Netflix and Marvel made the right decision a few weeks ago when the companies decided to cancel The Punisher panel at New York Comic Con in the wake of the October 1 shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 people dead and 489 others wounded. The timing would have been beyond offensive, which raises the question: When can they release their show about a superhero who shoots people?
Together, the two companies put out a joint statement expressing their condolences to victims and their families and explained how they felt as if it wouldn’t have been “appropriate” to promote the show so soon after yet another US mass shooting. The statement didn’t draw so clear a line between The Punisher’s Frank Castle and shooter Stephen Paddock, but it wasn’t difficult to understand the logic at work.
Though he’s most often framed as a complicated antihero who abides by a personal code that defines his sense of justice, the Punisher is Marvel’s equivalent to a mass shooter. While his depictions in various comic books, television shows, and movies make a point of elevating Castle’s sense of morality to gel with the idea of him being a hero, it’s impossible not to see how he’s also a celebration of the kind of gun culture that makes actual mass shootings possible.
Stephen Paddock was not Frank Castle, and to suggest that Paddock was inspired by the character is unfair, but the two do exist in a larger conversation with one another that’s important to suss out. Like Paddock, at the end of the day the Punisher is just a man with a lot of guns (and gun knowledge). For all of the fan debates about whether Frank Castle can really be counted among Marvel’s heroes, he is an unequivocal lone wolf who periodically sets out to shoot people in defiance of a society that’s deemed his actions as harmful and dangerous to the public. That’s a critique that’s often levelled at the more modern, gritty interpretations of heroes who we see kill on screen all the time, but the Punisher is an infinitely easier character to imitate than Captain America or Thor. Every time we hear about a police department or a lone shooter or military personnel deciding to wear the Punisher logo, you have to wonder what part of the character’s identity they’re trying to engage with.
That’s the sort of question The Punisher should investigate, because you have to consider the positives and negatives of a series that frames Frank Castle as a hero. Though Netflix’s superhero shows are some of the most interesting additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they all follow the pattern of propping up their central characters as damaged, yet still sympathetic, admirable people. By the end of Jessica Jones or Daredevil, we’re made to understand that those characters have all made questionable decisions with their lives, but we’re also meant to see them as people who are doing the Right Thing™. That sort of framing works for characters who are, in the truest sense, heroic people with abilities that real people don’t have. But with someone like the Punisher, that kind of story ultimately ends up casting a man who is more or less a mass shooter in a positive light.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a space for a character like the Punisher in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but rather that the studio is always going to be in this difficult situation when it comes to Frank Castle unless it directly engages with the elements of the character that echo mass shootings. The sad truth of the matter is that there will be more shootings like the one in Vegas because we live in a country that refuses to implement proper gun regulation, and Frank Castle is the embodiment of the danger that a lack of gun regulation poses to society. The next time someone decides to leave their house and murder people using a semi-automatic weapon, Marvel and Netflix will once again be put in the difficult position of having to justify their decision to go forward with a series glorifying gun violence.
Part of what made Jon Bernthal’s performance as Castle work so well in Daredevil’s second season was that as a supporting character, he was able to be framed as more of a complicated villain than an antihero. It became easier to understand Castle’s motivations as he revealed more of his backstory to Daredevil, but the show made a conscious effort to keep the tension tight between himself, the police, and the city’s other vigilantes. Not only did it give the character an added layer of emotional complexity, it also served as a constant reminder that Frank Castle isn’t the sort of character meant to be looked up to. He’s a dangerous, broken, cautionary tale of a man who’s lost everything.
To make the Punisher the star of his own TV show is to valorise his character—and to ignore his potential as a symbol of and blueprint for an all too American kind of horrific violence. Those elements of his identity shouldn’t be erased; they should be pored over, deconstructed, and discussed in an open, honest way, as they were in Daredevil’s second season. Maybe Frank Castle’s solo TV series is looking to do the same—to establish him not as the MCU’s newest vigilante, but instead as a man who finds the ability to heal from his trauma without shooting up a city in the process.
But that’s a big “maybe,” especially given that the character has failed to do so for more than 40 years of comics, and it still won’t change the fact that the Punisher will always primarily be a “hero” that fights those he deems evil by riddling them with bullets. That might sound like a harsh assessment, but if Marvel and Netflix feel like even discussing The Punisher would be in bad taste after a mass shooting, maybe that’s a sign they shouldn’t release it at all.