Marvel’s ‘The Punisher’ Aims High but Falters on Gun Control

By Jorel Lonesome
Logo of Marvel’s “The Punisher.” Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Logo of Marvel’s “The Punisher.” Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Las Vegas Shooting on the night of Oct. 1, 2017 left the upcoming Netflix series “The Punisher” at the center of much controversy. Following the shooting, which left 58 dead and at least 527 wounded, Netflix and Marvel canceled the preview panel for the upcoming series at New York Comic Con and delayed the release of the show until a month later.

The show as it was finally released wants to be more than just another absurd action fantasy. What distinguishes it from other gun-saturated franchises is that it aims to be grounded in real-world 21st century American issues, and whether vigilante justice is ever justified. Though it attempts to critique the consequences of vigilante justice, and tries to include a debate about gun control, it does not provide the right conversation about central issues in the current national conversation. While the writers attempt to address gun violence in America, they fail to capitalize on the issue, and the series largely fails at questioning the violence portrayed in some of its episodes. Despite this weakness, however, “The Punisher” is an excellent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sharing continuity with the films and other television series of the franchise.

Its weakness on gun control is evident in episode 9, “Front Toward Enemy,” which tries to introduce a debate about Americans’ right to bear arms, but ultimately lacks the credibility to make the overall message meaningful.  The plot has the character Lewis Wilson (Daniel Webber), a young veteran who has difficulty readjusting to civilian society, eventually resort to terrorist actions, planting some bombs throughout the city as part of his pro-gun, anti-government agenda. Following this is a debate on character Ricky Langtry’s (Dov Davidoff) radio talk show between Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and pro-gun-control Senator Stan Ori (Rick Holmes.) This debate is the weakest part of this episode. Senator Ori wants more gun-control laws, a stance that Karen, who carries a gun for protection, opposes. Rather than let the characters have a genuine debate about aspects of the issue, the show reduces Karen and Ori’s positions to a basic pro- vs. anti-gun debate.

The problem with this framing is that their debate isn’t the argument people are having in the real world. Politicians aren’t asking to abolish the Second Amendment. They want to close loopholes in background checks to prevent troubled people from purchasing weapons. They’re also asking for practical gun laws such as banning semiautomatic weapons and attachments such as the bump stocks that allowed the Las Vegas shooter to fire 90 shots in ten seconds.

The series tries to be cleverly ironic when Ori stresses he’s totally against guns, but hires Anvil, a governmental security company of armed guards, to carry guns protect him from retaliation by Lewis. Still, disarming trained security guards isn’t what the actual gun debate is about in America. The thought of mainstream politicians trying to take away everyone’s guns is illegal, given how often that conspiracy theory is used as a topic in anti-gun-control propaganda. “The Punisher” doesn’t need to address the issue of gun ownership. Ultimately, it only adds social commentary without tackling the actual debate.

Similarly, the series fails to resolve its depiction of Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) and his crusade of vigilante justice with any significant challenges to his violent worldview. Supporting characters, Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) encourage Frank’s vigilantism. Likewise, despite her loyalty to the law, Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani’s (Amber Rose Revah) shows sympathy for Frank after he saves her from a car accident, though she remains suspicious that Frank is not that different from Lewis. Meanwhile, Karen supports Frank’s habits. “We must not tolerate those who use violence to communicate,” Karen writes in her featured article about Lewis, but this very critique of violence being used to solve problems isn’t a message that Frank seems to understand.

Aside from the gun control issues, however, “The Punisher” series triumphs and remains strong. Frank is an unstoppable force, and when it comes to the people he cares about, he will give up his sole mission in an instant. If you want to see intense action and drama, this is one of the best shows on Netflix to watch.