So let me be honest: Long before gay people were ever cast as heroes, we were cast as villains. The Punisher continues this obscene tradition by making John Travolta’s No. 1 henchman a closeted homosexual. Shades of Admiral Cain flitted through my mind as I watched the film and my palms now have four evenly spaced, red, infected half-moon wounds in them. I really need a manicure. And anger management therapy.
If we see gay people in genre fiction, we normally encounter lesbians. They’re normally fairly attractive and equally evil (or at least less moral than their straight counterparts–Admiral Cain, Lt. Gaeta for all of you BSG fans.) Seldom do we see gay men. It’s a shame that the writers of The Punisher elected to depict an overtly gay character as a sadist. It’s equally deplorable that they elected to use physical comedy to mock male-on-male relationships (as when the two neighbors fell through the door and are seen laying in a pile suggesting intercourse.)
But then The Punisher is awash in heterocentric symbolism as it stands. The message is clear: As long as you are avenging your straight love, your straight institution (the extended and nuclear family–you know, the people that disown you when you come out) then it’s OK to take the law into your own hands and murder dozens. You won’t be caught–you won’t be called to answer for your own misdeeds–because you’re straight and you’re doing right by straight norms. We have got to protect the family.
But all of this serves a purpose, oddly. There’s a depth here that mere outrage overlooks. This film is about transformation, about the alchemy of loss, revenge, and redemption. It’s a Jungian wet dream with a body count (though nowhere near enough blood to be convincing.)
We think we can shield our loved ones from harm but, as Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor liked to say, “Everything has its time and everything dies.” Death stalks us, awaits us, will claim us all in the end. Your gun, your martial arts training, your low fat diet rich in omega 3s, your burglar alarms and smoke detectors–meaningless. They may buy you a moment more (or not) but in the end we’re all worm fodder. One supernova within 10 parsecs and the human race faces a genuine extinction event that we can’t do a damned thing about. A large asteroid, a mega volcano, a sudden shift in the ecosystem and the curtain falls on the human race.
When Frank Castle is finished avenging the deaths of his loved ones, he is left with the realization that there’s nothing left to live for. He shoves a gun under his chin and he has a vision of his wife. She renews his hope and he doesn’t pull the trigger. But in the end, he’s left changed. His old life is gone. Frank Castle is gone. The Punisher remains.
The goal of the alchemist was to start with lead (the metal of Saturn, so symbolic of death) and end up with gold (the metal of the Sun, so the token of life.) The transformation here happens in reverse. The illusory gold of life is stripped away through violence to leave lead, the agent of death, the alkahest of our existence.
It’s a truth I prefer. But I’m weird like that.