hero but is instead barely a hair away from being a full-on villain. The only distinction is the fact that he only targets criminals; that keeps him from being a full-on criminal [himself]. He’s an unhinged, borderline sociopathic ex-Marine who had his family taken from him in an act of (often but not always) random violence and has been taken away from any sort of normal life by conditions such as PTSD.

While he’s meant to be a borderline serial killer, his backstory is also what makes him a character people will consider more redeemable than villains. He’s not a character that people should be inspired by or hold on a hero’s pedestal, like Spider-Man for example, and that is also reflected within the Marvel Universe as a whole. He’s not a hero. He’s not an anti-hero. He’s not a villain either. For lack of a better word, he’s an anti-villain. He’s to villains what anti-heroes are to heroes.

Patrick Ross: The Punisher is not a hero. He never has been. He’s been through hell, and the way he deals with that tragedy is through violence. Not just for violence’s sake, either: he’s not indiscriminately shooting innocent people. Frank Castle takes out who he believes to be the scum of society — the people making the planet a worse place for everybody else. The killers. The rapists. The drug dealers. Now, that’s clearly not his decision to make, and it’s obviously not the right way to go about a goal like that, however noble you may think it is, but on some level, just like actor Jon Bernthal said, it’s hard not to empathize with him.

Cameron Petti: See, the thing for me is that, as much as what he does is “not heroic”, he has always been framed as “on the right side of things”. He’s the protagonist, we see his actions through his point of view (via his War Journal), and the means are always justified. Regardless of other, more heroic characters chastising him, or if the cops are horrified, the actions Frank takes are ultimately for the Greater Good. In the end, Punisher is never the worst, and thus is preserved as the de facto “hero”.

You see this in characters like Walter White who did despicable things, but for the Greater Good. You can absolutely empathize with Walter and Frank, and it’s fascinating to watch their descent into becoming the villain of their worlds, but the entire time you watch Breaking Bad, you’re on Walter’s “side” most of all. It’s best summarized in that show by the audience who vocally hated Walter’s wife Skyler, the only one who opposed Walter’s production of illegal drugs. With these Anti-Villain (thank you Connor) characters, you’re supposed to watch their morally compromised actions and go, “Ok, I wouldn’t do that, I feel bad for them, but I get it. It’s for the Greater Good.”

AiPT! Roundtable: On the Punisher's place in American culture

Which is ultimately why I’ve never gotten into the Punisher very much. While I’ve liked certain stories he’s in, I’ve never been able to quite love the means in which he gets to his ends. Like it not, he’s seen as a hero, and I don’t like rooting for a murderer.

Russ “Dog” Dobler: Not all Punisher stories are told from Frank’s point of view, and those are actually my favorites. You’re right, Cam, I don’t want to root for this guy. I want to see the collateral damage he does while waging this misguided attempt at justice.

Or is that really his goal? Does Frank Castle believe what he does is right? Why does he do it? Does he really think he’s making a difference? Or does he just feel like there’s not anything else he can do at this point? The Punisher is not a hero to me, but a titular plot device — a puzzle to be figured out. That’s why I tell people it’s not that I like reading Punisher, I like reading about the Punisher — how he came to be and why he persists, against all odds and sense.

It’s like the four-color version of those murder-porn shows on Investigation Discovery, but you don’t feel quite as guilty about enjoying it since he only kills the bad guys. Maybe. Sort of.

David Hildebrand: He is absolutely a hero. You may not like the way he gets things done, but he sacrifices his life to save others. I have seen him be compassionate and I have seen him be evil as hell. He could easily become a villain — and a hard one to fight — if he ever chose to do so. But he knows right from wrong and even if you don’t agree with his methods, he makes things right!

Have the trailers for the Punisher Netflix series affirmed those feelings, or changed them?

Connor: The trailers and words from Jon Bernthal himself have assuaged any worries I had that they’ll portray him as a hero. Sure, we’ll see him as the protagonist, and that’ll make him better-looking than if it was told from Daredevil’s perspective, but they seem to be going with the fact that he’s not a guy you want to idolize. I’m glad they’re sticking with Frank set only on cleaning the streets due to how the world has burned him, and the trailers have shown that.

They seem to be going with the fact that he’s not a guy you want to idolize.

