Published on Huffington Post, November 17, 2017
On Friday, November 17th, Marvel and Netflix released the newest series in a successful run of shows based on characters from the Marvel Universe. The Punisher expands the story of a character that Marvel introduced last year in the second season of Daredevil. Over the past couple of years, this string of Netflix series based on Marvel characters, including Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders, have become increasingly popular among binging viewers. However, The Punisher expands on this run of shows in a troubling new way: it brings gleeful gun fetishism to the fore.
The character Frank Castle has a story much like many of those in the world of superheroes. His family is murdered by those who would silence him (in the comics it was an organized crime syndicate, in the show it’s a rogue agent of the C.I.A.). His grief for the loss of his family combined with the guilt of knowing that his own actions were instrumental in their deaths causes Castle to adopt the moniker of “The Punisher” and to embark on a crusade to kill those responsible for destroying his life. It’s a classic comic-book origin story.
While the Punisher’s origin is fairly mundane in the world of superheroes—death of a family member causes a man or woman to go on a mission for justice—this differs in the fact that the Punisher does not have any superpowers, just a terrible talent for carnage. Through thirteen episodes, Frank Castle racks up a body count that almost rivals John Wick while he mows down those whom he holds responsible for the deaths of his family. Utilizing the skills that he learned as a Special Forces operator in the Marine Corps, Castle shoots, stabs, and bludgeons his way through a string of faceless henchmen in tactical gear.
And this is where the problem with the series lies. With a constant string of mass shootings in the United States, The Punisher appeals to the basest reflexes of those who are caught up in the near pornographic obsession with guns in America. A lone-wolf type, who plays out a revenge fantasy on those whom he perceives to have ruined his life and who, himself, collects massive amounts of firepower in preparation for the day that he can avenge the death of his family, while cutting through the bad guys with a giant death’s head skull emblazoned on his chest.
Because of these particular aspects of the character, the Punisher has long been a favorite among military and wannabe military in the United States. Chris Kyle—the former Navy SEAL sniper of American Sniper (2014) fame—even used the Punisher’s skull logo for Craft International, a business that he started to train law enforcement and private citizens in tactical fighting methods. Combined with the motto “Despite what your momma told you, violence does solve problems,” the Punisher logo is prominent on the company’s website and marketing materials and anyone driving around these days is sure to see a pick-up truck or a modified jeep on the road that sports a Punisher decal on its bumper or rear window. It’s a pretty safe bet that anyone driving these vehicles has at least one gun in their home.
Guns, a complicated revenge fantasy, a black-and-white view of good and evil all work in concert to create a character that appeals to men (and it is almost solely men) who worship at the altar of gun culture and desperately want to wield power in their day-to-day lives while flaunting their own armories through open-carry laws. As children of the 1980s and ’90s, many of these men grew up on the movies of Arnold, Sly Stallone, and others who combined a tough-guy, take-no-shit attitude with guns and martial arts. For these men, this is the pinnacle of American masculinity in the 21st century. And so, Netflix’s new series is sure to find an audience within the gun-toting, fly-over state population who disguise their concerns over a changing nation behind their guns and their fear.
Less than two months ago, Stephen Paddock barricaded himself in a room at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas and then opened fire on a crowd of thousands of concertgoers, killing 58. At the time, he had an almost Punisher-like arsenal of 23 guns with him, including weapons modified to fire at incredible rates, along with tactical gear, and explosives. Just over a month later, Devin Kelley walked into a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, with his AR-15 and killed 26 parishioners of the First Baptist Church. As Kelley walked among the pews, methodically executing the victims he wore black tactical gear, a ballistic vest, and a mask with the image of a white skull. All of these are hallmarks of the Punisher.
While we cannot lay the blame for these events at the feet of television or comic books, we can surely see the ways in which our preoccupation with these stories of heavily armed vigilantes have helped to create an image that resonates with disaffected young men who feel that they have been wronged in some way or another and seek to enact their revenge on those who they feel have hurt them. While The Punisher is not likely to create a mass shooter, in and of itself, one cannot help but see the ways that the series creates a mythical figure that some men will seek to emulate as they try to find their own “justice.” In a country that continues to suffer through one mass shooting after another, The Punisher may seem a little too real to some.