The Punisher and Killmonger

How to – and not to – discuss politics through fiction

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A few days ago I started bingewatching The Punisher on Netflix and I was immediately hooked, the action is good, the acting is good, nothing wrong with it.

Then I got to episode 10 and felt the familiar punch in the stomach that occurs when the writers of a good series go “eh whatever” and write an episode that doesn’t match the quality of the rest of the series.

Usually it isn’t a big deal, I simply shake my head and move on to the next episode, but this one left me particularly upset. Episode 10 wasn’t easily forgettable for me because it heavily involves politics, particularly gun control and it doesn’t deal with that topic very well.

In fact the show seems to support the usual rethoric: guns = safety, anti-guns politicians = corruption. Since we have now officially entered the era of the “fake news” I ended up wandering “Is this show going to feed me NRA propaganda for the rest of the season?”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m neither by the anti-gun side nor by the pro-gun side, I’m not an “active” part of the debate (I don’t march in protest, nor I go buy guns); I simply don’t like o be tricked into watching propaganda masked as entertainment.

That’s why I decided to don’t watch the following episode and choose another series. But then it came back in my mind “Maybe I’m being too arsh” I thought, “after all it’s hard to use fiction to talk about sensitive political arguments. It doesn’t always have to intentional propaganda”.

So I decided to campare it to another Marvel superhero movie that also heavily features political discussion: Black Panther, to see if there is any difference. Here’s what I realized: both the shows approach politics in a similar way (one neutral character in the center, one “villain” character makes his point, one “ally” character makes his point and the ending shows the solution to the problem).

These are different medias (a series and a movie) with two very different heroes, and deal with different political matters. But they can still be compared since The Punisher’s missteps are simple storytelling mistakes.

These are the 3 major problems:

1. Make the audience care

It’s a simple rule in storytelling: the character that carries the message is as important as the message itself. If and audience doesn’t care about a character it won’t even listen to his opinion.

In Black Panther all characters involved in the argument share a good amount of screen time (T’Challa’s father doesn’t phisically appear much, but the characters often talk about him), this way we can get to know them and understand their reasons.

  • T’Chaka: as a king he is afraid that exposing Wakanda to the world would make it vulnerable to their enemies who will come after the vibranium. In his defense, this fear is not unjustified, he’s afraid that Wakanda is going to end up like many other african countries that were exploitated for their resources.
  • T’Challa: he has just ben crowned king, he lost his father tragically and has been traumatized by this [insert Simba joke here]. He sets his mind in following his father’s footsteps, thinking that this will make him become a good king like him. It’s easy to see ourself in him, he wants to do good so he follows the example of the man he admired most. But meeting killmonger changes everything: he’ll have to reconsider his beliefs and leave his father’s shadow to become his own man. By the end of the movie he has changed and grown.
  • Killmonger: he has been deeply traumatized by his father’s death, and in Wakanda he manages to get his revenge. He throws the king off a cliff [insert Scar joke here] and takes his throne. It seems like a success story, untill he loses our sympathy when he lets his anger take over: he decides to use Wakanda’s tecnology to build weapons and start a war. We can empathyze with him and even share some of his beliefs, since he genuinely wants to help the ones who are victims of systemic discrimination. But his rage drives him to make the wrong choices and turn him into a dictator who uses Wakanda’s resources for selfish reasons.

Karen Frank Ori

The Punisher follows the same patterns, but here the rule is broken to make clear which character the audience is supposed to sympathize with.

  • Karen is a character that the fans of The Punisher know well (and the fans of Daredevil know her even better), she has already appeared in a few episodes and she’s pretty close with the hero of the story (some even speculate that she’s a possible love interest). Her point is simple and perfectly valid, she explains that people don’t buy guns with the worst intentions, but rather to be able to protect themselves.
  • Frank as the Punisher obviously is our hero. He goes where the system can’t go, puts his life on the line for what he believes is right, and by doing so he earns Karen’s admiration and ours. He uses guns [obviously, they don’t call him the Punisher because he defeats his enemies by hugging them], but he doesn’t seem to have much to say about the gun control topic, so he stays neutral from the beginning to the end.
  • Senator Ori is (as Karen describes him in the first few minutes of the episode) “a craven political animal who would say anything to improve his Q-rating” [ouch!], or as she says not long after “a man who in 1 hour will be downstairs with a bunch of liberals who paid 10000 dollars a plate to support his campaign”. And if you still don’t get that this guy is a bad bad politician, he also lies when interrogated by the police to appear more brave. He expresses his idea with valid arguments, but all those valid arguments are made of short insipid sentences that get undercut by Karen’s long emotional lines [by the way, never seen a politician use short sentences and trying to sound as emotionally detatched as possible]. Also we (the audience) don’t know much about him, unlike Killmonger he doesn’t give us a reason to empathyze with him and listen, instead he gives us all the reasons to hate him and ignore his words.

2. Give a good practical example

Ulysses Klaue Wilson

  • Ulysses Klaue in Black panther is the personification of greed, he wants the vibranium and he wants to expose Wakanda to the world, no matter the cost. He is exactly what T’Chaka fears, an enemy who wants to use his nation’s resources and put his people in danger.
  • Wilson, a mentally ill veteran seems to be the perfect fit for a shooter, and he could very well rapresent the violence that Ori wants to prevent. Buuuut he’s not a shooter! He uses guns to get into the hotel and take down the security, he uses his military skills as well, appearing focused and calm, perfectly in control of himself. As soon as things go wrong though, he drops the gun (from this point on he’s never showed holding a gun again), takes Karen as a hostage, starts panicking and screaming showing everyone the bomb strapped to his chest.

He’re an interesting question: why a bomb? The bomb doesn’t even seem to fit with the other elements of the narrative. Also, his actions would have been exactly the same with a gun:

  • try to kill the senator but fail
  • thake Karen as a hostage so that the police wouldn’t shoot him
  • kill himself at the end

3. Give the audience a resolution to the problem

At the end of Black panther T’Challa decides to neither reject nor embrace one of the ideas: he uses some of Wakanda’s wealth and resources to help the ones in need but he doesn’t put his nation at risk by revealing all its secrets. He has listened and understood both sides, and made a decision.

On the other hand, The Punisher’s episode seems to forget about gun control halfway through, and reminds us about it at the last second: in the first minutes Karen and Ori debate extensively about gun control, the whole debate is paused to give space to the action and Frank and Russo’s storyline, then the subject of guns is brougth up again at the climax when Karen saves the day by shooting her abducter [See?! What would have happened if she didn’t have a gun?!]. At the end, as I said before, Frank stays neutral, but Ori’s wise words make us understand the message: “I’ve never even held a gun before today. Seeing this violence, being part of it makes you reaccess…”. [Oh yeah, forget about everything I said, I was wrong]

While writing this I kept thinking “maybe I am exagerating, after all the show didn’t get too much heat because of this”. But still, the doubt stays in my mind: was it an intentional use of this show as propaganda or just a slip from the writing team?

Putting those questions aside, the only thing I know for sure, is that when I decided to give the show another chance and watched episode 11, that opening full of guns and rifles firing bullets in slow motion had a whole new meaning for me.

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