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‘PUNISHER’ AND THE MYTHOS OF THE MODERN COWBOY

How do we define a hero?

By their actions? By their intentions?

Over the years, we’ve seen all sorts of heroes and villains, both in real life and in fiction, but often, it’s the ones in between that we find the most compelling. The anti-heroes and all those who find themselves somewhere in the murky grey-area of the heroic spectrum.

Sometimes it’s hard to identify with a do-gooder hero who always does the right thing at the right time. Sometimes it’s easy to root for the bad guy who’s been screwed over one too many times and isn’t going to stand for it anymore.

A protagonist in literature is the main character, but main doesn’t automatically mean “good.” There are plenty of protagonists out there in all kinds of stories doing awful things for various reasons. Whether or not they do these things intentionally, acting with malice, or find themselves strung along by terrible fate, trying to make the best of a bad situation, each of these protagonists is, at the very least, a hero in their own minds.

Not so with Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher, who would be the last person in the world to say that he was a hero, even when other people say that he is. More like a necessary evil with a strong moral code. He does bad things but only for what he feels are good reasons. He only goes after bad people, people who have hurt him or others and deserve what’s coming to them.

That was the Frank Castle that we were introduced to in Netflix and Marvel’s Daredevil last year and that’s the Punisher we got this past weekend in their latest series of the same name.

The first thing The Punisher does is to quickly wrap up the loose ends left by the murder of Frank’s family.

At the end of the second season of Daredevil, Frank was presumed dead, leaving him free to disappear and finish his vendetta rampage in peace. We’ve already seen the lengths Frank will go to do what he thinks is necessary, so it’s not terribly surprising to see how efficient he can be when he puts his mind to it (and when a well-meaning Daredevil isn’t getting in his way). By the first time the opening credits of The Punisher run, Frank has already annihilated anyone who he knew had even a remote connection to the death of his wife and kids and burned his skull-painted body armor, indicating that he’s ready to set aside the Punisher persona for good.

Obviously, that’s not the case.

And it’s the first example of the quick pacing of the show, one of the strongest and weakest elements of the series. Overall, the relentless pace of The Punisher serves it well, driving the plot forward and forcing the characters to react or die as events that were set in motion before the beginning of the show come back to haunt them. However, the continuously high level of intensity from start to finish builds in a cushion of sorts, insulating the viewer from what should be moments of horror.

Even the quiet moments are built up with tense anxiety as we wait for the other shoe to drop, as we watch for the next horror.

Because that’s absolutely what this show is about; the horror of violence and the wreckage that’s left in its wake. It’s about the pieces that are lost, regardless of intention.

The show addresses topics like domestic gun violence, the scars–both physical and mental–that soldiers carry even after they return home from war, the corruption and abuse of power and the feeling of helplessness when there’s nothing you can do about it.

So then why does it somehow feel like the show missed its own point?

Gun violence in the United States is a seriously hot-topic issue right now, so it’s difficult not to see the numerous ways that our media reflects that. Especially when the show itself portrays congressmen and reporters and others actively discussing potential policies juxtaposed against a backdrop of blood spatter.

Obviously, trying to have a comprehensive conversation about the character of the Punisher in general without addressing these issues would be pretty much impossible. Guns and emotional distress (not to mention some form of mental dysfunction due to the bullet that passed through his brain) are absolutely integral to Frank’s backstory as a soldier and the death of his family.

But despite discussing the issue, The Punisher never quite decides if guns are good or bad, helpful or harmful. And maybe they don’t have to, but it sure feels like they should be making a statement of some kind when their show is so potentially divisive.

The same could be said about the mental health and emotional state of veterans. The show clearly recognizes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a problem as well as the less dangerous but no less distressing confusion involved with transitioning back into civilian life, but doesn’t really have answers to the questions they raise.

However, Frank seems content to solve the problems set before him, regardless of the political or ethical issues. He’s resolute in his determination to correct the injustice done to him and his fellow soldiers and will not be stopped.

Frank isn’t defined by his weapons. He is the weapon. He’s a man that meets violence with violence. He might not start a fight, but he will damn sure finish it, whatever it takes.

And nowhere is it shown better than in the show’s title sequence when we see the Punisher’s iconic skull literally built out of guns.

The entire sequence is gorgeous, by the way. All smoke and fire and firearms, shown with an almost surgical appreciation of the precision, appeal, and danger of the weapon. Meanwhile, the overlaid twanging guitar riff evokes the spirit of the old west; cowboys in black and white hats in standoffs, taking the law into their own hands to do what they feel is right or necessary.

Because at the end of the day, that’s exactly who Frank Castle is; a cowboy.

He was a character designed with the goal of bringing law back to the lawless frontier, in this case, New York. You see this archetype constantly in Westerns, regardless of if the protagonist has ever actually tended cattle or not. He’s a rough-riding, whiskey-drinking, nigh-unkillable badass who will always do what’s right when it counts.

There’s a certain amount of romance to the cowboy narrative. The tall, dark stranger riding in on a pale horse to save the day then disappearing into the sunset when his work is done. The cowboy is reckless, determined to do what they think is right no matter the cost to themselves. The cowboy needs no thanks or praise. The cowboy playfully bends the rules of society, but only for good reason and never hurts anyone, and when someone else breaks those rules, he’s inevitably the one who shows up to punish their greed and put things right.

The Ringo Kid, Rooster Cogburn, Shane, Tom Horn, The Man With No Name… Frank Castle is exactly what our heroes in this country have always been. The only difference now is the number of bullets in the gun at his hip and his faithful steed runs on gasoline.

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