Daredevil 2: Social Justice Punisher.

In my excitement I have started this essay four times. This is the fifth. I am not certain I can do the character of the Punisher justice with my analysis. I am too giddy for reasoned observations—too enraptured with Jon Bernthal’s performance. I have a soft spot for “hard” men like the Punisher—tough men who have had almost everything ripped from them but would gladly give the little they have left for family. For retribution. For some semblance of justice.

The PunisherPunisher is not alone in fitting this description. Marvel possesses other bruisers and brawlers such as Luke Cage and Wolverine (both characters I have long adored). And Frank Castle is certainly not the only character to suffer a great loss. So what makes Punisher the perfect foil and counterpart to Daredevil? What sets him apart from his peers? Why is he uniquely qualified to be a part of the upcoming Defenders team and perhaps lead his own show? It is simple. Frank Castle is white.

(I do not care how many issues of Origin Marvel produces. Wolverine is indigenous and I will continue to argue with anyone who says otherwise! But that is a matter for another time.)

That said? Marvel certainly does not want for white men. They are everywhere—from square-jawed patriots to cerebral playboys—saving the world from certain destruction as the rest of society watches in awe. For decades we have been provided with project after project of white men displaying feats of superhuman strength and uncanny intellectual prowess while women and people of color are there to provide assistance, but are rarely allowed to have their stories and desires take point.

A few years ago, David Brothers penned an excellent series on the trinity of black male representation in comics: the fantasy, the reality, and the ideal. I followed up later with one on black female characters. I believe this trinity extends to other groups, its balance wholly dependent on the group’s status in society. For white men, we have been presented overwhelmingly with an ideal not rooted in reality. Moreover, we have been presented with an ideal that is erroneously reinforced as reality via its ubiquitousness while the power fantasies of others are sublimated in response. Trinities work best when they are balanced. When they are not—as is the case with our entertainment industry’s depictions of white men—this is damaging not only to those who do not get to see themselves as heroes, but also to those who are told that they must always be heroes—that they are incapable of failing. In reality, perfection is unattainable. Perfection is Godly. The best of us are those who rise once more after they falter. For every Black Panther there must be a Luke Cage. And for every Superman there must be a Punisher.

“You must be something when you’re not wearing the long johns, right?”Frank Castle

In America, a man will never suffer the vicious inequities of institutionalized racism if he is white, but—as Frank Castle’s tale illustrates—whiteness does not prevent one’s life from going to complete shit. The existence of the Punisher is a novel acknowledgement of the suffering of a particular subset of white men, which is why I believe his popularity has undergone a rabid resurgence. The Frank we are shown in season two of Daredevil is not only very different from your average Marvel hero, but initially parallels the lives of so many working-class white men in Northeastern and Midwestern districts who are disillusioned with the American Dream. Both Frank Castle and Matt Murdock come from the same lower-middle-class white ethnic urban background. Matt is Irish American. Frank’s ethnicity is not given, but context clues place him as Italian American. What is so wonderful about the inclusion of Punisher as a foil to Daredevil—and that pivotal scene where Matt questions Frank about his upbringing—is that we can deduce the exact moment where the lives of Matt and Frank diverged.

Matt received an influx of cash and went to college. Frank went to war. Matt studied concepts of liberty and justice in classrooms where his worldview was questioned by multicultural multitudes. Frank was told what liberty and justice were by a lone man richer and whiter than he was. And was then ordered to kill for it. He made a living out of killing. Matt, foregoing the footsteps of his father, made his living with ideas. With words.

“You know you’re one bad day away from being me.”Frank Castle

Frank isn’t as wealthy as Tony, as smart as Peter, as worldly as Matt, as powerful as Bruce—but he was able to build a life for his family with this country’s help, just like any other white man a couple of generations deep into the GI Bill. Like so many others who went to the plants and the police stations, Frank buttoned that blue collar, albeit a camouflaged one, and went to work.

And then it all went to shit. And Frank went to pieces. But white men in America are not allowed to be broken. After all, we have been told time and time again that white men are the ideal. So broken pieces must be swept under the rug to keep said illusion in place. Frank suffered. Alone. With nothing more than the shattered remains of his home and his gun. The White Reality is that men who are not allowed to acknowledge their pain, who are not allowed to give voice to the truth that their American Dream has become a nightmare, lash out. Frank is bottled sorrow. Frank is unchecked anger.

Punisher is death.

Frank Castle’s reintroduction to the public could not be more perfectly timed or placed. The character is rooted in revenge, a ‘70s film sub genre made popular by Death Wish—making his gunplay the perfect bridge connecting Daredevil’s martial artistry and Luke Cage’s Blaxploitation exploits. His violent rampages are also therapeutic for white men who are similarly awash in a groundswell of anger. But unlike the vehement displays manifest in hate crimes (and occasionally political rallies), the Punisher’s actions are as subversive as they are frighteningly cathartic. And that subversion comes from the fact that Frank Castle does not blame his woes on some random invented outgroup that happens to be browner than he is, but on the actual individuals responsible for his suffering. Men he thought were his brothers. And in delivering his own personal brand of punishment to them he finds the first member of his new family along the way—Matt Murdock.

“I think I’m done.”Frank Castle

The Punisher 2The Punisher’s introduction via Daredevil is vital because Matt gives Frank space to commit another subversive act for men: the act of grieving openly and passionately. And only Matt can do that because he represents home—a completion of the circle—in a way that no other character in the Marvel universe can. Matt Murdock, Daredevil, is just another boy from the neighborhood. As close as you can get to family without sharing blood or spilling it.

