The Punisher, Netflix and Marvel’s new 13-episode drama about a superhero whose superpower is killing people with guns, is debuting in a very different environment to the one the character was conceived in. When the vigilante Frank Castle first appeared in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, the American psyche was more preoccupied with serial killers and mob violence than with mass shooters. Punisher, a former Marine Corps sniper, turned the merciless tactics of organized criminals against them, displaying no qualms about executing gangsters. He employed what amounted to an arsenal of military-grade weapons. His accoutrements were guns, guns, and more guns.
In 2017, a dizzying number of disturbed gunmen have given the imagery and mythology of Punisher an even darker resonance. In October, a mass shooting in Las Vegas left 58 people dead, excluding the perpetrator. A month later, a 26-year-old former member of the U.S. Air Force killed 26 people in a church in Texas. It’s a discomfiting news landscape in which to absorb The Punisher, whose opening credits caress silhouetted weaponry as brazenly as James Bond title sequences undulate around women’s bodies.
But the show seems to have anticipated this line of criticism. Compared to the first appearance of Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle/Punisher in Season 2 of Daredevil—where he executed mob bosses and underlings with brutal, surgical revenge, and tried to provoke Daredevil into committing murder—The Punisher mostly resists fetishizing gun violence. Steve Lightfoot, its creator (and a veteran of the NBC show Hannibal), clearly wants to add shades of gray to his hero’s black-and-white worldview. Frank is a ruthless vigilante who imposes his own, bloody justice on the world, but the show twists itself into knots trying to both critique and justify his moral code. Hardcore fans of the comic-book Punisher, who include a large number of veterans and cops, love him because he’s simple. He takes no prisoners; he embodies eye-for-an-eye vengeance. The Punisher, though, wants to emphasize that it’s more complicated—that Frank’s bleak agenda springs directly from the fact that all the systems he encounters are fundamentally broken.