Marvel’s ‘Punisher’ Problem: When Real-World Violence Intrudes on Promotional Plans (Column)

After cancelling a New York Comic-Con event because of the Las Vegas massacre, "The Punisher" needs to justify its violence more than ever

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Courtesy of Netflix

It was no surprise that “Marvel’s The Punisher,” an upcoming Netflix drama starring Jon Bernthal and Ebon Moss-Bachrach, would plan a big promotional push for its premiere around the New York Comic Con, which ends today. The event was part of a months-long campaign teasing the secret launch date of “The Punisher.” As one of the critics hoping to review “The Punisher” as soon as it hit Netflix, I have been watching its marketing campaign closely, and I’d hoped to drop my review of the show during the show’s NYCC panel.

But a few days after this nation set a new benchmark for deaths in a mass shooting with the killing of 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas by a lone gunman, Netflix and Marvel Television canceled the NYCC event.

“We are stunned and saddened by this week’s senseless act in Las Vegas,” Netflix and Marvel said in a joint statement. “After careful consideration, Netflix and Marvel have decided it wouldn’t be appropriate for Marvel’s The Punisher to participate in New York Comic Con. Our thoughts continue to be with the victims and those affected by this tragedy.”

“The Punisher” will still be released, although the cancellation of the event suggests Marvel will adopt a new strategy for the rollout. But in a politically charged moment in which mass shootings are getting worse — and the semiautomatic weapons that do much of the damage continue to be legal — entertainment that depicts violence constantly runs the risk of echoing real life too closely.

In 2015, “Mr. Robot” postponed its hotly anticipated Season 1 finale because a depicted on-air death was very similar to the murders of journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward on live television in Roanoke, Va. Last summer, after mass shootings in Orlando, Fla., Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas rocked the nation, USA pushed the Ryan Phillippe sniper drama “Shooter” twice — first by a week, and then by an entire season.

According to Mother Jones, the Las Vegas massacre was the seventh mass shooting so far in 2017. With three months left in the year, 2017’s number of mass shootings has already surpassed the number in 2016 and equaled the grim tally of 2015. This frequency suggests that even when producers try to pause the fantasy violence out of respect to real-life victims, you can all but guarantee there will be another mass shooting outbreak just around the corner. There’s still no word from Netflix on a premiere date for “The Punisher.”

The futility of escaping real-life massacres begs a broader question. For an industry that excels at selling spectacular depictions of violence — especially with guns — does moving off a release date really mean anything? The violence isn’t going anywhere; it’s just moving farther into the future. What makes time-shifted violence somehow more acceptable? It feels like putting a band-aid over a bullet wound, again and again and again.

I ask this as someone who enjoyed “The Punisher” much more than I expected to. The show (which will be reviewed in full at a later date) is a remarkable expression of frustration with America’s doublespeak around the military — a doublespeak that upholds patriotism at all costs, while demeaning the people who serve in the name of national defense. And though I have found “The Punisher” engages with its subject matter in a smart and compassionate way, there is no denying the fact that the lead character Frank Castle, played by Bernthal, is the quintessential (and heavily armed) lone wolf, a gun-toting vigilante who has no qualms about taking lives. It is a brutal show, and guns feature heavily in not just the scenes of violence but in the iconography of the Punisher himself.

Unlike the invisible force fields and beams of light that characterize heroes with supernatural powers, the Punisher is emphatically just a human being — a human expertise in a terrifying array of military-grade weaponry. The guns used by this former Marine resemble, to an unnerving degree, weapons that have been used to inflict real-world carnage. Indeed, those guns feature prominently in the show’s title sequence.

There’s something very scary about this character in a contemporary context. The Punisher may not be a mass shooter. But he is living out a fantasy of unrestrained violence, and he’s doing so in a way that looks very familiar. Or maybe it’s the other way around: It’s not that the Punisher looks like mass shooters, it’s that mass shooters style themselves to be men like the Punisher. Just as pop culture adapts to new norms, pop culture can create new norms. And though the jury’s still out on whether violence in the media influences the actions of mass shooters, there is increasing evidence of a correlation, especially for those exposed at a young age.

This is not a dynamic with a simple solution. Pop culture — and art, more broadly — is an expression of human fears and desires, and unfortunately, death and violence has always been part of human existence. The Punisher comic books speak to something in a lot of readers; he is a beloved character, beyond what his creators fully anticipated. He is particularly beloved in the military; his white skull symbol can be seen emblazoned on gear throughout war zones. Speaking with Task & Purpose, a publication specializing in military and veterans issues, Gerry Conway, the creator of the Punisher, expressed surprise at how totemic Frank Castle has become. “I find it flattering, but also a little unnerving because I never actually felt the Punisher was one of the good guys,” he said, adding that he sees the character as “a dark vision of the effect of social breakdown.”

On one hand, “The Punisher” is emblematic of a culture of near-meaningless violence. On the other hand, though, Frank Castle’s story seems to have arisen out of a deep need to address our frustration with who we are now — a need that for this character dates back to the awful confusion of the Vietnam War. After all, “social breakdown” is a depressingly fitting term for where we are now, living with the grim reality that a gunman could walk into another elementary school and any moment and re-enact Sandy Hook.

What does “The Punisher” have to say to us about this American violence that is more insightful than what we’ve seen before? After Las Vegas, our expectations — and our need for answers — are higher than ever.