Written by Mossiah Smith
“Killing me won’t solve anything!”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s branching out into the television space was something that none of us saw coming, yet were open to exploring. Marvel, looking to use Netflix as the platform to spark darker and more mature stories, already produced Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Defenders, and Iron Fist. These shows proved to be highly successful and secured themselves as a staple in pop-culture. These shows dealt in various forms of social commentary and deconstruction of many of these beloved heroes, with The Punisher in particular appearing to be the most relevant yet.
Throughout its 13 episode duration, The Punisher provided many different types of commentary, but the most apparent is its exploration of the American Identity, especially in the post 9/11 American landscape. Early in production, Steve Lightfoot (showrunner) brought in various military advisers and veterans in an attempt to ensure they represented the material as best as possible. Lightfoot appeared to be extremely articulate in regards to how he handled the subject matter of the show, in particular the exploration of American Identity, stating, “I’m a real America fan, for good or ill. I’ve lived here for a while now, and I actually did an American studies degree in college, and so I was always very interested in how [American identity] worked.”
…you start with the character, and I think of Frank as the classic anti-hero. He is a very American figure, right back to westerns, and I felt like that lent itself to something, just, around him. And I have a room full of very talented writers who are all American so, you know, it’s not all me. [Laughs] They steered me when I was wrong, and they all had things to say — there’s a little of everyone in the show — and I don’t know if the issues are that different from the ones we face in the U.K. You know, we’ve sort of been in the same wars as long you guys have.
The show introduces in just the first episode the alienation and loneliness felt by various veterans upon their return from the battlefield, and even the frustration and anger sparked from such. Within the first episode, we hear from a veteran at the support group run by Curtis (Jason R. Moore). “I just know that I fought for this country and it’s got no place for me.” He continues, “I don’t know what the rules are anymore…” which is directly responded to by another vet who says, “They’re scared, man. Because they aren’t stupid. They trained an army for 15 years and then abandoned it on the street.” These lines are met with silence in the episode and it is intentional.
Lightfoot seems to want to spark a dialogue regarding some of the issues facing our country. The Punisher very vocally points out the flaws in America—the flaws in how we deal with our veterans, the flaws in some of the systems we’d love to say worked without a single cog missing. It even explores the flaws in America’s ideals, though the show never strays away from its love for them. It speaks on the unity that we have as a nation, but also the continued divide we have as a nation; it points out the flaws in our system, yet iterates our continued faith in it. It brings up the question of faith more than anything—the faith we have in this country regardless of everything fallible. The response to the dialogue in that scene sets the tone for the rest of the show. Any of the other questions or observations sparked by the show are never given definitive answers, if given at all, because Lightfoot doesn’t have them.
Another area that deserves the utmost praise in The Punisher was its explicit direction in ensuring that the character of the Punisher wasn’t glorified. Lightfoot and Jon Bernthal, who plays the titular anti-hero, shared in a interview that they, “did not want to paint The Punisher as a hero, nor a villain,” and were, “trying to stray away from potentially lionizing the character.” This took work on two fronts: first, on a storytelling level, and the second in direction. Lightfoot shares his approach to Frank’s crusade, stating,
I think it’s not only remembering the tragedy behind it as you enjoy Frank’s mission, but it’s also you have to remember as we go with him that what he’s doing isn’t right. If everyone did that, we’d have anarchy. We can’t all just say, ‘This is what I think should’ve been done. I’m going to do it.’ I think it’s both going with him and understanding the journey he’s on, empathizing but at the same time not making him an unvarnished hero. I think a lot of what he’s doing is wrong. We have to let the audience lose him at times and let him win them back. To just wholeheartedly be behind him wouldn’t be right either.
Though narratively it is possible to pick up Lightfoot’s views on Punisher’s crusade, it would all be for nothing if he fetishized gun violence throughout the show. Lightfoot shared recently with Slash Film how he dealt with the display of violence in The Punisher behind the camera, stating,
…if you have someone get hit in the face, you have to make it uncomfortable and make people see that it hurts and that it’s not something you want. I feel like, [scenes] when someone gets hit ’round the head with something and there isn’t a mark on them are actually worse than making people understand the cost of violence, and not only physically. What I hope we did in the show, around Frank and everyone else, is show the cost of being around that violence emotionally.
Lightfoot and Bernthal were looking to ensure that there wasn’t another mass murder being glorified in mass media, and especially not now.
The Punisher displays explicitly that Frank does indeed enjoy killing, that his argument for his crusade is flawed, and that it will only lead to him running in circles. We get a powerful final soliloquy to end the show, directly expressing Frank’s psychological quarrel. Frank monologues,
As long as I was at war, I never thought about what would happen next. What I was gonna do when it was over. But I guess that’s it… ya know. I think that may be the hardest part; the silence. The silence when the gunfire ends. I mean, how – how do you live in that. I guess that’s what you’re trying to figure out huh? What you guys are doing. You’re working on it. I respect that, I just… If you’re gonna look at yourself, truly look in the mirror you gotta admit who you are. Not just to yourself. To everybody else. First time I can ever remember where I don’t have a war to fight, and to be honest… I’m scared.
It is a powerful quote from the show—so powerful that the various veteran extras featured in that scene walked up to the director and shared just how accurate the lines of dialogue were for them. The Punisher provides such relevant commentary due to Lightfoot and the writers staying conscious of the character and his connotation in pop-culture. The Punisher is a character that people wear as they go to war, as they wear their shields, even whom they empathize with. Keeping this in mind, along with The Punisher’s common storytelling territory in the comics, the showmakers used The Punisher as the platform to provide commentary on the current American sociopolitical climate and its effect on various veterans. Lightfoot speaks on the show’s relevancy head on, sharing that, “It was always about finding a way hopefully to make that story specific and relevant and feel like it’s today, rather than being a version from the ‘70s or the ‘80s or the ’90s.” This displays the understanding of the character, but the commentary they give and the fashion in which they give it shows their understanding of the value of the character.
Even before Lightfoot gripped a camera for production, his first task was to ensure the audience questioned The Punisher’s actions, for Frank himself to tackle his crusade head-on psychologically, and even for the audience to potentially turn their backs to the character due to the lengths that he would go. The Punisher is a fantastic display of a creative team conscious and mindful of the character they’re working on, and the value that the character holds. The fantastic work given from The Punisher is something that I hope to see much, much more of in the future, especially from the Marvel machine.