Marvel’s ‘The Punisher’ series reboots a vigilante story that began in an eerily similar moment in history four decades ago.
When Netflix released The Punisher series, people said it was a bad time to do so, with all the shootings that plague us as a nation. The Punisher’s New York Comic-Con panel was canceled after the shooting in Las Vegas last October. As of this writing, there has been an average of one school shooting per week this year. However, with the cyclical nature of history, a little reflection shows that now is the perfect time to bring back Marvel’s The Punisher series. It’s not an encouragement of violence — it’s a reaction to it.
When The Punisher was created in 1974, we were not only a country in turmoil — we were also feeling an identity crisis, eyeing the differences between who we were and who we’d thought we were.
Consider the politics of that time. The country was tremendously divided. For years, Black people, women and young people had been protesting for civil rights. And yet Richard Nixon had been elected in 1969 as president by a voting bloc he referred to as the “great silent majority” — mainly white, middle-class Americans who decried social movements and pushed cultural conservatism. By 1974 we were over a year into dealing with a White House scandal — a president who not only was found to be deeply paranoid and a prolific liar but who, while under investigation for a crime, refused to comply with a subpoena from the investigating committee. Even his State of the Union that year was an opportunity for him to say the investigation should go away. Staff firings and resignations had now raised calls of impeachment.
It was also a time of seemingly endless war. After World War II, citizens feared their own neighbors during the Cold War. After eight years of participation in the decades-long Vietnam War, in which the enemy used guerrilla tactics and had a home-field advantage, the last U.S. troops withdrew March 29, 1973, returning to a seemingly ungrateful nation. Veterans were left unprepared to deal with the atrocities they’d witnessed, and sometimes participated in.
Furthermore, the crime wave of the ’70s and throughout the ’80s drove fear into the American psyche. In June 1971 President Nixon declared a “War on Drugs.” Frequently people of color were shown as drug dealers and violent gang members in media representations of larger cities. The year 1974 also marked the beginning of the popular American vigilante film series Death Wish. This was the beginning of what would become the ’80s mentality of injustice and personal vengeance, most evident in the 1984 subway shooting by Bernhard Goetz. People believed they couldn’t count on anyone else but themselves for protection, resulting in what would become known as the “good guy with a gun” mythos. (Notably, Death Wish was rebooted in March 2018.)
This is the America in which The Punisher series was created. The plot unfolds around Frank Castle, a U.S. Marine who served three tours of duty in Vietnam before returning home to his wife and two children. One day, on a family picnic in Central Park, Castle and his family come upon an area where a mob hit is going down. Because they’re witnesses, they become targets. Only Frank manages to survive. Determined to testify, he soon realizes the corrupt cops will never allow justice to be served. The Punisher is born, and soon he begins to exact his revenge.
So — let’s fast-forward to today.
A voter block of white, working-class citizens who feel left behind and long for the past when America was “great” elected a president who is now embroiled in an investigation and calling for the investigation to end. A flurry of resignations has raised suspicions. We’re witnessing a revamped “War on Drugs.” We still frequently see media representations of people of color as drug dealers and violent criminals. We’re in a protracted “War on Terror,” in which soldiers have served multiple tours of duty, witnessing horrors similar to what Vietnam veterans saw and facing another enemy that uses guerrilla tactics. And services are inadequate to support veterans transitioning into civilian life.
We have a populace that has lost faith in their representatives, and we see footage of peace officers shooting unarmed citizens. As if justice did not apply, a sheriff convicted of criminal contempt was pardoned promptly by the president. For many in the U.S., belief in the justice system and those who govern are at an all-time low.
And that’s why this is the perfect time for The Punisher to come back, as the series’ popularity clearly shows.
With the reboot of The Punisher’s origin story, it’s impossible to ignore the connections between the politics and sentiments of the American people now and when the character was first created in 1974. The reboot expands on the current mistrust of authority and a desperation for any justice at all.
We should put to rest the fear that The Punisher series will cause violence. Critics have been blaming art for creating violence since Shakespeare (if not before). Art does not engender violence — violence is always there. Things like The Punisher are reflections of sentiments brewing, and they need to be explored.
Yes, there will certainly be fringe elements who will look to the precepts and ethos of The Punisher and warp them for their preconceived notions. But this is no different than those who corrupt religion for their own goals. Horrible people can look to anything to justify their beliefs and acts. But to really understand, we need only to look at how the comic books and the TV series portray The Punisher.
Until the early 1980s The Punisher was not a principle character. His initial outing pitted him against Spider-Man — not fighting alongside him. And he went on to have many interactions with other characters, often ending with his being chided for his actions.
It’s certainly telling that he’s never been asked to join the Avengers. Often the conflict is not between The Punisher and his target but between him and the hero, who’s forced to protect the villain from him.
There’s a reason Netflix introduced The Punisher through the Daredevil series. Borrowing heavily from the tremendously successful Frank Miller run, where the two interacted, Daredevil pitted The Punisher, the man who can’t survive without killing, against Daredevil, a religiously moral hero.
Frank Castle is a tragic character, a man who has become conflict, because he’s had everything taken from him. He’s a walking obsession, overrun by the times he lives in. A man forced by the experiences in his life to see only black-and-white — colored in by the heroes he comes in contact with.