Warning: Spoilers for parts of Daredevil season 2 and The Punisher
Like the incredible Jessica Jones, Marvel’s The Punisher examines and elevates a character and a genre defined by tropes and clichés. Despite being one in a long series of knock-offs of the Lone Vigilante genre – codified in its modern format by Death Wish and the Executioner novels – Netflix’s Marvel series takes a one-note anti-hero and becomes a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the damage that war and violence does to the people we expect to carry it out.
Unlike in previous versions of the character, we aren’t watching the Ultimate Bad-Ass going on his Rip Roaring Rampage of Revenge as we sit back and enjoy the splatter. Instead, we get deep into the meat of a character who is, ultimately, defined by pain and loss. And it’s in that examination that we see something interesting. In a very real way, Frank Castle is the ultimate Alpha Male – he looks like he’s carved from marble, is unquestionably the dominant figure in any room, takes damage that would bring down a Terminator and kicks ass like he’s driving an army of mules. But the things that make him that alpha also signal one crucial fact: Frank Castle is a completely and utterly broken human being.
Frank Castle Is Completely Isolated
One of the first things we see about Frank Castle is that he is always the biggest swinging dick in the room. Whether he’s in chains, in prison or with a gun to his head, Frank is always, always in charge.
Even when surrounded by federal agents and being interrogated, he has that almost sneering contempt for the proceedings that says that he’s only there because he allows it.
But that same dominance, that same almost primal feeling of being The Head Motherfucker In Charge comes at a cost: Castle is completely and utterly isolated from the world. He has no friends, no loved ones, no intimates – only allies and contacts. This is because there’s no room for anything else. Friends and lovers would require vulnerability, openness and – importantly – equals.
Frank Castle has no equals. He must always be the one in control.
In fact, one of the most striking things about Frank Castle is that he has an almost pathological need to be the dominant one in any situation – even among his allies. This is especially notable whenever Frank interacts with almost any male character. Our first major introduction to Castle involves him taunting a chained-up Daredevil, alternately taunting Murdock over his helplessness and berating him over the impotence of Murdock’s mission.
Similarly, his every interaction with his ally David “Micro” Lieberman involves some form of trying to put him in his place. Micro, in many ways, represents weakness. In Frank’s eyes, he’s contemptible. He’s a scrawny desk jockey, someone who’s safely away from the action while Frank and his men are putting life and limb on the line. He delegates his responsibilities to others – relying on plumbers and repairmen to do the jobs he can’t, just as he recruits Frank to get the revenge that he’s incapable of getting. He even attempts to pass the punishment of the men who destroyed his and Frank’s lives to others, advocating turning them in to Agent Madani instead of splattering their brains out on the floor. In contrast to Frank, Micro is a beta male.
And yet, Micro does work that Frank can’t. He has resources that Frank can’t access. And on more than one occasion, the weedy desk jockey gets the best of The Punisher… and that galls him more than anything else.
Any time Micro gets the upper hand on Castle – whether through his initial surveillance and contact or tricking Castle into freeing him – Castle is all but compelled to retaliate to reassert himself. From stalking Micro’s family for leverage to the torture to the litany of threats, insults and digs, Castle never once misses an opportunity to try to put Micro in his place.
This compulsion goes so far that, when he’s asked by Sarah Lieberman to talk to her son Zach, his first impulse is to hold a combat knife to a ten year old’s throat. Let me repeat that: he is scaring a kid straight by threatening to slit his throat.
This is a child who’s lashing out because he believes his father died as a traitor to his country and Frank Castle threatens him with murder. Castle’s paternal side only comes back to the fore when Zach is literally begging for death.
In fact, it’s significant that the only people that Frank seems to be able to let himself care for are other veterans, other people who’ve been wounded in some way by his actions. His relationship with Curtis Hoyle- a fellow Marine – is at times almost tender, but that is born not just out of respect but guilt. In his eyes, Curtis is crippled because of his failure. But Frank can never let himself be open with Curtis, never let himself be real or confront what even a ten year old is willing to say: he hurts. He hurts all the time.
Because Frank can’t acknowledge that pain. He can’t acknowledge weakness. He can’t open up to anyone – not even people like Curtis or Karen Page. His being the biggest, baddest of the bad has cut him off from everyone.
