The Punisher: man, hero or god

15th February 2019

The Punisher TV show appears to be a gritty and realistic portrayal of urban vigilantism, but scratch the surface and it is as much a fantasy as Doctor Strange. No one can do what Frank Castle does. It doesn’t matter how well trained or determined you are, one unarmed man cannot fight a room full of armed goons and win. Not to mention, Castle’s superhuman threshold for pain and the fantastical notion that this is a world where villains are always punished for their misdeeds.

It’s an interesting and very entertaining fantasy, but it’s still a fantasy. Castle (played by Jon Bernthal) has the abilities of a superhero, someone who exists beyond the limits of what humans can achieve or endure. Compared to ordinary people, superheroes are gods. Despite their many failings, the superhero as a god is one thing Zack Snyder’s films, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, captured well. Castle is not as remote a figure as Henry Cavill’s Superman, but he is a god of the world of The Punisher TV show, passing judgment and handing out justice to the mortals of that world.

Representing the Punisher as icon or godlike figure, who is beyond human ken, is a hallmark of Garth Ennis’s Punisher Max comics. The Netflix TV series approaches the Punisher as a more relatable human character, but there is still this godlike element to Castle in the show as he is part man, part urban legend, part personification of street justice. The other characters are mortals trapped between their own flawed humanity and a vengeful god.

In Ennis’s comics, The Punisher is an absolute, an all-powerful god. In Christian morality, he is pure Old Testament, a god of wrath and vengeance with no forgiveness. Then again, the Punisher has a human form and walks amongst us. He may be a force of nature, but he is physically incarnate. In Christianity, god acquires human form to forgive the sins of humanity. The Punisher may be a human form of god, but he is not interested in forgiving the sins of anyone.

Maybe it’s better to think of him as a Norse god who has assumed human form for the purposes of waging war. These gods are human in form, but can do superhuman feats; especially feats of violence. They create their own morality and are not subject to the morals of weaker beings. This is what Friedrich Nietzsche called an Übermensch (literally “Superman” or “Beyond-Man” in German) and this seems like a good description of Frank Castle.

Nietzsche thought that Christian morality, with its emphasis on submissiveness and meekness, was a rebellion against the Übermensch who were unrestrained by such things and thus a goal for humanity to aspire to. He saw Christianity as a way to give power to the meek and to constrain the strong. However, The Punisher protects the meek from those who would harm them. In the TV show, Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) says to Castle that he “gives a shit about people”. That’s what makes him different to villain Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), who is the definition of an unrestrained Übermensch. The Punisher has a code that he follows and it is informed by Christian ideas of sinners and innocents. Nietzsche’s idea of an Übermensch, informed by Norse mythology and Germanic culture, doesn’t sit neatly with The Punisher.

Nietzsche also looked to Greek myth for inspiration for his Übermensch ideas. The Punisher is like an ancient Greek god, in that he is a warrior god on an epic quest. Like the half-human, half-god characters from Homer’s Odyssey or the Iliad, he performs superhuman feats, especially in combat. The intensity of the Punisher’s wrath is reminiscent of Achilles in The Illiad who is spurred into violent action by the death of Patroclus. The Punisher is a creature of pride and rage that explodes into extreme violence, much like Achilles. The war he is fighting is an excuse to vent this rage.

So, The Punisher is human, but also a god and warrior, he is beyond human like a Nietzschean Übermensch. This is a good summary of the cocktail of different myths, religions and philosophies that make up our modern idea of a superhero. The Punisher exists in the same universe as Daredevil and Captain America and, although he doesn’t wear a cape, he is in many ways a superhero doing superhuman feats based on a code of right and wrong. The Punisher is human, but separated from us by a veil of myth.

The Punisher is a fantasy, but it is also dark and gritty as well as being very entertaining to watch. The first series was tense and bloody and I really liked it. Find out what Nick and I thought of series 2 here.

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Moderate Fantasy Violence © Nick Bryan & Alastair JR Ball 2016