Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Punisher: Working Class Superhero

Recently, I re-read the savage takedown Eileen Jones wrote of The Dark Knight Rises. It's still worth a read, just for the way Jones points out the ridiculous anti-99% themes shot through the film, but also how it highlights the starkly fascist undercurrents of all superhero fiction:

We all know who’s “good” in The Dark Knight Rises, no matter what their tiresome human frailties are. Batman/Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, the “angry orphan” who sees himself in Batman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), John Blake aka soon-to-be-Robin, Batman’s faithful flunkies Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucien (Morgan Freeman), and all the cops who fight on Batman’s side, upholding law ‘n’ order no matter what.

Batman, despite his huge popularity on the internet, has been and always will be a fundamentally fascist fantasy. A man who inherits wealth and privilege and uses all of that to overcome his deep psychological scars following the murder of his parents by dressing up in a gimp suit and assaulting poor people.

The Dark Knight surpassed the usual reactionary storytelling of the superhero medium thanks to the performance of Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan heavily cribbing from the Michael Mann masterpiece Heat. The Dark Knight Rises suffers not only for a lack of Ledger but also being saddled with the duties of a trilogy - tying everything back to the B grade first half of Batman Begins. And if that weren't enough, they had to go and try to crib from the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities where the long suffering French peasantry are portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters by "a master of lurid melodrama [Dickens] who was all for incremental social change but got very, very squeamish about revolution, no matter how necessary and justified…"

So let's take a look at Marvel's black-clad vigilante, The Punisher. Like Batman, he targets strictly human criminals and their organizations, but unlike Batman he just plain shoots 'em. This usually makes him a "darker" character among comic book fans, since they have all the literary tastes of a third grader, but what really makes the character more mature, and less of a power fantasy, is his own tragic biography. Frank Castle returns from three tours in the Vietnam War to witness his wife and children shot to pieces in front of him. Deep institutional corruption and the meager means of a retired soldier leave Castle no other way of seeking justice but his own ingenuity and lax American gun laws.

In this way, The Punisher is not only a much more realistic costumed hero - Who really thinks they can take on armed gang members with bat-themed boomerangs? - but also something of an insurgent hero. From his first appearance in the 1970s to the celebrated MAX imprint, The Punisher has targeted one organized crime syndicate after another. The mafia, the yakuza, the Irish Mob, Jamaican Yardies, even Albanian human traffickers - all "bad guys" who thrive by exploiting the disadvantaged on one hand and striking backroom deals with established power structures on the other. In the 1970s, the mob was considered untouchable thanks to their ties to the New York City government, a subtext of the very first Punisher storyline.

Wealth and privilege in service of acquiring more wealth and privilege at the expense of the powerless. And The Punisher kills them.

This makes him a murderer and a criminal. Other costumed vigilantes, like Batman and fellow Marvel third-stringer Daredevil, technically break the law in their crime fighting but they always deliver their enemies to the authorities - authorities who routinely extract confessions from innocent people, when not just murdering them in cold blood. The Punisher reflects these realities with his simple decision to bypass a broken system. Revolution is not pretty but when change cannot be achieved through traditional means it becomes necessary.

And ultimately, Frank Castle does what he does because the world has left him no choice. Bruce Wayne can throw aside his cape and cowl, go running off to the Riviera with a dozen lingerie models, and nothing will stop him. Frank Castle, who served his country faithfully only to see his whole life shattered in an instant of random violence, has absolutely nothing to live for except his personal war. He can't buy his way out of being prosecuted himself for his vigilantism, nor can he find a livelihood with only a soldier's skills - supplied by the same state that declares him a villain for killing wealthy white people as opposed to poor Vietnamese. The contradictions of a capitalist system leave him with no options but to fight or die.

Though teenage boys will disagree, you would never want to be Frank Castle. Ray Stevenson, who played the character in Punisher: War Zone, explicitly described him as a tragic, even broken individual. For all his guns and skulls he is not a power fantasy but a grimly logical necessity in a world that cannot adequately police the predations of either black markets or the more legitimate kind. This makes him unique among costumed heroes, the norm being colorful bullies for the status quo: He may not be the hero American comics want but he is certainly the hero they need. And deserve.

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