Lunchtime Reviews Volume III: The Punisher Problem

EDIT: At the time of writing these words I had watched exactly two episodes of The Punisher. Further, I’ve had moral and ethical objections to Frank Castle for as long as I’ve known the character. I am something of a hostile witness.

From my point of view, there is a fundamental problem with Marvel’s The Punisher. And no, this isn’t going to be a sermon about gun culture. I have neither the time nor the sanity to journey into the upside-down and emerge with an essay, no matter how short, that addresses American gun culture writ large in a show about a guy who rolls around New York killing people.  

No, there’s a simpler reason why Frank Castle needs to go away.

One of the first things I learnt about writing is that an audience follows their sympathy. It doesn’t matter if an artist wants character x to be the protagonist when character y is more sympathetic; the audience will connect to the strongest sympathetic emotional core. This is why Daredevil should be called The Foggy Nelson Show. So I ask you this, is your sympathy really following Frank fucking Castle?

I submit that if Frank were a naturally sympathetic character, then the first episode of the season wouldn’t have to mobilize the dead wife and kids trope no less than four times. That’s an average of one dead wife flashback every ten minutes. If The Punisher were leaning into the trope any harder, its chiropractor would be having a word with it about poor posture. The writing has to keep hammering the audience with the idea of Frank Castle as a victim to maintain the through-line of sympathy. If it lets up, if it doesn’t dial up the PTSD to 11, then the audience’s sympathy will wither. Absent said sympathy, we come to the essential Punisher problem: you, gentle reader, are better than Frank Castle.  

Frank Castle is the Hobbesian human, a nasty and brutish being, who honours no gods or laws other than those he imagines. The dead family and PTSD angle presents as little more than a contrivance to justify a creature of pure Id. Consider how many other heroes have been through bad things without ever lowing themselves to the level of Frank Castle.

Steve Rogers lost decades of his life and everybody he knew after being frozen.  

Norrin Radd lost his planet and very soul to protect Zenn La from Galactus’ appetite.  

Peter Parker was an orphan indirectly responsible for his grandfather’s death.  

Scott Summers: dead parents 

Matt Murdoch: dead parents 

Charles Xaiver: disabled from the waist down  

The list goes on…unless you’re a woman super hero. They seem awesome from word one without having to weaponize tragedy as a through-line to the audience’s emotional core. I wonder what that says about us, male demographic. Hmm?   

Heroes are supposed to give us a reason to believe in something bigger than ourselves. Their origin stories and adversities are allegories for finding dignity and strength amid personal tragedy. There’s nothing of the sort to Frank Castle. There’s no natural sympathy to follow. Being surrounded by death didn’t anathematize him to death, it seems to have fetishized death for him. He’s no better than Thanos, destroying planets as a tribute the spirit of cosmic entropy.

You, I, and everybody else in the world who doesn’t pick up a gun is more heroic than Frank Castle. We are more deserving of having our stories told, and that is the Punisher problem.

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  1. Pingback : Adam Shaftoe: Critic and Author » Lunchtime Reviews Volume IV: The Punisher Problem Part 2

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