Warning: minor spoilers.
The new season of Netflix’s Daredevil opens with the Punisher storming through a crowded hospital, wielding a fully-loaded shotgun, and blasting holes through walls as he chases after a mobster.
When his target escapes in a getaway car, he moves to the roof and shoots at the man using a high-powered sniper rifle. He’s interrupted by the series’ titular hero, who lays into the Punisher with a flurry of punches and kicks. The attack nearly brings the Punisher down until, at the last moment, he pulls out a pistol and shoots Daredevil square in the head.
Gritty films in which superheroes murder weren’t what studios once thought audiences wanted. Yet Batman v Superman, Kick-Ass, and Deadpool have proven that the public will cheer for and spend money to watch fictional vigilantes torture, maim, and kill in the name of justice.
While comic book movies have turned towards darker themes, the frequency with which we encounter real-world, home-grown villains has increased dramatically. Between 2000 and 2013, the average annual number of people killed in U.S. mass shootings jumped from 6.4 to 16.4 people. Shootings happened in 40 states and 60% of the time they were over before police arrived.
This season of Daredevil pits its hero against the Punisher and explores a larger question: In an age of mass shootings, is there a difference between a gun-wielding vigilante and a “real” superhero?
The Punisher first appeared in a 1974 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man as an assassin hellbent on killing Peter Parker for his apparent involvement in Norman Osborn’s murder. As the issue unfolds, it’s revealed that before he was the Punisher, Frank Castle was a highly-trained marine with expert marksman skills and a knack for torture. As a costumed vigilante, he takes it upon himself to rid the world of lawless thugs who pose a threat to humanity.
Over time, the Punisher realizes that Spider-Man isn’t really his enemy and introduces readers to the uneasy relationship that most of Marvel’s heroes have with Castle. While everyone understands that the Punisher is, ultimately, trying to make the world a better place, his methods are often driven by his dangerous black and white perspective on justice.
Since his debut, the Punisher has been one of the most dangerous, non-superpowered humans alive, and also one of the most reliable. He’s routinely recruited by S.H.I.E.L.D. for covert missions that require his brand of brutality and while he tends not to get involved in large-scale super clashes, he’s known for butting heads with Marvel’s other street level heroes.
More often than not, the Punisher’s exchanges with Captain America, Spider-Man, and Daredevil revolve around them fighting or teaming up briefly before trying to convince him to give up killing bad guys. Marvel’s heroes know that deep down, the Punisher means to be a hero and he lives by a strict moral code not to kill innocent people.
But in a world filled with heroes who routinely manage to subdue their foes without murdering them, what does that make the Punisher?
Not too long ago, the Punisher was involved in an especially chilling moment of real American gun violence.
On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old Virginia Tech senior, loaded up his Glock 19 and Walther P22 pistols, left his dorm room, and murdered 32 people across campus in two hours. He later shot and killed himself.
Cho struggled with mental illness and, nearly two years before the shooting, had been identified as “an imminent danger to self or others” but never received outpatient psychiatric treatment. In a rambling, 1,800-word manifesto sent to NBC News, he explained that he went on his rampage as a means to “clean the slate” of “hedonists” for their “reprehensible and wicked crimes.” When the police found Cho’s body, they discovered that he’d been carrying hundreds of rounds of ammunition, chains, locks, knives, and a hammer.
Hanging on the wall of his dorm room was a poster of the Punisher. In the days following the shooting, as more information about Cho was released to the public, there were some people who noticed how the killer had seemingly modeled himself after the fictional gunman.
2008's Punisher: War Zone brought all of the Punisher’s hyperviolence to the big screen for the third time. Unlike its predecessors, though, War Zone’s depictions of murder and gore were bloodier and bombastic to the point of ridiculousness.
When I spoke with War Zone director Lexi Alexander a few weeks ago, she told me that the day before she was due to meet with executives about taking on the project, she saw Seung-Hui Cho’s Punisher poster on a news segment. The only way that she would be able to do the Punisher justice while also appealing to fans and avoiding the fetishization of murder, she reasoned, was to amp up the movie’s camp.
For all of War Zone’s R-rated movie trappings, it is, on a level, an homage to old-school B-movie ridiculousness. There are scenes where a villainous parkour expert is shot out of the sky with a rocket launcher and a man’s head explodes simply from being punched. Though the movie’s gained something of a cult status since its release, initially, it was a box office disappointment.
