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The Punisher’s wasted opportunity: It’s basically not in the Marvel Universe

Can we all agree that the U.S. military would not be ‘as is’ in the MCU?

Amber Rose Revah as Dinah Madani in Marvel’s The Punisher (2017), Netflix. Nicole Rivelli/Netflix
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

The very first shot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the opening scene of Iron Man, takes place in a Humvee full of soldiers driving down a dirt road in Afghanistan. (That was in 2008, nearly a decade ago, so you could be forgiven for forgetting.) Since then, the setting has only tied itself tighter to the United States military and intelligence services, in the events of Iron Man 2 and 3, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

But The Punisher, a show all about soldiers and their place in American society, gives us a story in which we have to assume that the history of the War on Terror and the ecosystem of the US intelligence community is unchanged from our own in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And that’s a choice that boggles my mind.

As Netflix’s latest show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Punisher barely mentions superheroes, which doesn’t really surprise me, as the Netflix Marvel shows have only grown more disconnected from the Marvel movies as time goes on. That’s a little unfortunate for Frank Castle’s character, as his strongest narrative hook has always been that he exists in a wider superhero universe where he is hated by the bad guys and hunted by the good guys for the same reason: He kills the bad guys.

But The Punisher doesn’t just pull Frank away from a world in which Daredevil and Spider-Man and Luke Cage are active in their respective boroughs. It closely depicts the professional lives of veterans and agents of the CIA and Department of Homeland Security. It tells the story of on-the-ground soldiers during and after their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans mention feeling cut lose in civilian life without a proper transition — they don’t mention how the greatest foot soldier hero of World War II was resurrected only to make a few Health and Fitness PSAs for their kids’ gym classes and then become a war criminal. They discuss the frustration of being given orders by men who don’t have first-hand combat experience — they don’t mention that a billionaire with no service record built himself a rocket suit and waged a one-man war on Middle Eastern arms dealers. Or that the Air Force has one of those suits now, and uses it for military strikes in the region.

James Rhodey Rhodes in the Iron Patriot War Machine suit in Iron Man 3 (2013). Marvel Studios

Two CIA agents discuss their seniority in the agency and their plans to accept positions in its highest ranking roles in the tones of business as usual — they don’t mention that the United States’ most powerful, secretive and technologically advanced intelligence agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., is in shambles after discovering that it was mostly a front for deep Nazi sleeper agents.

And nobody in Homeland Security mentions that the president was kidnapped by a homegrown fake terrorist with a Chinese name and had to be rescued by a civilian effort.

This seems frankly unbelievable to me. If the writers of The Punisher wanted to simply ignore that soldiers, veterans and U.S. intelligence agents’ lives would have been affected or impacted by the presence of superheroes in the world, that’s a choice they’re free to make.

But a show that explored the differences between our world and Marvel’s through the lens of the military could be incredibly compelling. Marvel has already found great success exploring what it’s like to be a normal personal in a world of superheroes, and it’s that tension that fueled so much of Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes/The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Sony Pictures

I want to know how enlisted men and women feel about Steve Rogers being coopted as a modern symbol of America instead of a classic one. I want to know what the CIA and Department of Homeland Security are doing to make sure there aren’t Hydra members in their ranks, or at least to make sure the public is confident that there aren’t. I want to know what an army private thought when she was halfway up a mountainside in Afghanistan and saw Iron Man fly past once.

Those details, while they may be a little more challenging to provide than the tonally neutral assumption that they don’t exist, only serve to enhance your story. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a world that has been changed completely by everything from aliens to extra-dimensional gods. There’s no way its military apparatus hasn’t been rocked to the core, and that your average soldier would have strong opinions on Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and James Rhodes. And there are ways to explore that without cheapening the sense of weight that’s crucial to a Punisher story.

Ultimately, a sci-fi setting that feels lived in is one that will make fans will want to dig deeper, even in stories that aren’t very science-fictiony at all. And that’s just not something I’m seeing from Punisher.