What Daredevil’s Depiction of the Punisher Gets Right About War Vets

By
Marvel's Daredevil Photo: Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Before my five years in the Army, 28 months of which was spent deployed in Iraq, I attended basic training and infantry school at Ft. Benning, Georgia — and in basic, each individual platoon within my company had a mascot. There were the Renegades. There were the Predators. And then there was my platoon: First Platoon Punishers. These mascots didn’t really serve as anything much beyond an occasional rallying cry during ceremonies and competitive events, and then finally a name to put on T-shirts that you could buy after graduation — but it was certainly a part of our group identity.

As far as I can remember, we never explicitly discussed the comic-book origins of the character. But the name Punishers, shouted passionately during early morning exercises in the cool dawn of a West Georgia autumn, invoked a vague identity: rough misfits misunderstood by the larger world, but doing its dirty work nonetheless. The name and symbol, a white stylized skull that the Punisher of comics wore on his chest, would make recurring appearances during my time in the Army. Like all successful comic-book characters, the Punisher had become a myth — a diffuse and vague myth, to be sure, but one that’s deeply woven into the fabric of military folk culture.

The second season of Netflix’s Daredevil resurrects the oft-resurrected Punisher and renders him in this mythic light. He’s treated as a folk character, not an action hero. This is something shockingly few adaptations of the character have done. The Punisher first made the leap from ink to screen in 1989, with beefy action star Dolph Lundgren in the title role. Then there were two relatively unsuccessful film adaptations, in 2004 and 2008. The films were plagued by a slew of problems, too many to enumerate, but it’s safe to say that this season of Daredevil might well be the best rendering of the Punisher onscreen. To understand why that is, we first have to understand the Punisher.

Frank Castle, a.k.a. the Punisher, made his comic debut in 1974, coinciding perfectly with the shit storm of social upheaval and cynicism that came to define the decade. The dreams of the '60s were over. Psychedelics were replaced by harder, dirtier drugs. Watergate supplanted Woodstock. Instead of draft resisters in the streets, the collective angst was focused on physically and psychologically damaged vets returning from Vietnam. Crime was on the rise. The entire tenor of the nation was a shade darker than it had been a decade before, and popular culture seemed fixated on quasi- or outright vigilante responses to crime. The Dirty Harry franchise began in 1971, spawning countless ripoffs, some better and some worse. Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson as a Korean War vet who obsessively seeks retribution for violent crimes committed against his family, was one of the worst. Taxi Driver, released in 1976, is obviously one of the better (though it’s arguably so good that it totally eclipses any influence from its predecessor “crazy veterans seeking vigilante retribution” films. Kind of like how War and Peace is in a genre of its own).

The character of Castle/the Punisher is among this milieu. First appearing as a crazed vigilante in The Amazing Spider-Man No. 129, he's actually presented as a nefarious antagonist to Spider-Man. A former Marine and sniper with Special Forces training, Castle is a perfect representation of military prowess. He’s skilled in multiple forms of hand-to-hand combat. He’s trained as an assassin (in fact, he was originally supposed to be called the Assassin). He’s almost impervious to pain and physical discomfort. But after his family is murdered, he also has a chip on his shoulder. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that he’s haunted and obsessed. Onetime Punisher writer Steven Grant compared Castle’s single-minded obsession to righting the wrongs of the world through purifying violence to a kind of existentialism, calling the Punisher “a man who knows he’s going to die and who knows in the big picture his actions will count for nothing, but who pursues his course because this is what he has chosen to do.” That’s certainly accurate. But it fails to capture the symbolic value of the Punisher and former military vigilantes like him. Rather than just as solely a psychologically tortured individual, it’s probably more useful to see the Punisher as a cipher onto which we collectively project our ambivalence about veterans.

Like all proper myths, the story of Frank Castle isn’t a new one. For ages, societies have had complex feelings about the warriors they equip and train to kill in their name. There’s almost an unspoken collective guilt from civilians that the warrior they created to defend themselves doesn’t really have a role in the society he returns to. One of the oldest legends that speaks to this is the Irish story of Cú Chulainn. One of the great mythic warrior heroes, Cú Chulainn returns to his hometown of Ulster after heroically defeating the forces attacking it still enraged in a sort of battle frenzy. His fellow Ulsterites are understandably afraid that he’s going to kill them all and destroy the town, and so they come up with a plan to lead topless Ulsterite women to Cú Chulainn in order to force him to avert his eyes out of modesty. When he does, they pour barrels of hot water on him until he returns to normal. It takes a village to create a warrior, and it takes a purifying ritual of return to calm his fury. What was once useful on the battlefield becomes a liability in the “civilized” world, and we’re collectively responsible for helping to calm the battle rage of the people we send to fight in our name. 

That’s what this season of Daredevil gets about the Punisher. People are rightfully afraid of Frank Castle, played by the excellently cast non-pretty boy Jon Bernthal. And they should be (especially the gangs that killed his family). He’s capable of some pretty horrendous things. He can more than hold his own one-on-one against Daredevil. He has no compunctions against torturing people. But as the show makes explicit, this isn’t about PTSD. This isn’t the psychological exploration of a human being; it’s more an examination of a collective myth. What the show gets, and this is where it really succeeds, is that we’re all collectively implicated in creating Castle. Like the character Karen Page says, we made the Punisher. Soldiers would agree. That’s why the Punisher myth and all its attendant symbolism appeal so much to them. The Punisher is a way of understanding the civilian and military divide, while acknowledging that, however strained or fractured it may be, a relationship between the two still exists.