Most critics wrote War Zone off as being two-dimensional torture porn heavy on kidneys being “ripped out and eaten” and light on cohesive plot and character development. “There’s a big audience for disgusting, and I confidently predict the movie will ‘win the weekend,’ if not very many hearts and minds,” Roger Ebert lamented. “The movie is not heavy on plot.”
Those criticisms might have been valid, but at the time, superhero movies had barely started to take themselves seriously again. Marvel’s Iron Man, released that same year, had some light commentary on the ongoing Afghanistan war, but aside from that, the genre was still dominated by flashy blockbusters that were meant to move merchandise.
Yet the Punisher we meet in 2016's Daredevil is just a regular guy who had one very bad day. This new Frank Castle is given a similar origin story—his wife and two children are murdered by mobsters—but his characterization echoes many of the stories we hear about former soldiers coping with PTSD.
While the Punisher makes a point of explaining that he’s well within his right mind when he kills—he says he enjoys it—it’s revealed that he’s actually living with a form of brain damage that keeps him in a constant state of fight or flight. This Punisher isn’t exactly a preternaturally talented marksman, he’s a disturbed man with military training who arms himself in the name of bringing justice that he feels the police can’t.
“Everything you do in the streets, Red, it doesn’t work,” the Punisher tells Daredevil after a fight. “What I do, I just do. It’s out of necessity.”
Because of licensing agreements with other studios, Marvel wouldn’t have full control over the Punisher again until 2013 and didn’t try to incorporate the character into its larger cinematic universe until this year. In between War Zone’s release and this season of Daredevil, 178 people were murdered in the U.S. in mass shootings.
The Punisher’s zero-tolerance policy is what draws certain fans toward the character. A recent “Why I Like the Punisher” Reddit thread that racked up hundreds of comments and thousands of upvotes is littered with people expressing respect for the fact that the Punisher “gets shit done.”
“Everyone else is worried about how easy it would be to kill the bad guys, how it’d be a slippery slope to turning into a monster and blah blah blah,” Redditor M1ghtypen explained. “Frank’s just like ‘You know what stops crime? Death. I’m gonna murder the hell out of every criminal I can find.’”
To look at the way some fans admire the Punisher, it’s easy to see him as the type of character that a disaffected, angry person would idolize. The type of character who, after being personally wronged, would rather to pick up a gun and shoot his way to justice as opposed to trying to work through the legal system.
Annie McClintock, a hardcore Punisher fan and longtime collector of his comics that I met through Twitter, stressed the importance of remembering that the Punisher isn’t just a brooding anti-hero. He’s a grieving, traumatized man with a past whose characterization changes depending on who’s writing him.
“Of course this can be read as nothing but an empowering revenge fantasy, and in some cases it is, depending on the writer,” she said of the Punisher’s darker elements. “His animus and motivations shift with each writer, but the constant is always that he lost his family, and he can prevent that from happening to other people, so he will simply give up a normal life and get on with his mission.”
Within the framework of the Netflix show, it’s implied that the Punisher’s brain damage is actually his answer for a superpower. While Daredevil’s blindness and exposure to chemicals gave him vaguely heightened senses of smell, touch, and hearing, the Punisher’s brain damage makes it so that his killer instinct is always cranked up to 11.
Being a murder savant makes for a compelling anti-hero in a comic book or television show, but here in the real world, focusing on mental illness is often how we explain mass shootings.
Netflix’s Punisher is unique to the world of modern superhero movies that has largely been lighter hearted and murder-free. Unlike the Avengers, the Punisher wouldn’t evacuate an entire city to save its citizens from the crossfire in a battle with Ultron.
He much more closely resembles the Dark Knight in Batman v Superman, a self-identified criminal who knows he’s breaking the law and killing people. The new Batman brands his logo into the flesh of criminals and would rather murder Superman than get to know him, but he’s only doing it for the greater good. In the same way that Batman casts a wide shadow of fear across Gotham, the Punisher becomes a looming threat of gun-violence over Hell’s Kitchen.
In Daredevil’s fictional world, the Punisher kills dozens of gangsters and the media says he’s a gun-wielding lunatic, the police think he’s a hero, and the public is left with a choice: Is a man with a gun any more dangerous than a woman who can tear people to pieces with her bare hands or a man in an armored devil suit? Maybe not.