There’s No Sex In Your Violence
One of the defining tropes of the vigilante, the one-man-war-on-crime, is their capacity for violence. Whether it’s Mack Bolan, Frank Castle, John Creacy, Bryan Mills or John Wick, watching them is like watching a ballet of ferocity. To see them work is to watch Picasso or Monet paint with a pallet of brains and viscera, of broken limbs, shattered skulls and double-tap headshots.
I mean, how is this not one of the most amazing things you’ve ever seen:
That violence is part of what makes us love those characters. How can you not love a character who walks through hell and is tough enough to come out the other side? Violence and the worship of it is baked into the culture at a deep level. We lionize the ass-kicker, praise the warrior and look with something akin to awe at people whose jobs are to break other humans.
And the skill, capacity and willingness to use violence is part of the toxic definitions of manhood. It’s hard to joke about guns as penis substitutes when that’s literally how they’re marketed to men. And there is nobody more capable and more ready to deliver violence than The Punisher.
But that capacity for violence – and the use of it – comes with a cost. A cost that we don’t see when Bryan Mills decimates a sex slavery ring or John Wick shoots his way through the Bratva. But we see it clearly in The Punisher. Lewis Walcott, a young veteran with PTSD, is possibly the most obvious example. He went to war a man and came home a broken shell. It’s clear that he was an extremely good killing machine… but the process of becoming one destroyed something critical in him. After his service, he’s left with nothing – no direction, no purpose and no way to process what he did. And that emptiness leaves him vulnerable to the corrupting influence of O’Connor.
O’Connor is the hyper-example of masculine swagger and violence, full of braggadocio and stories of his valor. He uses his experiences in Vietnam to burnish his authority, to give his virulently racist views credibility. He’s an expert who should be listened to because he’s proven himself a bad-ass. Except, as we find out, he’s absolutely full of shit. He may have actually served in the military, but he never even deployed overseas.
But it’s Frank Castle who is the biggest influence in Lewis’ life. Lewis sees himself as being the same as Castle – another man whose righteous violence is what the country needs. Which leads Lewis into bombing Federal agencies he sees as a threat to his right to carry guns.
Even Curtis – a Marine field medic – is haunted by what he had to go through to become a good soldier. It may have been necessary – trying to save lives in a war zone requires specific skills and training – but it left scars that will never fully heal. Even he wakes up every day, needing the same affirmation and support that he provides to his fellow veterans.
And Frank? Well, as Micro says: “You have nothin’ but a war in you.” That’s important because, frankly…
Frank Castle Is Fucking Terrifying
Part of what makes the ballet of violence by characters like Bryan Mills or John Creacy so appealing is how easily they pick it up and put it back down again. John Wick is able to blow away literally dozens of men and walk away calmly. Bryan Mills is one of the baddest of the bad, yet can be a tender, doting father. They slip their violent identities on and off like a coat. There’s never any indication of just how much being a killer eats away at them.
Frank Castle doesn’t have that. In fact, there are a number of indications that Frank can’t turn the killer in him off. Ever.
Frank is a man who’s always on the verge of exploding – messily and all over the place. Over and over again, we see it – his nostrils flare, his breathing starts to quicken and his voice roughens. He speaks in a staccato as his blood rises, his fists clenching and his arms trembling with barely restrained intent.
And that’s when Micro suggests they talk to Agent Madani. Suggesting an alternate plan is almost all it takes for Frank to start beating Micro into goo. The same person who saved his life, repeatedly. That’s how he behaves with his friends.
And unlike, John Wick, Castle has no catlike grace. He’s not cool and collected in a firefight. He’s barely human. He bellows and roars and charges like a beast. He’s a wrecking ball of a man who does unspeakable things to the people who get in his way.
Frank is unquestionably charming. There’s something in him that can be appealing, even after he’s kidnapped you, held you hostage and tortured people in front of you. But it’s impossible to forget that sweet Pete Castiglione only came into the Lieberman’s lives because he was going to use them to threaten and leverage Micro. Or that he drowned a living man in concrete. Or continued to smash the skull of an enemy soldier, long after he was already dead.