That they’ve shown people who’ll give Frank some outlet to speak to and express his thoughts also helps the idea that he’ll be a character with more dimensions, rather than just charging into places and killing as many people as possible. He’ll likely be portrayed in a similar light as other protagonists such as Walter White, Frank Underwood and Tony Soprano. It looks to be promising, as it will be told from Frank’s perspective without trying to make him seem overly like a “good guy.”

Cameron: For all my Castle-bashing, the second trailer did make me more interested in the show. The first, mostly gun-centric one did not make me want to watch a whole show about a dude shooting up a bunch of other dudes. The second gave more depth, and with it, gave me more hope.

I’m not opposed to watching a show about the journey of a tortured man trying to make sense of it all. That’s compelling. Will this be my favorite Marvel show? Probably not. Will it be a well done television show? Seems very likely.

Dog: I don’t know, it still looks like a dude shooting up a bunch of dudes to me; i.e. not my kind of Punisher story.

And I’m so over Frank not being over his family. Isn’t that why we had the scene at the end of Daredevil, where he burns his house down? I can’t imagine a better metaphor of forgetting the past and moving on. Leave the revenge quests to Chuck Norris; there’s more depth in this character that I want to see explored.

David: Look at me! I’m finally the guy that doesn’t want to watch the trailers for fear of spoiling things. So I’ll keep this short. Tonight, I am coming home and watching as many episodes as I can get through. I have always been a huge Punisher fan and I loved seeing him in Daredevil, so I really have high hopes for the show. Please don’t suck. Please don’t suck.

Was Marvel right to not show the Punisher footage of NYCC immediately after the Las Vegas shooting? Is there ever a “right” time for a character like the Punisher?

Patrick: I would argue the greatest characters in fiction’s history are the most difficult ones to come to terms with. Sure, we can all use a goody two-shoes teenager flying around New York, saving old ladies and thwarting robberies, but the Punisher forces us to look at our own society. Why is Frank the way he is? What could drive a family man who, by all accounts, was “normal” before his family was killed, to such depravity? The Punisher is social commentary, and sadly, he’s as relevant as ever.

That said, it was absolutely the right call to delay that footage at NYCC. The question “when is the right time?” is impossible to answer, especially since, unfortunately, mass shootings in the United States are not isolated incidents. But just days after the worst mass shooting in American history, yeah, probably not the best time to play an episode glorifying lone wolf vigilantes in a crowded room.

Connor: They were both right and wrong. People would have been mad at them showing something that depicts gun violence so heavily right after a massacre, but should we pull stuff any time something bad happens? Gun violence is so common these days that there’s unlikely to be many times when it’s completely fine to show something that has it present.

David: I understand why they didn’t show it and I respect them for their decision. I can’t say that I agree or disagree because I don’t know what they were planning to show. I’ll assume it was a bunch of gun play.

Cameron: I don’t know what footage they were going to show, but I suspect it had a lot of a guy firing assault rifles into a group of people, so yeah, I think it was the tasteful move to not show it. The “right” time question is an interesting one, because the answer might be no. As I said earlier, I think Punisher is/has always been positioned as a form of “hero”.

AiPT! Roundtable: On the Punisher's place in American culture

Personally, I think now more than ever, we ought not to lionize the “Good Guy with Gun” narrative. Because that’s ultimately what he is. He was born out of the Death Wish, Dirty Harry period of the ’70s where “men, pushed to the edge, taking back what’s theirs by any means necessary” made sense. In 2017, I don’t think we need more media telling us that all we need is testosterone, garrote wire and a hand grenade, and we’ll be able to save the world.

Dog: Was there a reason they couldn’t have changed the footage they were planning to show, if it would have been too sensitive for the time? Had nothing else gone through post-production? Or is the whole thing just a videotaped shooting gallery? I’d guess not.

Although early reviews have painted the show as being pretty brutal. Even if all guns disappeared tomorrow, brutality in general will always be with us. The question is, as Pat alluded to, what’s the point of it? Is it to teach us something, or make us think about something, or is it just sadistic wish fulfillment? Bernthal and the rest of the crew have said that’s not what the show is about, but their actions surrounding all this? Makes me doubt. I guess we’ll all find out today.

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