“All the things that I done, memories, they never hurt me. But the past, it's more than memories. It's the devil you sold your soul to. He's comin'. He's comin' to collect." —Frank Castle, The Punisher
Netflix’s The Punisher is one of the most violent TV shows I have seen. You can read review about the plot and the quality of the show elsewhere. I want to jump right in to a discussion that's been swirling around this show: the level of violence.
Plenty of reviews have suggested that the timing is bad considering the recent mass murders from which the United States is recovering. That's a valid question, but I think they are wrong -and I think this show might be more timely than ever precisely because it unveils the terrible nature of violence.
The Punisher features broken, hardened, nearly soulless men who have trafficked in the way of the gun. None of them are meant to garner our admiration. Even Frank, the punishing protagonist(?), leaves us scrambling if we want to justify who he has become and what he has done.
He has clearly separated people into two categories: ends and means (to use Kantian terms). Those he views as ends, valuable in and of themselves, he would give his life to save. That’s the part of Frank we really like – and why we want him on our side. I mean, the dude gets things done.
But then there's everyone else. Daredevil asked him once, “You never think for one second, "S***, I just killed a human being"? The Punisher responds, "That's being pretty generous." The people he kills aren’t people to him anymore. They are things, and they will likely give their life for him. There is a terribly uncomfortable episode where he tortures a man he is convinced is a criminal. The man is not. Frank does not seem to care once he finds this out. He does what he thinks needs to be done, and if he needs to treat you as a mere chemicals in a meat bag, he will.
That mindset is part of what tragically formed him into The Punisher and informs what he does now. Vanity Fair refers to Frank’s “compartmentalized view of the world”:
“It’s all right to kill bad people as long as you know that they’re bad. What the series neglects to examine, of course, is the fact that the Punisher is just as wicked as the villains he targets. Though he’s the victim of a corrupt system, he’s not working to take down that system, or even repair it; instead, he’s taking advantage of disorganization in order to wage a personal war on any individuals who threaten him.”The series might neglect to examine it, but maybe that's our job. Maybe the series need do no more than bring it into the light so we can see if for what it is. This is the nagging issue behind most of the superhero stories. They are vigilantes who share a common worldview in which they can do what they believe is justified outside the purview of the law. There is an interesting snippet of conversation from the Daredevil series that uncomfortably connects the dots in the MCU:
"You think, uh you think he's crazy?"
"Uh, the Punisher? No. I think he was inevitable."
"Inevitable? How so?"
"Maybe... maybe we created him. All of us. The moment that we let Daredevil, or the Devil of Hell's Kitchen, or whatever it is-"
"There's... there's no connection."
"Well, actually, I think it's a pretty straight line, Matt. Daredevil practiced vigilante justice in our backyard and we applauded him for it. I know that I did. And we never stopped to think that maybe... his actions could open the door for men like this. Men with guns. Men who think that the law belongs to them."
Frank is appalled when a terrorist claims that he and Frank are no different (“We both believe the system will fail to do what needs to be done, and we take matters into our own hands,” or something like that). They are different because the bomber targeted innocent people, right? But wait…Frank tortured an innocent guy just a couple episodes earlier because that guy’s life was just a means to Frank’s ends. Frank’s violence isn’t random, but that’s little comfort to those unjustly hurt by him. He is no terrorist to the general population, but there is very good reason for everyone to be a little nervous. A scene in Daredevil gave us a disturbing window into his way of thinking:
“"You know those, uh... those people? The ones I put down, the people I killed? I want you to know that I'd do it all again. This is a circus, all right? It's a charade, it's an act. It's bull**** about how crazy I am. I ain't crazy! I'm not crazy. Okay? I know what I did. I know who I am. And I do not need your help. I'm smack-dab in the middle of my right god**** mind, and any scumbag, any... any lowlife, any maggot piece of s*** that I put down, I did it... because I liked it! Hell, I loved it! I'm sitting here, I'm... I'm just itching. I'm itching to do it again. And you think... What, you think you're gonna send me to a nuthouse? Some doctor, they're gonna get me to stop from doing what I want to do? Well, that ain't happening! Not on my watch! You people, you call me the Punisher, ain't that right? The big bad Punisher. Well, here I am! You want it, you got it! I am the Punisher! I'm right here! You want it, I'll give it to you. And anybody who came here today to hear me whine, to hear me beg? Well, you can kiss my ass!"I’ve seen a number of reviews saying this a bad time for a show with this level of violence. I don’t know. Perhaps what is portrayed could look appealing to someone whose heart has already been deeply calloused, but the average viewer will not see a glittering and appealing world of excitement and intrigue. They will see torture, blood, horrifying inhumanity, and a cycle of violence that escalates around and within those who engage in it. As a review at Variety noted:
“But above all what “The Punisher” is cynical about is the use of force: This is a series where a man who was asked to senselessly kill by his government goes rogue and ends up hunting down members of that same government — because they made him kill people. The show is wary of guns, wary of blind patriotism, wary of unquestioned service; it sides only and always with veterans. (The affection that military veterans have for the character of the Punisher is a long-documented one. The character was originally a veteran of the Vietnam War when introduced in 1974; in the Netflix series, he’s a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Bernthal’s Frank Castle seems to have wrapped himself in these forces because he doesn’t trust anyone else to have the power to wield them — and at the same time, because he is so broken by his own tragedy, he is a protagonist who commits violence while understanding how that violence creates trauma. It makes for a charged, destabilizing dynamic…”The end of the show hints at a turn toward peace if Frank is willing to enter into a community of the broken and healing. I doubt it will last. The Punisher does not mete out his savage punishment from a place of health. The hell inside become the hell outside. Hurt people hurt people, isn’t that how the saying goes? And if they don’t get fixed, broken people will break people. And if you give them a gun, they will do so quite efficiently.
I’ve long advocated for honest violence: if you are going to show it, don’t make it cool. Make it real. If you do it right, we will know that violence is the last thing for which we should hope. Show us the toll it takes on everyone involved. If viewed as more than mere entertainment, The Punisher forces us to face these things:
“The Punisher forces us to philosophically question our own personal relationships with power, abuse, sadism, and terror. The series, drenched in shadows and hazy grays, explores what happens when vigilantism goes unchecked. Fans who have been following Castle’s story from the second season of Daredevil know that he’s killing because his family was killed; The Punisher, through its excessive violence, wants to test whether there’s a limit. It wants to ponder what could happen if everyone who’s ever been wronged started acting like Castle.”