allegory, Columbia Journalism Review, comic book characters, conversation, Douglas Wolk, Frank Castle, gun violence, Las Vegas, Liam Burke, Marvel, mass shooting, metaphor, Netflix, Reading Comics, reflection, superheroes, superheroes as allegory, The Comic Book Film Adaptation, The Daily Beast, The Punisher, The Trace
There are people out there who don’t want a show about Frank Castle. They claim that it valorizes gun violence. They say it’s in poor taste. They make comparisons between the Punisher and mass shooters. Unfortunately, Marvel and Netflix validated some of those beliefs by postponing the release of Marvel’s The Punisher, which would have been dropped the weekend following the Las Vegas shooting (October 1, 2017).
Personally, I think postponing the release was the sensitive thing to do. What I take issue with is that they cancelled the Comicon panel. It would have been brave of them to get up on that stage and respond to the incident. I don’t care how, as long as they would have said something. As a communication scholar, I’m disturbed by their silence because it’s like they’re trying to distance themselves from a tragedy that doesn’t really have anything to do with the show. It hushes a much needed conversation about how to interpret shows like The Punisher and relate it to our world. If anything it also reflects on the fact that almost everyone in this country doesn’t want to talk about gun violence. Unless a tragedy occurs on a large scale, like Vegas, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Virginia Tech, Columbine, et cetera, we don’t want to think about it, like, ‘It’s somebody else’s problem.’
We can’t be afraid to have these uncomfortable conversations about things that matter. And wouldn’t it be better to have these conversations triggered by a television show, not an actual gun?
Instead of getting offended by the Punisher, people ought to be upset about these facts: Three weeks after 59 people were killed in Vegas, Columbia Journalism Review reported that the coverage of Las Vegas and gun violence in America “faded from the national conversation,” as did Congress’ interest to instill stricter gun-control laws. The Daily Beast reporter Sam Stein stated, “Congressional aides and issue advocates say they see no viable path for passing even the most promising bill: an effort to ban the manufacturing and sale of bump stocks, which were used by the Las Vegas shooter to essentially turn his semi-automatic weapons into fully automatics ones.” Additionally, The Trace reporters Jennifer Mascia and Alex Yablon wrote that 2,920 people had been shot – 906 of them fatally – in the 25 days after the Las Vegas mass shooting.
The reality that this hasn’t been discussed on a national level makes me wonder if we’ve become used to the violence. It might be why we don’t talk about it. Or perhaps we’ve come to believe that mass shootings are the only real bad consequences from not having gun-control. People need to realize that incidents of gun violence aren’t isolated events. As someone who lives 25 miles outside Detroit, I can tell you that the local news reports at least a handful of stories about gun-related violence on a daily basis.
Portraying a complicated character like Frank Castle on the screen offers the opportunity to bring back that conversation to the table. If you think I’m being silly for stating that a comic book character can incite a productive discussion, please consider that people love to talk about television shows. Just go on Google and search “Stranger Things,” and you’ll get 59.4 million hits. If you go Twitter, you’ll be scrolling through the feed till the end of time. And besides, comic book characters have been a reflection of real issues and controversial topics for a long time; one good example is when Stan Lee published The Amazing Spider-Man, issues 96-98 in 1971, which talked about drug addiction.
Furthermore I discuss the impact of superheroes in my thesis, which is (still in progress and) about the representations of masculinities on the Marvel shows on Netflix. Here is an excerpt from my literature review:
Each adaptation is created within a different set of cultural referents (i.e. Luke Cage and its ties to the Black Lives Matter movement), its own era of production, its own industry structures (i.e. Netflix), its own issues-based agenda (i.e. The Punisher and the commentary on gun violence and the U.S. military), and its own cluster of narratives. Liam Burke (2015) who discussed the nature of adaptation in the comic book genre by examining superhero movies ranging from 1978 to 2014, said that one thing that superhero movies bring are stories that address awkward, unresolved issues. As Douglas Wolk (2007) has previously stated, “Superhero comics are, by their nature, larger than life and what’s useful and interesting about their characters is that they provide bold metaphors for discussing ideas or reifying abstractions into narrative fiction” (p. 92). The representation of the superheroes goes beyond the good-guys-versus-bad-guys formula as they acknowledge the likelihood of civilian casualties, the complexities of morality and ethics, and various ideas that reflect worldly events and relevant discussions. Wolk (2007) said that in their own way, comic books serve as novel of ideas with characters that have allegorical values, and with grand metaphors and subjective interpretations of current issues (p. 92).
