The Punisher was always going to be an awkward sell in 2017. The character’s accomplishments as a superhero include a string of deadly mass shootings, and it’s tough to pass that off as escapist entertainment when such incidents have become a disturbingly common feature of the weekly news cycle.
Fortunately, Marvel’s latest Netflix outing seems to be aware of the potential pitfalls of glorifying a mass murderer. The Punisher spends much of its runtime deconstructing its own premise, suggesting that vigilantism is monstrous when put into practice.
[Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Marvel’s The Punisher on Netflix.]
Much of that comes across in the parallel narratives of Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) and Lewis Walcott (Daniel Webber), a young war veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Like Batman or John Wick, Castle’s Punisher is a prototypical antihero operating outside the law. He kills violent criminals that circumvent the legal system, cutting through red tape to administer a more direct form of justice.
The setup is appealing because it offers neat moral resolutions. In the real world, bad people often find loopholes that allow them to avoid the consequences of their actions. In comics, bad people do bad things and get punished for it.
The trick relies on an aura of absolute righteousness. In order to support the hero, the audience needs to believe that he (and it is usually he) is fundamentally incorruptible, which is why Batman’s (and Superman’s and Spider-Man’s and Daredevil’s) moratorium on killing is so vital to his character. That gets a little more complicated with the Punisher, but the same basic idea holds true. We root for him because we’re convinced that he would never, under any circumstances, kill the wrong people.
The trouble is that that sort of clarity simply does not exist in the real world — and only debatably exists in fiction. The Punisher toes that line, using reality to blur the uncompromising vision of its protagonist. New York residents become rightfully afraid of Frank in the wake of a terrorist bombing. The audience knows that he did not commit that particular crime, but the other characters do not. For them, his involvement is plausible in a way that demonstrates the fallacy of much superhero fiction. No matter how pure the hero’s intentions, there is no perfect form of cause and effect. The Punisher’s comic book resolve is a source of fear and tension because it can manifest in unexpected ways.
Lewis amplifies the blast radius as the actual perpetrator of the aforementioned bombing. Like Frank, Lewis is stubborn, aggressive and unpredictable. After starting the show as a traumatized and sympathetic war veteran, Lewis goes on to murder dozens of civilians in a misguided attempt to advocate for the second amendment and other ambiguously defined freedoms. He cites Frank as an inspiration, believing that his actions are justified because he acts with similar conviction.
Lewis’ story is presented as tragic, cautionary, and horrific. During his first appearances in a support group, he is searching for peace and purpose that have eluded him since his return from war. He is capable of optimism and compassion – most notably during his tryout with a private military contractor – but his frustration boils over into something more menacing when he doesn’t find easy treatment for his unrest.
The downward spiral is accelerated with help from an older veteran who radicalizes Lewis in an effort to harness his youthful anger, but the point is that even within the limited scope of the show, Lewis’s motivations are not consistent. He acts with confidence when he begins making bombs, projecting a sense of certainty that does not correspond with his inner turmoil. He is so deeply immersed in his own trauma that he cannot see how his personal ideologies (and his torment) have completely warped his sense of justice. When it begins to realign, he commits suicide because he can no longer rationalize or live with the effects.
Lewis’ story strips away the glamour often associated with vigilantes. A vigilante is supposed to have a code, fighting for a moral ideal that feels right but is not reflected in the law. Frank Castle’s family was murdered. The culprit is a distant government spook whose position within the CIA insulates him from the fallout. As the Punisher, Frank is able to restore the balance, enacting justice that would never be achieved without his intervention.
However, Frank’s crusade is in fact a dramatic convenience; the spook – Paul Schulze’s William Rawlins – is a clean narrative device. He’s a name and a disfigured face, standing as the one villain that Frank can kill to make the specter of his family’s deaths go away.
Lewis craves the certainty that the show freely gives to Frank, but his troubles are far more insidious. He is a victim of a broken system that trained him to fight and then discarded him once he was no longer necessary. His ‘tormentor’ is a complex network of social and infrastructural shortcomings that are neither the purview nor the responsibility of any one individual. Confusion between personal and systemic culpability leads to disastrous outcomes whenever people lash out at the former to resolve their issues with the latter. The Punisher is the protagonist, but Lewis represents a real-world vigilante.
That’s the underlying problem with vigilantism. A one-man army inevitably reflects the biases of the executioner. When those biases are flawed and inconsistent, other people pay the ultimate price for one man’s lack of self-awareness. Lewis is an explicit repudiation of everything the Punisher stands for, a suggestion that people who emulate Frank Castle are terrorists, not heroes, because they violently inflict private insecurities on an unwilling public.
Sadly, I think many viewers are going to miss that point, largely because the rest of The Punisher undercuts much of its critique of vigilantism. The show is still a revenge fantasy. Frank’s takedown of government death squads is bloody and entertaining, and the eventual catharsis feels like an endorsement — it gives us exactly what we came to see.
It doesn’t help that the first season also serves as an origin story for Ben Barnes’s Billy Russo/Jigsaw, the one character that Frank leaves alive. The final showdown is supposed to be part of Frank’s redemption arc — he doesn’t need to kill his arch nemesis — but assuming that Russo will end up causing more mayhem in season two, his survival will become a tacit validation of the Punisher’s mandate. It implies that the justice system is unable to handle violent criminals and that murder would have been a more effective solution to the problem. Fans will be able to conclude that Lewis’s methods would be acceptable if he picked better targets (in other words, if he was more like Frank), placing the blame on the individual and not the environment that created him.
In practice, there is no such distinction to be made. For an outside observer, there’s no way to tell a good vigilante from a bad one. They all seem dangerous because we don’t know anything about their mental state beyond their willingness to be a vigilante, which is itself a sign of a profoundly skewed moral compass. It indicates that the individual lacks the coping mechanisms needed to interact with the world in a more constructive manner, and is more than enough cause to question that person’s judgment.
When viewed through the prism of the real world, the Punisher is no exception. Frank is not a healthy human being, with untreated PTSD (and regular nightmares) that make him miserable. He differs from Lewis only in terms of shot selection. The most implausible aspect of Frank’s character is not his military training or his superhuman pain threshold. Rather, it’s his unwavering ability to separate the people who don’t deserve to die from those who do without ever once making a mistake. It’s a good thing that the Punisher is a superhero, because he could only exist in a work of fiction.
Lewis is the disclaimer that tells viewers not to try this at home. That obviously sends a mixed message — it could almost be viewed as cynical — but it does allow the showrunners to indulge the vigilante fantasy while stopping short of full endorsement. That, in turn, draws a sharp line between fiction and reality. It’s gratifying to think there could be a Punisher. In truth, most vigilantes end up looking a lot like Lewis.
Eric is a Toronto-based critic, podcaster, and creative writer. He is currently the Games Editor at DorkShelf.com and the co-creator and playwright of Not All Fedoras, a new stage comedy that examines toxic masculinity in geek culture. You can find him on Twitter @Harry_Houdini.