Why We Really Cheer For The Punisher
The modern antihero is this age’s response in art, to the growing number of grey areas we are now forced to acknowledge in every aspect of societal existence. Things that were previously accepted to be self-evident in their moral implications are now troublingly complex to us.
The advances in data gathering and analysis in all branches of science and humanities have revealed to the masses more variables in play than ever before, in almost every problem that occupies the public forums.
As filtered and unfiltered information along with contradicting perspectives on its conclusions bombard us from every direction, we are left in constant inner turmoil fueled by an inability to answer the questions raised. We are put at odds with a world averse to authoritatively objective solutions.
While the ideal hero served his purpose in the ages before, he no longer suffices as our champion in such a reality of competing subjectivities and we now look to the antihero to be our symbolic savior.
Who is the modern antihero?
He is the central character of a story, its protagonist, who is not chained to the simple, straight forward morality and noble character traits of the ideal hero.
The antihero of today remains every bit as impressive as the ideal hero of bygone days in his strength and courage, but he is flawed and damaged as a moral and social being. His origins, the world he inhabits, his personality and the choices he makes serve to amplify his raw humanity. They also make him more relatable to us.
We are drawn to the antihero in spite of his glaring imperfections, as we attempt to settle some of the psycho-social debates raging within us, vicariously through his actions.
None of this of course overwhelms his ability to entertain us. Without the pleasure he so efficiently delivers to the consuming audience, his power and influence in popular culture would be severely diminished. Popularity is in fact one of the key factors in the evolution of nuanced depictions of the antiheroes. Supply meeting demand in the commercial sphere of art and entertainment, urged on by the increasing profits.
In this light of reasoning, I think of the Punisher or Frank Castle as the perfect antihero of our time.
Frank Castle is a decorated ex-soldier and a hero of war. He is transformed into a vigilante killing machine, driven by a peculiar moral code which mandates a brutal dispatching of often lethal punishment to anyone who ‘deserves’ it, by his own judgment.
The deserving here are hardened criminals who have taken lives, or other malicious individuals who cause deaths, and spread misery among the ‘innocent’ general public.
This code of Castle’s was born out of, and is sustained by, immense emotional trauma which he carries within him. This trauma which broke him down and then reformed his psyche, creating the Punisher, came about when his family was murdered without reason, caught in a crossfire between rival criminal factions.
He starts out as any vengeful man does, seeking justice for his loved ones by eliminating those responsible for their demise using his military skills and his innate aptitude for warfare and violence. After accomplishing that, he realizes his bloody quest to right the wrong done to his family had not sated his pain. The deep sorrow and raging anger remained still, burning fiercely beneath the surface. He then proceeds to turn his fundamental life purpose in to something more than the pursuit of a personal vendetta, and adopts the title of ‘The Punisher’.
Many subtle variations of the Punisher have appeared in the comic books and graphic novels in the decades since his first appearance but the elements mentioned above have remained more or less the same in all of them.
In mainstream live action movies, the Punisher has been portrayed three times, and in each case, there were significant failures in execution of core concepts compounded by the lack of a cohesive and compelling vision. The movies had little to no impact, both commercially and critically.
It was only recently that the Punisher was thrust back into the spotlight before a worldwide audience, with a powerful performance by actor Jon Bernthal in the well written and marvelously directed adaptation of Daredevil on Netflix.
So positive was the response of the masses to this depiction of Frank Castle on screen that Netflix have since had to change their initial game plan, and were forced to give the Punisher his own independent show on their platform.
Now the global fan community eagerly wait for this phenomenon to air in the not too distant future.
What makes the Punisher resonate so deeply with us?
One need only examine the character, his world and the structural make up of his story, to see the obvious. We cheer for him because he is a perfect blend of who we are morally in our social roles, what really makes us tick deep within and who we want to be in our fantasies.
Let us break this idea down.
The Punisher strikes a chord with us at the very basic level, as he lives and wages his battles in a world much like our own. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the setting for his story is a more streamlined version of the world that we have become used to. It might not be an objectively real world, but it is one that we have accepted by being exposed to the consistently polarized narrative of the news media.
In this semi-fictitious world, he does not fight aliens or gods or larger than life super-villains. The war the Punisher wages is against the very same things and people that we ourselves have come to fear and loathe. The monsters of our own world, who come in the form of merciless criminals, terrorists and other repulsive deviants.
Once this connection is established between him and us, that we share a common dark and cruel reality in many ways, we look to him with hope, needing him to be someone who we are fundamentally incapable of being ourselves.
Someone who operates with a clear and singular purpose, unaffected by the distractions of normal human life, unfettered by crippling emotions or paralyzing doubts and almost super humanly effective in achieving his goals.
We appreciate and adore this side of him. This side which makes him a ruthless, unstoppable machine of sorts more than a human. There are many occasions in life where emotions have got in our way, and we have been brought to our knees, defeated by the harsh truths of how the world works. The Punisher is not bound by any of this, and so he earns our immediate respect.
How do we then try to process and approve of his actions, which by themselves are brutal and without remorse?
Surely we cannot all be just okay with the Punisher’s violent and bloody methods, let alone admire them. Not while we function as people within such an intricate and dynamic moral framework. Right?
This is where the other genius of this antihero’s storytelling technique comes into play.
The people he imposes his judgment on are often portrayed as nothing but vile beings without any redemptive qualities. The story reinforces this by illustrating over and over again how they cannot be saved from themselves and can only be punished. These are the same elements of our society that we, the audiences, detest and despise.
The Punisher’s story form highlights what we already hate about them and thus makes it okay for us to grant him the green-light to enforce his punishment.
It is interesting when you think about the double standards of character depiction here. The Punisher is complex inside psychologically, at least as far as his history goes, but is driven by a singular and just cause — punish the wicked. The tragic loss of his family, is something we all feel enraged by and it softens our view on the course he chooses. It is justified we feel, and through him we start to indulge in our own need for vengeance and blood.
He is transformed from something we all are, into something we want to be.
On the other hand, his enemies or victims are shown as flat characters with no complexity of reasons, tangible or intangible, guiding their actions. These are the kind of people who we choose, in real life, to think of in one dimensional ways as well. We refuse to see them as complex entities like ourselves and cast them out of the protective spheres of our moral qualms and regulations, as just unworthy and evil.
All the complexity of the real world, like for example, the factors of socioeconomic realities and dysfunctional familial environments, which are hugely influential in creating the ‘monsters’ we fear, are no longer an issue in this fantasy of primal instincts and desires.
While civilized society and its institutions prevent us from actually ‘punishing’ these people ourselves, our fictional antihero commits to doing what our baser instincts already urge us to do.
It is indeed a precarious balancing act of somewhat opposing, dual realities that the Punisher manages. His world is one that we know, and one that we crave, simultaneously.
Perhaps this is the most meaningful achievement of the antihero in our lives right now, that we can find a release for our deep, irrational wants and frustrations in his form. A form that allows creative liberties and personal representation, all the while providing us with harmless pleasure and inexpensive entertainment.
In that respect, the Punisher is not just a necessary creation for our turbulent times but one that reveals to us the many shades of grey we are made of, when it comes to the stark contrast between our overt, accepted beliefs and our covert, suppressed desire to break free of the unnatural cage that society and its rules confine us to.
Art becomes what we need it to be, so that we can continue our struggle with this life we are thrown in to, without losing our meaning or sanity.