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HKRB ESSAYS: Punisher Politics

Łukasz Muniowski argues that while other critics praise its radicalism, Netflix’s new sensation The Punisher epitomizes the neoliberal values we need to do away with.

 

In a recent article, Gabriel Bell of Salon is appalled by the fact that the liberal audiences, as well as the policemen and the army, have embraced the new Marvel anti-hero, and even treat him as a solution to the problems facing today’s America. While Bell rightfully sees Frank Castle as a “two-dimensional character” driven solely by the egotistical urge to get revenge, he either ignores or intentionally omits the fact that what the Punisher does is what is expected of him – and every one of us – by the capitalist market.

The new Netflix show created in collaboration with Marvel is about one of the darkest and controversial superheroes, Frank Castle, a former soldier, whose family was murdered by gangsters or his former associates, dependent on the version. With a large skull painted on his shirt, Castle takes on the identity of the Punisher, whose unsubtle obligation is to punish criminals. The controversy comes from Castle’s interpretation of justice, which he considers his duty to execute. He is the judge, the jury and the executor of the law. Castle takes on that role because all other instances fail to meet his expectations. In the series he has already avenged his family and now takes on corrupt representatives of the state.

When we look at him and his violent acts symbolically, he is a man who is very aware of the failings of the system and in consequence, in typical superhero fashion, takes matters into his own hands. When it comes to , the best thing it can do is get out of his way. Abandon all regulations! The conflict between individualism and the state is omnipresent throughout the series and leads to some interesting observations, which are in opposition to the way Castle himself, as well as liberals like Bell, see him. Killing men who have done his family and his country wrong, Punisher ignores the rules that would be applicable to everybody else. Surprisingly though, these are the rules that he expects others to commit to. Just like the most successful liberal subjects, like platform capitalists from Silicon Valley, he enforces regulations on others, but rejects them when they are applied to him.

Unlike in many graphic novels and their on-screen adaptations, Netflix’s Punisher has to defend himself. Even in the first episode he is constantly provoked by “the bad guys,” but is reluctant to act until he sees a life – whether of , a Latin boy who took the wrong path, or his own – being threatened. While it is somewhat disappointing to see Castle let Chavez walk, something the original character would not be as likely to do, the action is in agreement with this new, painfully neoliberal reimagining of the hero, who was before portrayed by Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson. Jon Bernthal’s portrayal is by far the best to date, even though it abides to today’s predominant ideology. It was already pointed out by Louis Althusser in 1970 that popular media reflects present-day ways of thinking and incorporates it into their products so that they can meet the expectations of the audiences.

 

Western Exceptionalism and Interventionism

Contrary to Bell’s claim, Castle represents the old values, something he has always done in the graphic novels. Values like honor, respect and justice have always been the mainstays of the series, so in no way can we talk about the Punisher becoming something he was not. Most people may detest his idea of justice, but in the Netflix series he is actually doing everything that is expected of him.

He even collaborates with Homeland security – an action the real Punisher would shy away from due to his distrust to authorities. Castle is no longer a lone vigilante, he needs the state to assist him in order to get vengeance. This is somewhat reminiscent of the 2008 bailout, as the financial sector eventually realized that it could not handle the crisis on its own. The comparison may seem too far stretched, but not when taking into account Castle’s other actions.

The Punisher is a firm believer in retributive justice, so punishment proportional to the offense. Since people killed his family, now Castle has to kill them. For him, being involved in any way, be it distributing guns or money to the men responsible for the murder, is the same as pulling the trigger. That is why he kills a Latin gangster in El Paso in the first few minutes of the series. There is no explanation to the murder, but since the man dies, he must have been involved in the death of Castle’s family. The fact that the gangster is Latin may seem insignificant, but since the scene is positioned at the beginning of the series, it somehow foreshadows one of the reoccurring themes of the season, which is Western interventionism, a direct consequence of Western exceptionalism.

