IVP - Strangely Dim - Punisher 1, Spider-Man 2

July 9, 2004

Punisher 1, Spider-Man 2

By David A. Zimmerman

Spider-Man and the Punisher could not be more different. They actually regard each other as part of their city's problem: to Spider-Man, the Punisher's violent vigilantism aggravates an already violent citywide crime culture; the Punisher sees Spider-Man as a weak-willed gadfly on the tail of a beast that needs to be led to slaughter. Regular readers know that when these two meet, they will not likely be glad to see each other.

To those unfamiliar with these characters, however--both innocent bystanders in the comic book storylines and the nonreaders visiting theaters this summer--Spider-Man and the Punisher are two of a kind: big strong tough guys who like to wear tights and take out the bad guys. Without the context of each other, either hero defines the other. That's unfortunate, since each has a radically different vision for what an ideal world would look like, and each has a distinct method toward bringing about that vision. Their goals and their tactics are irreconcilable, to the point that when Spider-Man and the Punisher meet, they inevitably fight.

Spider-Man, you might say, plays defense. His goal is something approaching shalom, the Old Testament concept of peace and well-being that ought to characterize a redemptive community. He doesn't kill criminals; he wraps them up and delivers them to the local authorities. He intervenes when someone needs help and whisks away when his help is no longer needed. He is a hero only insofar as his community needs a hero; the rest of the time he is just Peter Parker--himself.

The Punisher, by contrast, is motivated by revenge first and justice second, and his sense of justice has been tainted by his lust for revenge. In a sense, who could blame him? He was widowed in an act of criminal violence, and only another victim can truly identify with how a person might process such an experience.

And yet, the community the Punisher is building by his ongoing actions is as foreboding as his skull-bearing costume. His task is the systematic dismantling of criminal networks, but every time he removes one source of power he creates a void that will undoubtedly be filled by more crime. He offers no positive agenda for his city--no way out of the forest of trouble that he's helped to plant, no way into a place of rest.

The Punisher, when we think about him, ought to trouble us. He has observed a true problem in the chronic crime facing his city, but his solution is clearly inadequate--if you think about it. He and we would benefit from reflecting on the ethics of power embraced by Spider-Man in the aftermath of his Uncle Ben's death: "With great power comes great responsibility." That one sentence has for forty years now effectively restrained Spider-Man from using his enormous power to wreak devastation, and has instead consistently directed him toward the redemption of his city. It is not surprising that Marvel Comics used Spider-Man to narrate the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Here our hero had been helpless to stop the devastation that took place, but he vowed to help in the restoration of his city's hope. Restoring hope--not punishing or pursuing revenge--is the type of work that ought to characterize our heroes, that ought to characterize us.

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This Strangely Dim is adapted with permission from "A Tale of Two Vigilantes," which originally ran on the website Busted Halo.

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Posted by Dave Zimmerman at July 9, 2004 9:28 AM Bookmark and Share

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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