Next up: What I’d like to see in a Punisher series, why Misty Knight should be Frank Castle’s platonic ride-or-die (and vice versa), and why the two characters are the perfect bridge connecting Matt Murdock and Luke Cage.


Daredevil 2: Elektra Boogaloo.

The second season of Daredevil provides two separate tales binding together to make for an even stronger whole. I enjoyed it—thoroughly—though it is plagued by themes that one would call problematic.

ElektraDamned if you do; damned if you don’t. I was delighted by the casting of Elodie Yung as Elektra. To finally have a woman of Asian descent take the female lead in a story that leans heavily on Asian martial arts and East Asian myths allowed Marvel to make a bold statement: it would not be following Hollywood’s insulting lead in erasing Asian people from their stories.

To be honest, I was deeply concerned that Marvel would do just that. (The casting of Finn Jones as Iron Fist does not do much to assuage those concerns.) I was afraid that Marvel would cast a white actress as the originally Greek Elektra Natchios—that a white woman would be the face of Asian martial arts in the Marvel universe, to be surrounded by a slew of nameless Asian lackeys that would be quickly mowed down by Daredevil’s superior skill. I was fearful that we would see white men and women bringing justice to the overwhelmingly Asian American areas of New York via their mastery of Judo, Karate, and Muay Thai. I was afraid that all the heroes would be white, all the villains would be Asian, and all of the cultural elements cribbed by Marvel would be Asian as well. I was afraid that Asian people would be reduced to set pieces in white fantasies of Asian myths.

To be fair, we were provided with an ample sampling of the above. Daredevil’s depictions of the Hand and the Chaste—two mythical warring factions originating in Central Asia according to Marvel lore—were frustratingly unbalanced. The protagonists were a multicultural band of men; the antagonists were Japanese. In fact, if not for Elodie’s Elektra, none of the protagonists in a story about good versus evil—one spiraling out of ancient Asian cultures—would be Asian. That? Is both insulting and absurd.

To reiterate, damned if you do; damned if you don’t. What if Marvel had decided to cast an elderly Asian American actor as Stick, leader of the Chaste? While it would have been comforting to have a second person of Asian descent on the side of “good”—that choice would have certainly opened Marvel up to criticism. Is inclusion worth it when the role is that of an elderly “mystic Asian” who teaches the white hero to be all he can be?

Indeed the change of Elektra from white to Asian adds uncomfortable elements to the love triangle established in the second season that would not exist were all the actors of the same race. But instead we have a woman of color in the position of a succubus, tightly wrapped in red and black, dragging Matt Murdock further from his lofty position in the Western world. A woman who we are told inherently possesses a darkness within her. A woman who in every scene is set as a counterpart to the plucky—and white—Karen Page. A Karen Page who is draped in ivory and blue. A Karen Page who tries her hardest to bring both Matt Murdock and Frank Castle back from the brink. Back to her world. Back to a New York City where people of color exist on the fringes as civil servants, villains, and victims—but never heroes.

“Immigrant Africans, Caribbeans, and African Americans make up 25.1% of New York City’s population.”

“Asian Americans make up 11.8% of New York City’s population.”

“Hispanics and Latinos make up 27.5% of New York City’s population.”

A lot is riding on Luke Cage and Iron Fist.

The Marvel universe is split neatly into different factions, a clear (and wise) attempt by Marvel to appeal to fans of other genres while remaining safely nestled in the superhero realm. The Avengers and Spider-Man provide consumers with standard superhero fare; mutants, cosmic characters, and space explorers such as the Fantastic Four lean heavily on science fiction. Blade and Doctor Strange allow Marvel to explore horror and fantasy; street-level characters allow Marvel to explore neo-Blaxplotation, martial arts, and noir.

It is the latter that concerns me. And it is the latter that I see heading down a narrow-minded, well-worn path. And that path contains omnipresent white male heroes, a less competent man of color providing support, and a scrappy but beautiful white woman with a well-timed kick or pithy comment to show that “ladies rock too.”

Dear God, am I tired of that. But it seems to please Hollywood considerably and I have the option not to watch. I’ve been exercising that option a great deal lately. I don’t have to settle in for another Avengers movie. Or Ant-Man. Or Fantastic Four. Make a million movies in that vein and I won’t be troubled in the slightest (or found in the theater).

Daredevil and NobuBut Netflix’s slate of Marvel shows is different. Why? Because the shows are set in New York City. Because the comic books that the shows pull from are overwhelmingly influenced by African American films and television shows, Chinese action flicks, Japanese manga, and African American and Chinese American ethnic enclaves. To reduce black and Asian characters to sidekicks in these stories, to roll out with a Defenders team that includes one lone black man as the only person of color? Is decidedly racist. A New York City where the stories of people of color are subordinate to the stories of white people is a lie and a travesty. I want the truth of equality. I was born there. I know New York City’s reality. My family is a part of it. My friends are a part of it. And a large percentage of them are not white.

A chunk of them are however! So, once more, what I what is equality. Marvel has done a fabulous job weaving a thread of the story of the Irish in New York City into Matt Murdock’s tale. I am crossing my fingers that they do the same with Frank Castle’s Italian American background. (Don’t let the last name fool you. If you think for one moment that the Punisher isn’t Italian I’ve got a bridge to sell you.) But I would have much preferred a series featuring Angela Del Toro to one featuring Jessica Jones. And I am disappointed that a biracial actor was not chosen to play Iron Fist. Moreover, Luke Cage’s introduction in Jessica Jones has me skittish in regards to how African American culture in New York City will be showcased.

As I’ve said, a lot is riding on Luke Cage and Iron Fist. And we’ll discuss that a bit later.