The Punisher and the Question of Gun Violence in America

The Punisher season 2 can't shy away from gun violence, but Jon Bernthal and the people behind the scenes are aware of the complexities.

The cast and crew of The Punisher’s debut season were supposed to lead Netflix and Marvel’s joint presence at the 2017 New York Comic Con, but the panel was pulled at the last minute following the devastating Las Vegas mass shooting the previous weekend. Since then, the show has been at the center of a heated and complex discussion about art, media, and the supposed glorification of gun violence. After all, this is a show about Frank Castle, a man who brutally dispenses with justice as he sees fit, and with as much firepower as he can muster. Why would anyone want to lionize such a character at a time like the one we find ourselves in now?

During a visit to the set of The Punisher season 2 over the summer, questions about gun violence and related topics were posed by journalists to star Jon Bernthal, who plays Castle. Bernthal was more than happy to address these otherwise complex subjects in the context of the show.

Read our spoiler free review of The Punisher Season 2 here!

“I think that art, when done right, holds a mirror to society and makes you question it,” says Bernthal. “It shouldn’t attempt to spoon feed answers to you. It shouldn’t preach. It should make you look at yourself and, hopefully, present different sides to an argument. It should help make the viewer ask questions about the world in which they live.”

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“I tend to try to avoid art that is preachy,” he adds, “or that tells you how to think.”

The idea that art should hold a mirror up to society is as old as art criticism itself. Most trace its lineage back to the oft-quoted act three, scene two of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which reads, “playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.” Bernthal isn’t wrong to cite this in defending The Punisher’s dependence on gun violence, of course, but it’s also the oldest argument in the book. Then again, it’s by no means the only thing the actor has to say about the matter.

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“We’ve gone through this thing in this country where a certain element has a monopoly on what it means to be strong or tough or masculine or patriotic,” he explains. “The mark of somebody who’s strong, patriotic or tough is someone who has an open mind. Someone who’s open to listen to all sides and not be steadfast in, or completely cling to, their own assumptions about what’s right and what’s wrong. For me, being American is to be open to all sides. I’m just really repulsed by how polarized it has become, and by how folks on both sides of this issue know so little about the other side.”

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Bernthal concludes that he’s “sickened by fundamentalism of any sort” and stresses that “you’ve got to keep an open mind” about such matters. “I think we’ve got to learn from each other.”

As good as these sentiments might feel, however, gun violence and other traumatic events in recent memory have all but obliterated references to “both sides” in such discussions. Bernthal doesn’t dig too far into this during the interview. Neither does showrunner Steve Lightfoot, who spoke with journalists about The Punisher season 2. When the subject was brought up, however, the writer/producer was quick to note that “at the end of the day, the show is The Punisher” and “that character is what it is.”

“He’s a character with a long tradition in American action cinema and television that started with the western. It has always been a popular genre and this show, and this character, has a place in that,” he says. “The truth is, it’s very hard to work in that genre without the use of guns. My approach to the show has always been that you can’t tell the story of the Punisher without the use of violence. At the same time, I never want the violence to be familiar or fun. I don’t want to refrain from showing the cost of what those acts entail, both emotionally and physically. That has always the goal with our show. We never wanted to be glib about it.”

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This aspect of who Castle really is, and whether he represents either side of any kind of real-world debate about guns, gun violence or anything of the sort, is made clear when Bernthal digs into what makes his character tick.

“I think the monsters start to come in the quiet. Or when you have nothing to fight for and no direction. Peace can sometimes be the scariest place for a lot of folks,” he explains. “That’s what this season is about for Frank. He keeps getting drawn into this fight. He’s still grappling with the idea of who the real Frank Castle is. Asking himself if there’s any peace. There’s this military slang term that applies to Frank. He’s a ‘shit magnet.’ Everybody he gets close to gets hurt. So he has to deal with the fact that when he’s not on a mission, when he’s not going after the worst of the worst, innocent people start to die.”

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So yes, The Punisher is in many ways a show that cannot exist without violence, especially gun violence. Yet this doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily glorifying such atrocities. As Lightfoot was quick to note, he and his writers never shy away from shining a light on the many consequences of Frank’s actions. They were never meant to be glorified and neither was Castle. Bernthal even goes out of his way to avoid being put on a pedestal.

When asked about being a role model to military veterans, he exclaims, “Oh shit, I ain’t no role model. They’re a role model to me! That’s super humbling and I appreciate it, but I don’t feel that way at all about myself or this character. I’m just the monkey who puts on makeup and says lines for a living.”

The Punisher season 2 is expected to hit Netflix in January 2019.