I’ve been pretty outspoken about my excitement for Frank Castle’s return to Netflix in The Punisher ever since Marvel’s October 2016 announcement that Jon Bernthal’s ex-Marine anti-hero would get his own show. I’ve devoted lots and lots of time to speculation on how Castle’s military history, originally teased in Daredevil season 2, would play out in a superhero series all about a one-man firing squad emblazoned with a white skull. I’d say I’ve been counting down until its release, but Netflix and Marvel are still keeping that under wraps.
Then, on Sept. 20, Netflix released a new official trailer — and now, after a year of excitement, I’m not so sure how I feel about The Punisher anymore.
Don’t get me wrong: The trailer has all the explosions and gunfire we expect from Bernthal’s anti-hero, and for the the first time, we get a good hard look at how Castle, a former Marine who left the Corps a war hero, became a gun-toting vigilante after the cold-blooded slaughter of his family.
The short two-minute trailer finally introduces the series’ principal villain: the federal government.
As we learned at the end of Daredevil’s second season, the murder of Castle’s wife and kids was a consequence of his involvement in a black-ops CIA mission while in the military. In the trailer, it’s clear Castle is ready to hit back against the man who led the op — and who’s now hunting him — as well as anyone else involved, which means agents from the the CIA to the Department of Homeland Security to the FBI. As Castle says in the trailer: “Everybody’s a part of this.”
But in Netflix and Marvel’s effort to turn Castle into a sword of justice in his quest to unravel a nebulous government conspiracy related to his family’s death, The Punisher could leave some considerable collateral damage in its wake — especially if it dredges up the worst of veteran stereotypes: that of the unhinged, heavily armed, dangerous combat vet. The danger’s especially salient given that, in the new trailer, the “bad guys” aren’t necessarily sinister criminal henchmen — they’re faceless government employees.
We shouldn’t be too surprised: The show hinted at what was in store in a Sept. 18 video showing Castle ambushing a cadre of armed men in military uniforms, and killing them, in brutally efficient Punisher-esque fashion.
— The Punisher (@ThePunisher) September 18, 2017
This brief, but jarring scenario — pseudo-military personnel cut down by an elite former Marine — plays out again and again in the trailer. But given the context — are these just random government lackeys following orders? — the previously-exhilarating revenge rampage turns problematic.
So why is Castle taking taking aim at some nebulous government conspiracy rather than easily-identifiable street-level goons? According to one Punisher comics writer, the answer might be political correctness.
“The whole conspiracy story, it’s an easy way around political correctness,” Chuck Dixon, a long-running writer on The Punisher series for Marvel, and one of the most prolific comic book writers of all time, told Task & Purpose. “Let’s face it, if Frank goes up against a drug cartel, he’s going to be killing Hispanics, or if he goes up against an urban street gang, he’s going to be killing African-Americans. They want to avoid that.”
“There’s a way to deal with all this escapist stuff and navigate these minefields, but they only seem to know how to tread that line so it has a basis in reality, but there’s that fantasy element so nobody takes offense,” Dixon added.
Beyond his one-man war on the nefarious government bureaucrats or contract killers, The Punisher’s already a divisive figure in modern American pop culture. Should we really be cheering for a vigilante who leverages his military training into extrajudicial killings, functioning as a one-man judge, jury and executioner? It’s a hard enough question to answer, even if Daredevil season two painted the anti-hero in a more sympathetic light — a man undone by grief who felt compelled to punish those who acted outside the law, or under the protection of corrupt forces within the legal system. He’s still killing people, yes, he’s still a murderer, but his actions seemed guided by some moral principle or code of behavior.
“The thing about The Punisher is that he fights crime we can all relate to — street crime, quality of life crime, and things like that,” Dixon said. “You know, like when you see criminals getting away, not getting caught, or the justice system fails and you see this in the news, it frustrates everybody, and The Punisher is like an answer — an escapist answer to that frustration.”
“He would draw a line at killing a law enforcement officer, or someone in the United States military, it’s just not going to happen,” Dixon said. “That’s the one person Frank’s not going to shoot at. He would give up, he would surrender. This just doesn’t sound right.”
All of this makes the series’ plot feel just a bit off. Frank Castle isn’t a detective, he’s a one man Marine infantry battalion. What’s he doing trying to take on some shadowy organization that’s infiltrated the government?
“Frank’s not a dark conspiracy kind of guy,” Dixon said. “He kills the guy in front of him. He may work his way up the ladder of a drug cartel, or whatever, but he’s not concerned with the spider-web of shadowy figures working from the darkness.”
With any luck, the upcoming show will tread carefully, just as they did with Jon Bernthal’s portrayal of the anti-hero in Daredevil, one whose military service was integral to his identity, not a potential stain on the public image of those who serve.