Among the people who argue that Netflix shouldn’t release The Punisher at all is io9 staff writer Charles Pulliam-Moore. While his article is well-written and contains good arguments, he made some superficial statements, one of which I will address here:
Though Netflix’s superhero shows are some of the most interesting additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they all follow the pattern of propping up their central characters as damaged, yet still sympathetic, admirable people. By the end of Jessica Jones or Daredevil, we’re made to understand that those characters have all made questionable decisions with their lives, but we’re also meant to see them as people who are doing the Right Thing™. That sort of framing works for characters who are, in the truest sense, heroic people with abilities that real people don’t have. But with someone like the Punisher, that kind of story ultimately ends up casting a man who is more or less a mass shooter in a positive light.
The first bold line is correct to an extent; ’empathetic’ is more accurate, not sympathetic. However, the final sentence here shows that Pulliam-Moore hasn’t done his research. The heroes in MCU have committed various acts that can be interpreted as good, bad or somewhere within the gray area. However, the writers leave it to the audience to decide those things; they aren’t preaching anything to them. As far as the Marvel shows on Netflix go, it’s never explicitly said that one should strive to be like Daredevil or Luke Cage, or that in the end, they made the right choices. Like Father Lantom once said to Matt Murdock, “Few things are absolute” (Daredevil, s1/e9, 2015).
Frank Castle questions himself from time to time, which is shown throughout the second season of Daredevil. In an interview with EW, Jon Bernthal said about his role: “There are things you can identify with and get behind, and there are things when the character pushes it and you can’t get behind him anymore. And that’s what I want. I think that’s the nature of the character. This is a guy who pushes the envelope. He’s brutal, but he’s coming from a place of unbelievable hurt. And the best thing about the character is he just doesn’t care. It’s a highly personal mission he’s on and if he offends you, it’s completely unimportant to him.”
In addition, the approach towards the character hasn’t changed for the self-titled show. During an interview with Total Film, co-star Deborah Ann Woll, who plays The New York Bulletin reporter Karen Page, stated: “Karen is always going to be there as a conscience for Frank. She’s also one of his only allies, one of the only people he can come to. […] There’s no conflict about his methods, they’re wrong. The conflict is, ‘Does that make him a monster, make him someone we shouldn’t empathize with?’. That’s the view I’ve latched onto. Not so much, ‘It’s good that he’s killing people’, more, ‘It doesn’t necessarily make him someone we shouldn’t care for or believe in’.”
Besides, you can’t compare Frank to mass shooters. Other than that they both use guns, their goals and ideologies differ: Mass shooters kill innocent people randomly and in great numbers. Frank kills criminals (specific targets), which I don’t encourage, of course, not at all, but that’s an important difference.
One fan stated in a comment on The Punisher‘s official Facebook page: “I know they have pushed back the premier because of Vegas. But there has to come a realization that what happened in Vegas, is similar to what happened to Frank’s family. With all of these mass shootings, it’s hard not to feel like Frank, to feel a connection to a man who wants to stop these shootings before they start. To dole out some punishment to those that seek to sow terror and fear. Yeah, I empathize with Frank Castle the character. I want to give that terror and fear into people who would seek to kill dozens. Not sitting in a jail, or going through years of trials and appeals. Permanent and swift vengeance. But I won’t. Because I live in the real world. When I get to see a fictional character like Frank who doesn’t have to be constrained, who can dish out punishment. Yeah, that is what I would like to see.”
That’s something I would like to see, too. Plus, you can add as a comment that the murder of Frank’s family being covered up and ignored is possibly an allegory for our silence towards gun violence. When Karen is investigating Frank’s past, she is told by her editor Mitchell Ellison, “Well, you know, people are shot every day. It doesn’t always make the paper” (Daredevil, s2/e5, 2016). That hit home with me, again because I live so close to Detroit.
Pulliam-Moore asked, “When can they release their show about a superhero who shoots people?”
I tell you, sir, the perfect time is NOW. And you and many others aren’t asking the right questions. Instead you should wonder: Why does real tragedy have to happen before we acknowledge a problem?
References from Lit Review Excerpt
Burke, L. (2015). The Comic Book Film Adaptation. Jackson, MS: The University Press of Mississippi.
Wolk, D. (2007). Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work & What They Mean. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press.