It would be easy to dismiss the recent Punisher series, the next Netflix MCU series, as simplistic action porn based on a hero whose super powers are guns and killing people. After all, aside from Punisher-esque protagonists being the staple of US action cinema, we’ve already had multiple versions of this second tier comic character: the campy Dolf Lundgren version, the “realist” Thomas Jane version (with a short film spin-off), the splatter-punk Ray Steven version. And yet this version of the Punisher, despite its predictable character development and clumsy attempts at pathos, is worth taking seriously for one reason only: it is the most coherent expression of liberal-imperialist ideology.
Like establishment Democrats who still think the answer to Donald Trump is Hillary Clinton, and that the entire world would not only be better but sanctified if Clinton had won the election, the writers of the Punisher want you to know that they are critical of the current violent order. Not critical enough to think through the foundations of the American system, but critical in a cosmetic sense that earnestly believes it is not cosmetic. The ethics of the Punisher is the ethics of Hamilton, of appeals to Obama’s legacy, of claims that the Founding Fathers would be displeased with “Trumpism”, that the American Dream is worth saving if only we could rid ourselves of evil elements that stand in the way of its final consummation. When it is cynical, and it does play itself mainly as cynical, this cynicism lies only in the fact that the glory of the American Dream might always be thwarted by the corruption of human nature.
Corruption: it always has to do with corruption. For the dyed-in-the-wool liberal the problem with the state of affairs isn’t the foundation upon which this state of affairs rests (i.e. capitalism and imperialism) but instead particular elements – corrupt individuals and connected conspiracies – that betray justice. Otherwise the foundations are legitimate; the solution is to excise the corrupt elements and save a system that is otherwise just.
The new Punisher series tells the same story, but with modern liberal characteristics. Frank Castle is a veteran of the US war upon Afghanistan who was ill-treated, betrayed by corrupt elements in the war apparatus, and turned into a “hit man” instead of a “soldier”. The very idea that these categories are distinct, and that there is a righteous soldier who is not a hit man, speaks to a belief in the justice of imperialist war, that US involvement in Afghanistan is otherwise alright if corrupt elements hadn’t involved themselves. Moreover Castle’s trauma, a complex of being misused by his superiors and then violently betrayed with the murder of his family, becomes the central theme. And this is a very modern liberal theme: the abuse of contemporary veterans, the PTSD of “our boys”, the fact that any problems of war (and a war that is presumed to be just in the first place) are in how they negatively affect imperialist soldiers.
With a liberal attention to detail, the series focuses upon the trauma of the neglected veteran, a Democrat talking point. One important character runs a support group for veterans, soldiers attempting to find themselves at home and recognize that their trauma has to do with sacrifice upon the nation’s altar. This support group provides the impetus for significant plot points: not only does it eventually serve as the redemption of Frank Castle, but it launches the trajectory of a “wrong” way to deal with war trauma, the character of Lewis who, in rejecting the group’s help, becomes the series’ Oklahoma Bomber.
Anything that is bad about imperialist war, according to this narrative, is only bad because of the trauma of the imperialist soldiers. Why do they experience trauma? Because they were either misused or were treated poorly upon their return to US soil. Being an imperialist soldier is never questioned; those who engage in this vocation are treated honourably by the series, as if they have chosen the highest good – Castle refuses to kill other soldiers, even though he has become a vigilante, because these are the “good guys”. Even more reprehensible, but consistent with the series’ ideology, is the fact that the trauma of the victims of imperialism barely registers. In the flashbacks to Afghanistan those resisting the occupation are gibberish enemy savages, worthy of annihilation, with the exception of one individual who was “wrongly killed”. This individual is in fact a collaborator, a cop for the puppet dictatorship, who was murdered by his own corrupt allies.
But back to Lewis. Here is a character whose trajectory should be understood as the trajectory of a white nationalist, since he espouses precisely what today’s fascists espouse, but we are meant to feel for him. Even though Castle and Karen Page call him a terrorist because his assaults affect civilians, we are still forced to humanize him when his counterparts in Afghanistan are not allowed the same humanization. It’s some Dylan Roof shit, with the veneer of military institutional sanctification. Castle shares a moment of sympathy with him, even, when he suicides in a meat locker. Why can’t we all get along?
Other characters spring forth to form this liberal imperialist imaginary. Dinah Madani, an Iranian-American operative in the War on Terror in Afghanistan functions to consummate the liberal US dream that people from sites of oppression can and should be prosecuting US hegemony. She celebrates this hegemony, she pontificates about how “good” the US was to her immigrant parents, she has transcended racism. Her only problem is the barriers of corruption that prevent her from saving the American Dream. Ah, the liberal dream of a rainbow coalition of oppression!
The resolution of the series is the end of corruption, the unity of Madani and Castle, and an epilogue where Castle finds himself in that space to work out his trauma, which is only ever the trauma of the oppressor and never the trauma of the oppressed. Castle’s brown shirt vigilantism is thus channeled into liberal avenues of imperialist PTSD management and that is the moral of the story.
But this moral of the story is overdetermined by Castle’s freikorps style activities, which should otherwise be understood as fascist. The series works overtime to question this vigilantism while still giving it free reign. The Punisher is thus a social fascist narrative, which is precisely the ideology of liberal capitalism.