Frank is a man for whom violence is always just beneath the surface. Being around him is, in many ways, like being around a savage dog or a bomb with a hair trigger. You can never completely relax because you can never be entirely sure what may set it off again.
But it’s not just the signs of the killer that make Frank terrifying. It’s that it is all he has.
No Room For Anything But Anger
“Whenever you come home, you leave a little piece of yourself back there.”
These words – said by Maria Castle during a flashback – drive home a major point: the war has slowly and surely drained away Castle’s humanity. There was a point when Frank could be happy, loving even. We see his memories of his wedding to Maria, his honeymoon, even happy memories of his whole family – Maria, Frank Jr., Lisa and Uncle Billy. We even, at one point, see him have a dream of two families – his and Micro’s – sitting down to a positively Norman Rockwell-inspired Thanksgiving dinner.
Frank, at one point, had the chance for a happy ending. But not any more. That Frank Castle is gone. Watching Frank with Karen Page is an exercise in awkward emptiness, even more so with Sarah and Leo. There’s that urge for simple human contact, like a phantom limb that still itches and twitches. He wants to reach out to someone who very clearly cares for him. But… it’s simply not in him any more.
And he knows it.
Like so many other men, he has become so detached from his emotions, smothered anything that wasn’t anger and fury, that he has nothing left. His hate is all he had to live for. When he believes his war to be over, he becomes borderline catatonic. With no other target to vent his fury onto, he spends his nights on construction sites, beating cement walls with a sledgehammer. Being given the excuse to brutally murder a gang of low-rent wannabes was almost a relief for him.
Even at the end, his mission is his life and his life is his mission and everything else is cast away. When presented with the choice of rejoining his wife and family or losing them forever in order to pursue his revenge, he chooses revenge. Home is no longer with Maria. It’s with his hate and his anger. And when it’s over, when every last man who was involved in the death of his family has been punished… he’s still alone. There is no place for him in Paradise; the choices he had made and the things that he had done have locked him out for good.
But while there may be no room for anything but his anger… there is still room for hope.
The Time to Ask For Help
What makes The Punisher so amazing is that, unlike previous incarnations, this isn’t a joyride of violence and wanton slaughter. What we got instead was a surprisingly thoughtful and blistering look at the damage that war does and the toll we’ve come to accept for the people we call our heroes. Just as importantly, it rips away all of the supposed glory of being a bad-ass. At the end, we don’t see The Punisher as the ultimate alpha, the lone man capable of taking justice into his own hands and doing what the government can’t or won’t. At the end of the day, he’s not a force for justice or the spirit of vengeance, he’s a man who is afraid to not have a war any more.
And this leads to what is, ultimately, the most powerful moment in the season. Not murdering soldiers, not the moments of righteous vengeance, but Frank accepting that he needs help. His truest, strongest moment is simply sitting down and talking. Through this entire season, Curtis has been running a support group for veterans with PTSD. It’s clear that this is in no small part support for Curtis too – and it’s support he offers to Frank.
Frank, of course, turns them down. He doesn’t need it. He’s handling his shit just fine.
But he’s not. And in the final moments, we have our first moment of real hope. Frank Castle has given up the illusion of being in control. He’s no longer the dominant unstoppable force. He’s become a man – a real man… and one who finally is brutally honest with himself.
“You know, long as I was at war, y’know, I never thought about, uh, what would happen next, what I was gonna do when it was over. But I guess that’s it, y’know. I think that might be the hardest part: the silence. The silence when the gunfire ends. How do – how do you live in that? I guess…I guess that’s what you’re trying to figure out, huh? It’s what you guys are doing. You’re working on it. I respect that. I just… Um, if you’re gonna look at yourself, really look in the mirror, you gotta, yeah, you gotta admit who you are. But not just to yourself. You gotta admit it to everybody else. First time, as long as I can remember, I don’t have a war to fight.”
And then, it ends on the most powerful thing that Frank could say:
Frank Castle is a broken man and the things that broke him are the same things we lionize as traits of being a “real” man. But in the end, there’s hope. There’s a chance to rebuild, to fix things.
It’s accepting fear and seeking out help that we become better.