FILM ARTICLE: The Punisher and the desensitised society we live in

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“Frank Castle has spent years exacting vengeance for the deaths of his family by punishing criminals everywhere. His skull insignia inspires fear throughout the underworld. But Punisher’s appeal rests on more than his ability to do what the rest of Marvel’s heroes won’t. He’s a tragic figure – even a profoundly selfish one in some ways. The sad truth is that Frank Castle can’t survive without killing, and his new job fulfils him in ways his family never could.” – IGN


A friend of mine was telling me about her recent trip to America. The conversation swayed to guns. She told me that she went to a range and fired a rifle.

“How did that make you feel?” I asked.

She took a moment to consider her answer. “Powerful,” she replied.

I don’t mind the amount of violence depicted in films or TV shows these days. Partly because the level of bloodshed usually on offer is absurd, and partly because I’ve ridiculously desensitised to things like that. I was watching a particularly gruesome horror film the other week and a scene came up involving a hapless guard being taken out with a knife to the throat. The killer didn’t just plunge the serrated edge into his neck and mosey on his way to find more victims, he basically decapitated the poor bugger. My girlfriend cowered under her hand and turned her head.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Is that really necessary?” she said, wincing. “That’s completely over the top.”

“It’s fine! Look, you can see his head rolling down the path like a bowling ball.”

“Oh God, tell me when it’s over.”

“You’re missing it all. That’s alright, I’ll give you a running commentary. Now the killer’s taking out his spleen! Oh wow, look at all that arterial spray…it’s like walking through a menstrual car wash. Ooh, now he’s using his body as a make-shift tent. Why are you crying? What’s wrong with you?”

In the last couple of years, it seems that the amount of gun related crime has risen exponentially to a scorching apex, almost to absurd regularity that we can’t really look at a news piece these days without some whack-job mounting a one-man assault on a cinema, a club or a school with an arsenal of weaponry that would make Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger blush, even during their 80’s testosterone fuelled, machismo action days. But has the spate of gun violence become so ubiquitous now, that unless a friend or family member we know is shown to be a victim in one of these shootings, we merely shrug our shoulders, pay a silent condolence and then mark our Facebook status to ‘safe’? Have we become so desensitised to the violence happening around us that we’re seeing these types of atrocious acts as normal, every-day life?

As part of Louis Theroux’s Dark States documentary series, the floppy haired, marmoset-eyed journalist spent time with the Milwaukee Police Department as they patrolled District 5, home to some of the nation’s deadliest streets of Milwaukee, with a homicide rate over twelve times the national average, and followed the homicide division as they investigated one of the city’s many killings. He also met a gang leader herself, who had turned her life around and was attempting her own solution to the blight of gun crime. She keeps a shotgun close by at all times, and in the programme we hear off-camera a couple of shots fired whilst he’s interviewing her. Twice. Because that’s the American way. You have a gun on you to protect yourself from people with guns. I’m sure there’s a pun somewhere about two negatives becoming a positive, but I really can’t think of it at the moment…

Between 2000 and 2013, the average annual number of people killed in U.S. mass shootings jumped from 6.4 to 16.4 people. Shootings happened in 40 states and 60% of the time they were over before police arrived. So what type of barbaric act has to actually happen for America to look at their gun control laws? This particular article isn’t delving into those politics, because that would constitute a four hundred page essay about the pros and cons of gun discipline; nope – this article is about a new Netflix show about to premiere.


During the New York Comic Con this year, Netflix and Marvel decided to pull the plug on The Punisher panel in the wake of the October 1 shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 people dead and 546 others wounded. Both companies sent out a statement expressing condolences for the families affected and the victims of the shooting, stating that they felt it wouldn’t have been ‘appropriate’ to promote the show so closely following yet another US mass shooting. So what are we to make of Marvel’s latest TV offering, about a vigilante anti-hero that dispenses justice in a violent and often fatalistic way, shooting the ‘bad guys’ in the face as we cheer him on? As much as we may want to turn our heads and look the other way, we’re the reason studios are giving us the bloodshed and violence we so eagerly crave. Gritty films in which superheroes murder and beat the bad guy up to a pulp isn’t what studios once thought we (the viewer) wanted. Yet films such as DeadpoolKick-AssThe Dark Knight trilogy and Dredd have proven that like the fighting pits in the Colosseum of Rome, the audience will spend their shiny gold coins to watch maiming, killing and torture. Because at the root of it all, when you eliminate the years of social etiquette that we’ve learnt from the age of being a toddler, when you eliminate the lessons of morality and the niceties of normal conventions, we’re nothing more than self-destructive animals. We demand blood.

The pointlessness of escaping real-life shootings and massacres though implores a bigger question. In an ongoing business (and one could argue, lifestyle) that revels in depicting violence and ‘shooting-things-that-go-pop,’ does moving a release date really mean anything nowadays? We’ve still got the tragedy of mass shootings on our minds and more likely than not they’ll be another just around the corner – so all we’re doing is pushing the carnage away in the same way a child would push his broccoli to the side of the plate during a meal – the kid knows that he’ll have to eat it before he can leave the table, but is just delaying the inevitable. What makes time-shifted violence somehow more acceptable?


