The issue with Servicepeople and the Punisher

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DISCLAIMER: This article contains spoilers for Season two of Netflix's 
Daredevil and both seasons of the Punisher. Read on at you own discretion.

Earlier this month, the UK’s SAS forces banned members from wearing the Punisher logo on their uniforms. These soldiers get the logo to mark their first kill. The reason given is that officials thought that the symbol looked too similar to the Death’s Head (Totenkopf) emblem worn by Hitler’s SS. Which, of course, is problematic.

There’s been a lot of push-back about this, with Army officials calling it “PC madness” and whatnot. I for one don’t see how a badge is going  to make a guy who’s paid to kill people for a living any more threatening or problematic. At the end of the day it’s just a symbol, worn by a fictional character.

But what I do take issue with is the glorification of the Punisher’s behaviour and methods. For those unaware, Frank Castle (the Punisher) was a US Marine who watched his family die in front of him because they were witnesses to a mob hit and thus had to be eliminated. Frank survived and sought revenge on these mobsters, killing practically all of them in a few days. At that point Frank waged a war against organised crime and every form of criminal.

He’s probably one of the most popular Anti-Hero’s in the realm of comics. You’ve probably seen him on shows such as Daredevil on Netflix. Where Frank essentially gets his revenge and then uncovers this weird conspiracy involving a heroin ring operated by high ranking Government officials. In his own show he essentially repeats his pursuit of revenge, but this time his enemies lie in the military industrial complex.

A lot of cops and soldiers really love and relate to him. Most of them have the sense to acknowledge that his methods are way out of line in the real world, but they love that black and white view of the world. They love this bad-ass motherfucker who does what he wants, doesn’t take shit from anybody and gets shit done.

The problem arises when some people think that his methods are completely justified- and while that number is a minority in regards to servicepeople, it doesn’t help that you glorify that lifestyle by plastering that logo on uniforms and squadcars.

It’s something that the character’s co-creator, Gerry Conway, takes issue with:

“To me, it’s disturbing whenever I see authority figures embracing Punisher iconography because the Punisher represents a failure of the Justice system. He’s supposed to indict the collapse of social moral authority and the reality some people can’t depend on institutions like the police or the military to act in a just and capable way.

The vigilante anti-hero is fundamentally a critique of the justice system, an example of social failure, so when cops put Punisher skulls on their cars or members of the military wear Punisher skull patches, they’re basically sides with an enemy of the system. They are embracing an outlaw mentality. Whether you think the Punisher is justified or not, whether you admire his code of ethics, he is an outlaw. He is a criminal. Police should not be embracing a criminal as their symbol.”

I really love Netflix’s interpretation of the Punisher. Personally, I think it’s better than the Comics. I’ve never found the latter incarnation that appealing- he just seemed like a stoic, raging ass-hole who killed people. But Netflix? Dude was pretty damn chill when he wasn’t brutally murdering criminals.

I mean he’s kind, polite, good with kids, nice to wait staff- an all round good, charismatic guy. If you met him at a bar and no shit went down- you’d think he was pretty damn nice- you’d want to hang out with this person.

But it just so happens that this guy has minor brain damage from being shot in the head, coupled with the severe PTSD received from a few tours of Afghanistan- some of which were pretty damn sketchy- and then when he gets home his entire family is murdered right before his eyes- you got a pretty fucked up person right there.

The show does an excellent point of showcasing this in the first season. The theme of trauma and PTSD among veterans is a key component to the story. In fact, the season’s minor villain is a veteran who becomes a domestic terrorist because of his inability to deal with his mental health alongside the manipulation of outside, political forces trying to push an agenda.

I have to praise the show’s social commentary on right wing terrorism- especially when its target audience leans to the right. In America you’re more likely to get killed by a White Supremacists than a Jihadist. In fact, unless you’re living in a predominantly Muslim and economically unstable nation- your likelihood of being killed by a jihadist is pretty damn low.

There’s just a lot of power in a guy like Frank Castle, a character many of these people would relate to, going out of his way to condemn this kind of action. I feel that Frank’s monologue to the domestic terrorist- about how his actions have effectively ruined the life of his father- has legitimately shaken people and scared them away from committing these acts.

You may feel you have nothing to lose, but you do. Everyone has someone and if you do something morally reprehensible, those sins will be burdened upon their shoulders. It is literally not worth it.

In the second season the show dives away from domestic terrorism and focuses more on the influence of Christian fundamentalism and how blind faith can lead to great harm. The rich donors of a church pressure a reformed assassin into going on a killing spree to track down a girl who has photos of their son, a Senator, kissing another man.

They killed hundreds of people because they couldn’t accept that their son was Gay.

These villains offer some social commentary in how the rich set the standards in politics. How they essentially buy out politicians via campaign donations and the pressure of lobbyists to enact policies that benefit them. How they create a media oligopoly to distract people from the real issues by appealing to their insecurities and biases.

I’m calling it; the Punisher is more WOKE than Supergirl.

But my personal favourite tacit of the show is how they dealt with Frank’s trauma, PTSD and brought it to its natural conclusion. A few die hard fans have some critiques of the shows representation of the character- namely how he isn’t fucked up enough.

In the comics, Frank is pretty much a borderline psychopath with a moral code. He loves killing- but only if its an enemy that deserves it and can fight back. In War he finds this desire met because he’s killing people who are trying to kill him. But when he comes back home, he struggles. Because there is no one he sees who deserves to be killed- and this rage just settles there.

