If The Punisher has a superpower, that power is the ability to inflict violence. While many superheroes, ranging from the light-hearted Spider-Man to the grim, brooding Batman, have a strong moral stance and tend to adopt "no-kill" rules when they fight crime, Frank Castle seems to be more interested in results than the morality of his actions. As such, The Punisher is the most violent part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by a mile, featuring horror-movie levels of blood and carnage. But is there a point to it all? The violence in The Punisher seems as though it's meant to show the toll that exposure to a violent lifestyle can have on a person, but the first season of the series doesn't always honor that message.
The Punisher's portrayal of violence seems intended to demonize overt cruelty instead of celebrate it. Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Karen Page, tells Bustle, "The violence isn’t cartoony. It’s not for fun. It should in some ways, I think, repel you a little bit, remind you about things we see daily in this country and make you think about them."
And yes, the blood and death in The Punisher is undeniably grotesque and doesn't appear to highlight the "fun" of firearms and murder as more sadistic heroes like Deadpool and Wolverine do. But simply airing gruesome violence isn't enough to convince viewers that violence is gruesome. After all, Frank is the center of the story and a character that the show purposely makes very sympathetic.
While the creative team behind The Punisher often succeed at showing the consequences of violence, a few occasions seem to showcase violence for mere shock value instead of sending a message. Amber Rose Revah, who plays Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani, tells Bustle that the show "reflects the events that are happening in the world" and "will open up a conversation about what has to be done." The show does open up a conversation about violence, but fails to keep that conversation going or to take any particular stance in that conversation.
Many of the characters in The Punisher are living in the shadow of their violent pasts. Frank Castle is haunted by the death of his family, and racked with guilt for his actions as part of paramilitary group Project Cerberus. Curtis seems to have settled into a routine and is helping others get over their military pasts, but had to lose a leg in the process. Lewis Wilson, a troubled vet suffering from PTSD, is simply trying to find a home for himself after returning from war. The show attempts to take a sensitive, sympathetic look at different personalities dealing with their trauma, but, in later episodes, lets that message fall to the wayside in the name of memorable set pieces.
Frank spends the entirety of the first episode of The Punisher wrestling with his violent urges. He takes out his aggression on concrete walls at a construction site and attempts to ignore the minor criminals he works with. When he's finally left with no choice but to subdue them, his acts are swift and brutal. It seems to pain him to be doing this. He treats it with the same disdain as someone who has grown to hate their job. Similarly, his feelings about his actions as part of Project Cerberus seem to indicate that he would like to put violence behind him. Frank is set up to be a living example of the way that hurting and killing people can lead to an isolating, lonely existence with little room for any positive elements. However, when it comes time for him to get away from the people that have effectively ruined his life, Frank swings to the opposite end of the dial and ratchets his violence level up to 11.
The Punisher Season 1 ends with Frank Castle dragging his arch-nemesis' face across a sheet of broken glass, before smashing his head against said glass, leaving his with giant shards sticking out of Billy Russo's face. It's an unforgettable scene, but seems to celebrate brutality far more than it condemns, using the violence as a cathartic release for Frank. Billy betrayed him and killed his family, and Frank wants to make him suffer.
Meanwhile, Lewis' arc is resolved when he succumbs to his violence and becomes a terrorist. He eventually commits suicide. While these character choices makes for a propulsive narrative, they also seem to muddy any possible statement the show is trying to make regarding brutality.
In Episode 10 of Season 1, "Virtue of the Vicious," Karen Page sits down with pro-gun control senator, who echoes many of the points that have arisen the wake of the the mass shootings that plague the United States. When Lewis interrupts the interview with the hopes of killing the senator in the name of the Second Amendment, the senator runs away, pushing Karen into harm's way. And then episode becomes about Frank, a good guy with a gun, stopping Lewis, a bad guy with a gun. The senator is written off as a coward. The entire episode could read as a pro-gun endorsement, despite the first half of the series exploring the negative effects of gun violence.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays Frank's partner Micro and explains to Bustle that showrunner Steve Lightfoot "wanted to make a show that was really sort of taking a man who has been in war most of his adult life, and trying to figure out how to be back as a civilian." The show often deals with real issues that faces veterans returning from war, but implies that the only hope for those who have been raised in violence is to keep their guard up and continue the cycle. Of all the people in The Punisher with military experience, only Curt seems to be interested in living a life free of all that, but even he gets dragged into the bloody muck eventually when Lewis beats him with his own prosthetic leg.
The Punisher wants to condemn violence, but also uses violence to resolve its conflicts. "We try to be as unbiased as we can because there are not answers to these questions in The Punisher," Woll says.
The Punisher never needed to provide perfect answers, but the Marvel series neglects to even take a position on a topic that's dangerously relevant in 2017.
Additional reporting by Sage Young