Trauma deeply entrenches itself in the Punisher’s story. Since the release of DAREDEVIL in 2015, Marvel has established that its Netflix properties have the freedom to delve into darker (and more violent) territory. Subsequent seasons and newer additions, like JESSICA JONES, have only affirmed this fact.

If you’re looking for a grittier rendition of the traditional superhero story, look no further than your friendly neighborhood streaming service. What better place than Netflix to reboot THE PUNISHER?

THE PUNISHER

The Punisher is a former United States Marine scout sniper turned gun-toting vigilante with a taste for blood. After returning from the war in Afghanistan, family man Frank Castle attempts to settle back into life stateside. He comes back only to have his family brutally murdered in a deadly mob clash in Central Park. Later, Castle finds out his family just got caught in the cross-fire of a government-sanctioned hit meant to kill him.

In the wake of his loss and immense grief, Castle dedicates his life to systematically hunting down and killing each and every single person involved in his family’s death. It’s a heavy origin story for a protagonist to bear, featuring especially complex questions about morality and the ethics of vigilantism. Marvel’s Netflix reboot of THE PUNISHER throws another question into consideration: what role does trauma play in the world Frank Castle inhabits?

Returning From War

Before his family was killed, Frank Castle experienced a difficult transition back to civilian life after his final discharge. Frank’s interactions with his family became strained. In one conversation with David Lieberman, a former NSA analyst turned hacker who occasionally moonlights under the pseudonym “Micro,” Castle admits that his family always seemed wary of him whenever he returned home. He had worried that they could see the bad things he did overseas all over him, and know that he might have even enjoyed some of it.

Frank Castle holding a picture of his family.
It’s easier to remember the good times than the bad.

After the loss, Frank Castle’s trauma becomes a defining aspect of his character. Flashbacks of better days splice the series’ heavier moments. More often than not, nightmares warp his good memories. Castle dreams of his wife Maria gently waking him in the morning, only for a masked soldier to walk in and shoot her dead while he remains helpless. The masked shooter is later revealed to be Frank himself. Frank’s trauma, and subsequently the guilt accompanying that trauma, are the impetus for his actions.

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Alienation & Abandonment

Another prominent aspect of the show is the veteran support group, run by Castle’s former comrade-in-arms, Curtis Hoyle. Some of THE PUNISHER’s most prevalent themes of alienation and abandonment at the hands of the country you fought for are embodied in these meetings.

Lewis Wilson, a young veteran struggling with PTSD, says during one of these meetings,

“I just know that I fought for this country and that it’s got no place for me. I don’t know what the rules are anymore, you know?”

Wilson’s story serves as the secondary plotline for the show until it’s tragic convergence with the Punisher. At one point, Wilson digs a foxhole in his backyard and sleeps in it, finding the familiarity of it much more comforting than his own bedroom. In an interview with Vox, showrunner Steve Lightfoot says,

I saw him as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. He couldn’t live without a war, and so like Frank, he found a new one.”

Trauma
Lewis Wilson retreats to what he knows in the face of trauma.

Struggling With PTSD

United States veterans are disproportionately predisposed to developing a post-traumatic stress disorder. The culture surrounding mental illness makes it difficult for these veterans to seek help. A study done by the RAND Corporation indicates that since 2001, 20% of veterans reported and sought treatment for PTSD. The corporation speculated that the number would increase should there be a better infrastructure in place to encourage treatment in the first place.

Wilson ultimately goes down a path of no return, becoming a terrorist radicalized in the name of protecting his flawed beliefs. THE PUNISHER does not condone Wilson’s actions but makes it clear that Wilson was failed by society long before he began to kill innocents. The government wronged Wilson because they didn’t care for his well-being after he returned from war.

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Trauma Resists Depiction

It is difficult to verbalize the effect a terrible event can have on you. THE PUNISHER’s strength in portraying trauma lies not just in the discussion but in physical action. Frank Castle loses his family in a gruesome shoot-out. The portrayal of his trauma resonates with viewers because it becomes something we can feel, too. A general consensus among war veterans agrees that THE PUNISHER is one of the better pop culture depictions of trauma and PTSD.

The last episode of the show forces Castle to confront the site of his trauma: the carousel in Central Park where the gangs unleashed fire on his unsuspecting family. Castle’s bloody battle with Billy Russo becomes a dizzy whirlwind of traumatic flashbacks. Trauma presents itself in Frank’s desperate attempts to keep his grip on reality.

The smiling, happy faces of his children are interspersed with the Punisher grinding his former best friend’s face into the broken shards of a glass mirror. Frank Castle wakes up every morning and has to remember his family is dead. It’s a painful and deeply unnerving moment. Frank Castle’s trauma is a force with which the audience must reckon.

Trauma
Frank ends his mission where it began.

What Recovery Could Look Like

THE PUNISHER’s final scene shows Frank Castle, under his newly-acquired (and government approved) pseudonym Pete Castiglione. He attends one of Curtis Hoyle’s group meetings for veterans. At this point, the Punisher has no one left to kill. Everyone involved with the murder of Frank’s family is dead or permanently incapacitated. All Frank has left is the rest of his life. Castle decides to share with the group. He admits that the prospect of a future scares him. Now, Frank must properly examine his trauma.

It’s interesting to consider how the Punisher’s murder quest functions as an (extremely unhealthy) coping mechanism. Castle’s attendance at the group meeting indicates a readiness to move forward, despite how difficult that may be. I’m incredibly curious to know how the show will handle a version of the Punisher with no vendetta to carry out in season two (and it is almost definitely getting a season two), and what that means for his possible recovery.

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One Comment

  1. Tomi Nabach

    December 17, 2017 at 8:47 pm

    I’m so in love with this!! The Punisher feels like one of the only Netflix shows so far that doesn’t just touch on mental illness, but ways to cope and improve. Meanwhile, all the Defenders are running around with PTSD, depression, alcoholism, etc, and are all somehow convinced they don’t need therapy…………….

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