That is until Frank’s family is murdered and he finds a worthy enemy to devote his crusade to. There’s a really good video essay explaining this in greater detail. In fact, John Bernthal- the actor playing Frank Castle- explains it very well;

For a lot of folks, I think when you suffer trauma, to be on-mission, to have a direction, to have an enemy that you know of and to be in it with likeminded people, it provides some sort of quiet from the storm. The monsters start to come in the quiet and when you have nothing to fight for. No direction. Peace sometimes can be the most scary place for a lot of folks. When you change people’s circumstances, there’s nothing that will take place of this world that you’ve come to know. That’s a lot of what this season is about for Frank, is he keeps getting drawn into this fight and he’s still grappling with the idea of, “who is the real Frank Castle?” And is there any peace?

Upon his introduction in Daredevil season two, Frank flat out refuses to say that he has PTSD to issue an insanity plea. Citing that he neither has it and that saying so would be disrespectful to those who do. In season one of his own show however, it’s pretty clear he was in denial. While killing may come easy to Frank, he doesn’t remain completely unphased.

Throughout the season Frank has this dream/nightmare of a sweet memory of his wife waking him when he got home for the last time. It’s a happy moments but it’s interrupted by a masked man murdering her. The moment is an actual memory, the man is the intrusion of a nightmare influenced by his PTSD.

It’s later revealed that this supposed happy memory of Frank’s has been altered a little. Due to his loss, he sees the past in rose tinted glasses- when in fact it’s more complicated. The memory in question starts out happily, but ends with the wife in tears as she says that he’s changed- that his time away and the trauma he’s received has changed him. Carved away bits and pieces of his soul, so to speak.

She’s right of course. Even before his family died, Frank was prone to snap. An example can be seen when Frank’s son refers to members of the Taliban by an ethnic slur and Frank almost hits him. He loses control just for a second but it’s pretty clear that even if he hadn’t lost his family, Frank’s behaviour would have driven them away.

It’s why the first season’s final scene- of Frank in group therapy with other Vets- is so powerful. It shows that even the Punisher needs to reach out and get help. In fact, this therapy is partly why Frank appears so goddamn mellow at the beginning of season two. He isn’t looking for trouble, or trying to start fights- he’s just a guy driving around, listening to some music, having a few beers and occasionally he’ll let someone in.

Frank had a shot at happy ever after and had the emotional faculties to see it through, but because of bad circumstances he was dragged into bad habits. For most people these bad habits would include drug abuse, addiction of any kind- for Frank it’s simply an excuse to exercise his violent tendencies.

These bad habits bring back a lot of bad behaviours. Frank can be emotionally negligent and even abusive to his friends and companions. An example of this can be seen where he comes home from a gunfight with his arch nemesis and his companion, Amy, acts playful when he enters- but because his adrenaline is pumped he gets mad at nearly accidentally killing her, throws her to the ground and fires two rounds into the wall and saying that could have been you.

The entire scene plays like an abusive dad coming home from a bad day at work. As the show continues, Frank’s behaviour becomes even more questionable as he tortures a veteran for information and later just out of sheer anger. These violent tendencies and outbursts of anger corrode the relationships around him. Coupled with his emotional distance, Frank ends up alone pretty quickly.

The Punisher isn’t a character to emulate or to look up to. It’s fine to relate to him, but only to a degree. Frank Castle serves as an example of what poor mental health management can do to someone. He both represents a failure of institutions to carry out justice and the failure of himself to self care.

But when you represent an ideal or an issue, you need to offer a solution to parallel that issue. For example, it’s ok to have the villain of your story be Jihadist if you have another Muslim character who denounces that way of life. In other words, you combat a negative example of a person from a certain community or background with a positive example of a person from that same community or background.

In the case of the Punisher, Frank Castle acts as a negative example of mental health management. Curtis Hoyle on the other hand, Frank’s brother in arms, represents a positive example in mental health management- he’s the voice of reason.

Curtis represents a Veteran who’s been through the shit but through hard work and dedication has come out with a better life for himself. He has a steady job, a roof over his head and even has a girlfriend. Curtis is the person that audience members should choose to emulate, not Frank.

It’s ok to like the Punisher. Hell, it’s ok to love the Punisher. But his world view isn’t something that should be accepted. His methods shouldn’t be normalised and his results should be looked at with scepticism. The life of a vigilante is corrosive to the spirit and if your an officer of the law or a member of the armed services, you should really question whether or not you should be this infatuated with this character.

I’ll leave the final word to John Bernthal, once again;

For me, it’s a few things. Number one, art, when it’s done right, holds a mirror to society and makes you question it. And question yourself. You shouldn’t attempt to spoon feed answers or to preach. [Art should] make you look at yourself and hopefully present different sides to an argument and help make society or help make the viewer ask questions about the world in which they live in. I tend to try and avoid art that is preachy and tells you how to think. As far as I’m concerned, I think for so long now we’ve really gone through this thing in this country where a certain element has a stronghold and a monopoly on what it means to be strong or tough or masculine or patriotic, for that matter. For me, the great joy that I have in playing this role and other roles is where I got to pick soldiers and combat vets, and the guys that share their stories with me. To me, the mark of somebody who is strong, patriotic, tough is someone who has an open mind. Someone who is open to listening to all sides and not be steadfast and not be completely clinging to their own sense of, “This is what is right and this is what is wrong.” For me, what’s American to be open to all sides.

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