Neoliberals like to present themselves as the keepers of freedom or freedoms, something that U.S. also likes to do in its foreign policy. Castle, just like the American government, gives himself moral superiority over others because of his exceptional qualities. America has the resources and military equipment, while Castle has skills, that position both as what Nick Robinson calls the “city on a hill.” This city cannot be judged by the rules applicable to others, it is not bound by what connects other states, groups or people. America sacrifices the lives of its young men to spread justice and freedom across the world, Castle does likewise with his own life, but inside the country, handling the job that is supposed to be done by the state. The fact that both reinforce their own agenda in the process goes somewhat unnoticed.

 

Think What You Want, Do What You Need

Just like almost every military hero in books, movies or video games, Frank’s conflict is between his individuality and social duty. In war stories the hero often has to reject strict military code in order to do what is right. In the case of the Punisher it is punishing the men responsible for the killing of Ahmad Zubair in Afghanistan. The fact that Castle was the one that shot the man gives him the moral mandate to demand justice from his superiors. He was ordered to shoot the man, so he did it, nobody cared about what he thought of the order.

On the symbolical level the killing stands for the exploitation of poorer, less developed countries and cultures. A member of the Afghan National Police, Zubair was supposed to be protected by the government but was captured by the Cerberus Squad, tortured and eventually shot. This was a man who was actually failed by the state, not Castle, who was representing the state’s oppressive power at the time. He might have been morally troubled, even outraged by his own act, yet he pulled the trigger.

And this is exactly what neoliberal ideology demands of its subject. Yes, he can question the motives all he wants, he may even contest them in private conversations, but as long as he acts accordingly, the market continues to work and exploit, while the weak are still oppressed.

It is somewhat fair that Zubair’s family lost a husband and father, so the man who killed him lost a wife and his children. At least in terms of retributive justice that Castle so firmly believes in. The problem is that he does not see the murders to be equal. This has all to do with Western exceptionalism – it is OK to kill Afghan men, but American families are off limits. In another scene Castle regrets that he did not kill a woman posing to be pregnant in order to smuggle a bomb that wounded his best friend, Curtis.

Castle finds it normal for the U.S. to invade other countries in order to bring them justice, but when in America, he wants to be left alone by the authorities to do things his way. When getting the bullet out of the corpse of Zubair, Frank’s subordinate points out that they are hiding evidence, to which Castle responds that while they are “here,” they must do what is necessary of them. This is all very contradictory – as a soldier he helps export values that eventually fail him. Abroad morality is purely economic, “a matter of rational deliberation about costs, benefits and consequences,” as described by political theorist Wendy Brown.

 

Illusions of Love

The Punisher is a clear example of a man driven by hate, not love. It is rather known that revenge unites against something only momentarily. So while today’s liberals might condemn the left’s reluctance to join forces with them against a common enemy, they are actually in the wrong for their inability to see the bigger picture. This false unity already failed during the 2016 presidential election.

As observed by leftist thinker, activist and former Minister of Labor and Social Policy of Poland, the late Jacek Kuroń, standing up against evil and actually doing good are not in agreement with each other. This led to the disjuncture of the Polish opposition after 1989 – as the common enemy was defeated, the liberals, conservatives and leftists no longer had anything in common, which eventually led to current divisions in the country. For Kuroń love was the utmost of leftist values. For leftists, love is more important than family, just as people are more important than the state.

Despite his thorough disdain for the state and constant urges for the agents to “get out of his way,” Castle is able to get his revenge only by collaborating with the state. This leads to the conclusion that us, leftists, might be right in the assumption that a strong state is necessary to oppose powerful and rich individuals, who are too concerned with enforcing their own agenda. In the world of the Punisher teaming-up with other vigilantes, superheroes and even the state is possible only to a central extent. The uniting force is a common enemy, hate, never love. Even though his name is cleared by the end of the series, Castle prefers to remain in hiding, presumably until he is needed again. When the market requires him to, he will step in again and make things right for all those wronged by the state. While his violent actions may be a problem, the bigger one is that they are necessary in the first place.


Łukasz Muniowski is a doctoral student at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, Poland. In addition to digital game criticism, he has published articles on Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Hubert Selby Jr., and Jack Kerouac. His doctoral dissertation focusses on the achievements of leading NBA players after Michael Jordan.

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