On Wednesday, Netflix released the first trailer for The Punisher. It’s the latest addition to Marvel’s universe of superhero shows on the streaming platform. Or perhaps it’s Netflix’s first series about a supervillain.
The Punisher is the sixth entry into the streaming service’s partnership with Marvel, launching out of the title character’s introduction in season two of Daredevil. On that show, the character of Frank Castle–a former cop who begins a quest for vengeance against the criminal underworld after his family is murdered–was introduced as an antagonist who challenged Matt Murdock’s quest for justice, eventually wearing a skull on his chest and becoming The Punisher. He allowed the show to raise interesting moral questions: Where, precisely, is the line between justice and vengeance, and how does a person who seeks the former avoid being consumed by the latter? What, ultimately, is the difference between a superhero like Daredevil (or Luke Cage, or Jessica Jones, or Batman, or Spider-Man, or any non-Netflix property who fights street crime), who works outside the law to protect the innocent, and a gun-toting vigilante who sets himself up as judge, jury, and executioner?
By the end of the season, though, that question stopped being interesting to Daredevil’s creators. Instead, the two teamed up at the end, setting aside the thorny questions of morality in favor of teasing an eventual new addition to the Marvel/Netflix stable of franchises in the form of a Punisher solo series.
That series doesn’t have a release date yet besides “2017” (at the end of the trailer, as with previous teasers, the release date is blacked out to indicate that it’s, like, a secret). But it’s coming soon. And what we see in the trailer is a superhero show like none other–because, as indicated above, The Punisher seems more about the sort of character who is usually a villain.
When the character of The Punisher was introduced, in fact, he was a villain, albeit one with a moral code. He first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #129, which was published in February 1974–two years after the novel Death Wish was published and a few months before the movie of the same name was released. He shows up to kill Spider-Man, believing that he’s a murderer. Eventually, they resolve that misunderstanding, but a few months later, just after Charlie Bronson’s Death Wish hit theaters, The Punisher returned in the same title–this time as a morally ambiguous partner to Spider-Man (who, despite the skull on his chest and the guns he carries, never shoots anybody). The character was popular enough to pop up every few months, and, with each appearance, he morphed more and more into superhero (or at least “antihero”) territory–he stopped being drawn with wild eyes and a nasty widow’s peak, he apparently exhibited a preference for “mercy bullets” to shoot people without killing them, and would narrate the issues of Amazing Spider-Man he appeared in through his “war journal.”
It took more than 10 years before the character ever killed anybody on-panel, though–in The Punisher #2, published in 1986, he throws a would-be assassin through a subway window, beheading him as the train enters a tunnel–and by that time, Marvel had found a way to navigate the moral gray space that a guy whose superpower is “he shoots people with guns” created in their colorful universe mostly by ignoring it. The Punisher wore a costume, and he fought villains–therefore, he was a superhero. When he killed someone, he got to keep his “good guy” cred by feeling bad for the witnesses.
But none of that actually makes sense in a superhero universe. There’s a delicate balance that all superhero stories have to strike–they’re ultimately about people who decide that their powers mean that they get to decide what’s right and what’s wrong for everyone else by working outside of the law. That mostly works when the villains are supernatural ninjas or evil gentlemen who control people’s minds–who the heck knows how to deal with that stuff? But when the bad guys are real-world criminals, and the hero fights them with guns, then we’re just watching a show about a murderer with a skull on his chest. Those are the people that the heroes of Marvel’s other superhero stories–the ones at the theaters, on our TVs, and in comics–usually show up to fight against.
Nonetheless, The Punisher is a cultural touchstone. This is the fourth attempt to bring the character to life, and the one that’s most likely to succeed. The trailer is unapologetically violent, it’s entering an existing franchise that’s widely watched, and the mood in America seems right for a TV series from Marvel about a guy whose superpower is killing people in the streets. Like Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake (which, with its November release date, will probably end up being released right around the same time), The Punisher validates a pretty Trump-y worldview about America’s cities, the role of excessive violence in pursuing justice, and the idea (against all evidence) that America is getting more dangerous, not less.
In that way, perhaps, The Punisher is about a hero for our times–but that sure is a bummer of a thing to think about.