For the uninitiated , here’s a brief synopsis of the character of Frank Castle from Wikipedia: The Punisher (Francis “Frank” Castle) is a fictional character appearing in American comic books published by Marvel Comics. The character was created by writer Gerry Conway and artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru, with publisher Stan Lee green-lighting the name. The Punisher made his first appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 (cover-dated Feb. 1974). The Punisher is a vigilante who employs murder, kidnapping, extortion, coercion, threats of violence, and torture in his campaign against crime. Driven by the deaths of his wife and two children, who were killed by the mob for witnessing a killing in New York City’s Central Park, the Punisher wages a one-man war on the mob and all criminals and employs the use of various firearms. His family’s killers were the first to be slain by the Punisher. A war veteran and a United States Marine Corps Scout Sniper, Frank Castle (born Francis Castiglione) is skilled in hand-to-hand combat, guerrilla warfare, and marksmanship.

For all of the debates about whether Frank Castle can really be counted among Marvel’s heroes, he is an indisputable lone wolf who exacts justice in the form of a bullet-shaped hole to the head for those he deems as destructive or dangerous to the public. We’ve seen superheroes kill onscreen before, but with say, someone like Batman – who has a particular set of rules, a Bushido-like honour code that usually involves utilising his brains and training to incapacitate rather than straight up slaughter, Frank Castle sees no shades of grey. When people dress up as Batman for Halloween, they do so because he encompasses the fantasy of being able to throw a smoke bomb on the floor and disappear into the night like a shadow. Plus, Batman’s cape is pretty snazzy and can be satisfyingly flicked when walking around corners. If someone wears the white skull on a black t-shirt however, there’s a subconscious attitude that has been declared: that it’s substantially (and possibly more terrifying) easier to imitate a man wielding a gun, and in America particularly, it’s far too easy to portray this character. Anytime we hear about a lone shooter wearing the Punisher logo, you have to wonder what part of the character’s identity they’re trying to engage with.


The Punisher is fictitious, but he does exist within our realm as a complex symbol that has taken on a number of meanings, some of them incredibly dark. There may be a reason why the three film adaptations of the character have never really felt tangible as a whole and captured the essence and character of Frank Castle. The MCU has done a great job with DaredevilJessica JonesLuke Cage and The Immortal Iron Fist, (each with their share of lovers and haters in the fandom) setting up each character with their own personal demons to battle, painting them as tragic figures. And it will be interesting to see how Marvel portray Castle in this adaptation. A tormented soul, no doubt – but one that has yet to elicit real empathy from an already dubious crowd.

Jon Bernthal, who plays the titular character in Netflix’s show, said to IndiWire: “I don’t believe in heroes, or villains, I just don’t. It’s not interesting to me, and it’s not real to me,” he said. “I never wanted to lionize Frank Castle. What I wanted to show with him, more than anything, was his pain and his anguish and cost of violence, and the toll that it has taken on him.”

That said, he thinks that “there is no question that I am concerned with the desensitization of violence. That is something that we should talk about, and we should address.”

“If anything it just tells me, it re-intensifies the fact that we have an unbelievable problem here. I think that unfortunately people take a stand politically and are completely steadfast in their political position,” he said. “Somehow that’s being confused with strength, rather than a real desire and ability to open themselves to the other side of this, and see merit on the other side of this thing, and that we can sit down like Americans and people who all want this to stop and try to figure out a way to do so.”

Bernthal thinks that over the course of The Punisher Season 1, “all sides of this debate” are represented.

“I think that the absolute best quality that art can have is to hold a mirror to society, to make society question itself,” he said. “I don’t think that it’s art’s job to answer those questions, but if this show will spark debate, will highlight an unbelievable problem, make people think and talk about it, awesome. I think that’s great. We absolutely need to do that.”

So how do we go about desensitising violence in 2017? When anything pretty much can be commanded by a click of the mouse, downloaded into our eye holes and fed down our gullets instantaneously? Are we becoming so numb to the onscreen bloodshed that we’ve become complacent to the real life horrors around us? Does The Punisher glorify gun culture and violence? No more so than Commando or Rambo did back in the 80’s. Sure, there’s an allure to firing weapons that can blow your head off – like my friend said at the beginning of this article, it’s a dangerous piece of equipment that can kill instantly. But so can a car in the wrong hands. Perhaps the media and Governments should be more interested in how to regulate gun control and focus their efforts into promoting worthwhile endeavours ensuring that the statistics rapidly decline rather than concentrating on fictional characters on the television, but that’s another debate that will forever rage in the ethers of the internet…

“Marvel’s The Punisher” premieres Friday, November 17 on Netflix.

Article by Anthony Self

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