“The Punisher” has just appeared on Netflix, the latest product of its unstoppable Marvel division. This is a far more important development than it might seem. The Punisher is both a combat veteran and a blue-collar worker. The series starts with him working construction. He has unimpeachable moral integrity, the likes of which you don’t find in prestige television and what Christopher Lasch called the moral realism of the lower classes.
Our society can produce prestige television and stories about heroes, but we exclude the working classes from this genre. They can be victims or bystanders or extras, but that’s about it. In this story, however, you find veterans at the center, and some are quite vocal about how society has abandoned them.
Admittedly, they’re led in their group therapy by an Obama-style inspirational figure who is all about not being judgmental. In his defense, he doesn’t spit in the faces of people who cling to God and guns. This is progress, but the group therapy proves worse than worthless.
Unfortunately, like much coming out of Hollywood, the show advertises its contempt for half of America. If you don’t enjoy seeing the only guy with a National Rifle Association shirt and Second Amendment views start out as a fraud then turn into something evil, Netflix doesn’t offer you much. If you want to see a gun rights guy turn terrorist, you’re gonna love this!
The show is explicitly anti-gun control and defends armed self-defense, and the gun-control politician seems to be making his career on the back of a tragedy. It’s complicated.
The ‘Real America’ Is Defined by Exploitation
Netflix is now painting on the greatest canvas in our generation the picture of soldiers as victims who do monstrous things. Aside from the Obama veteran, the others are either good people who go crazy or well-adjusted people who are in fact evil, monsters, or something close to that. You cannot really blame this on the story or dramatic requirements. It’s the liberal version of the desire to humiliate the troops.
Of course, as we all enjoy liberal paranoid entertainment, there are evil CIA types and contractors and special forces operators. These guys are insanely efficient at their conspiracies, except when they have to deal with this one nobody then fail. That goes well with the typical TV show genius hacking into everything.
With such magical tech powers, you wonder that the wars didn’t turn out better, but that is besides the point. You needn’t think about the politics of the war—you’re already being sold on the idea that corrupt influential types betrayed good-hearted, but dumb and destructive Americans. Evil profiteers profiteered evilly—that’s “the real America.”
Next, the ridiculous stuff. The show advertises combat realism and the short- and long-term psychological effects of killing, torture, and losing your comrades. Of course, the moral heroine is a small, slender, fragile supermodel girl. She’s a combat veteran and federal cop. Slaughters and accidents make her even more of a supermodel. Now, her idealism comes from her upper-class privilege, but that’s gotta be alright with liberals because she’s the daughter of Persian immigrants.
A Pop Culture Revenge Fantasy
I haven’t told you much about the plot because there really isn’t much. It takes more than a couple of hours to figure out who the villain is. Then you have to watch the rest, if you’re so inclined, bored stiff with disappointment. Netflix, however, can be happy that after duds like “Iron Fist” and “The Defenders” they’ve returned to something gritty that works without ridiculous fairy tales.
This is how we come to the important stuff. “The Punisher” is the newest example in our popular culture of a certain revenge fantasy. When you don’t really believe the future will be grand, what is left? You could have a reckoning. You could return to our most primitive sense of justice: tit for tat. America is going through a bit of that trouble now, and it won’t be over soon. But in prestige drama, it shows up as one manly man who might fight back against corruption and institutionalized evil.
The Punisher is special because he’s all about killing. One hesitates to say whether he prays God will add eternal damnation to the damnation he dispenses with such enthusiasm himself, but it’s at least likely. Nobody does that in our prestige spectacles. This forces us to consider whether we can really punish justly. We know he’s wrong to kill every wrongdoer he can find, but the more you think about it, the harder it is to escape the logic.
This show depicts what it means to think we live in chaos. Most of the interesting remarks our hero makes about war have to do with how you order yourself in chaos and try to order the world by sheer will power. The virtues of the body show up in ways people who never face danger can only fantasize about.
‘The Punisher’s’ Two Key Failures
Two problems make the show a failure. One restates the problem of treating soldiers as victims, saying they have no skill or knowledge worth having. This is false. A reasonable man would suspect veterans are somewhat better able than civilians at dealing with the crazy things in life, and especially superior in crisis. For a story all about crisis, “The Punisher” doesn’t offer much by way of a dramatization of that fact.
The other has to do with the problems I noted above: choosing worthless villains and politically correct storylines. You can have a liberal ideology, but then you cannot take seriously the view of a man who installs order rather than takes it for granted. Most of us do not experience almost any true chaos. Our entertainment does very little to intimate what that might be. Here, you at least begin to glimpse it.
So, if you can ignore the worthless parts of the story and focus on the Punisher himself, especially his relationship with the super-clever spy-hacker who’s a bit of a coward, you begin to see how important the moral virtues are, and how much we could gain from cherishing manliness. Installing order in the world connects manliness, rationality, and human dignity. The Punisher is faced with the possibility of becoming a kind of ugly divinity, all power and destruction. Why should he refuse this worrisome apotheosis?
Why should his experience of America spur him to moral heroism and protection of the needy? You’re not going to get a revelation about what things in life are good, only a sense of the importance of those things. The relation between a life worth living and justice becomes personal for someone who loses everything, but the show provides no solution.
What Happens When We Take Justice Seriously
In every case of a man with something to lose, justice cannot really be everything. This is a recipe for sacrifice for the common good as storytelling. But, intellectually, this spells out both why we can never separate justice and punishment, or always predict and stop unjust acts, and why we need heroes who take justice seriously, at whatever price to themselves.
“The Punisher” is about the best thing we have in this age in which we worry that our institutions are usurped by insiders and profiteers who are neither responsible to a common good nor scared by the consequences justice demands. Despite the ideological paranoia it retails, the story is really about the need to restore first principles if the community is to regain some of its health and confidence.
It’s not about America coming to an end, it’s about what it takes for America to continue: a renewed attention to the way we think about justice.