Review: The Punisher

A chamber in a dark castle in the mountains of northern Latveria. Around a stone table, mid-level executives sit, nervously fingering silver goblets filled with virgin blood. Torches flame and splutter on the walls.

 

At length, a tall and shadowy figure rises at the head of the table. Above his head, inscribed in letters of fire, the word “Marvel” floats in the empty air.

 

“Thank you for coming, gentlemen,” he says in a voice that sounds like the lid of a coffin creaking open. “We have a problem. We are losing the fight to DC. Our talent is fleeing, our readership is declining. The days are growing dark!”

 

The bravest of the mid-level executives stands up. “Not so, my dark lord. We still have the MCU. Age of Ultron grossed more than a billion dollars even though it had 37 central characters and no discernable plot.”

 

“Be not deceived,” the dark figure intones. “Batman v Superman grossed nearly as much even though absolutely nobody wanted to see it. Zack Snyder has cornered the market on dark, soulless superhero noir. He even managed to drum up $800 million for Wonder Woman!” He speaks the last words as if they burn like eternal flame in his mouth.

 

“We could release a Black Widow movie. Lots of people want that. Or how about Rogue? I have writers among my minions who could produce a salable script inside of a week.”

 

“No no! Our fans do not want lady movies! I know it in my bones. I feel it in the air and in the earth. It is with men, and the killing of the occasional female, that our destiny lies.”

 

“Perhaps Stan Lee can help us,” pipes up a voice from the far end of the table.

 

“No! He must not be awakened! The sarcophagus must remain closed for another two cycles! We must solve these problems among ourselves.”

 

“Sir, I have it,” says the chief of the mid-level execs. “We can make a Punisher series for Netflix. It has everything: darkness, violence, man pain, all the things our viewers want.”

 

“Yes…yes! That could be just the thing,” the dark figure muses. “Everyone loved him the second season of Daredevil, even more than the swarms of ninjas. But it will need to be epic. Man pain of this magnitude cannot be communicated briefly.”

 

“The number of the episodes shall be 13, in conformity with your will,” opines the lead exec.

 

“But wait,” pipes up the voice from the end of the table once more. “Aren’t we committed to doing another series of Jessica Jones next?”

 

“Speak not to me of Jessica Jones and her lady problems,” thunders the dark figure. “They shall be swept away in a hail of man fire and a wave of man blood! So I have spoken, so let it be done!”

 

And with that, the dark scene fades away.

 

the-punisher-season-1This is very much how I imagined the origins of the Punisher stand-alone series when I first saw the trailers for it a couple of months ago. As a character, the Punisher is a product of the anti-crime hysteria that arose with the end of the postwar boom in the early 1970s. It should come as no surprise that the first of the Death Wish movies was released in the same year, or that Travis Bickle made his debut shortly afterward. The economic downturn in the leading economies of the industrialized world and the perceived decline in American power dealt severe shocks to the national psyche, and whatever bitterness was not directed at the Soviet Union, its proxies in Southeast Asia, or (after the oil shock of 1973) the Middle East, filtered down to the purported wave of criminality on American streets and in American neighborhoods.

 

Frank Castle, like Paul Kersey (played with homicidal intensity by Charles Bronson in five iterations of the Death Wish franchise from 1974 to 1994), had lost his family to the unrestrained greed and brutality of the criminal element. Unlike Paul Kersey, and this was the unique element that the Punisher added to the genre, Frank Castle was a former Marine Corps sniper who turned skills learned in the military toward the goal of exacting vengeance on the mafia (which was directly responsible for his family’s death) as well as on criminals in general.

 

There is an interesting generational difference between Frank Castle and Paul Kersey. The latter is a middle-aged architect, probably old enough to have served in Korea and only haltingly prepared to turn to homicidal violence as a means to address society’s problems. Castle, as did so many young men in the early 1970s, had cut his fighting teeth in Vietnam and returned to the United States fresh memories of mayhem and the skills to undertake it. Straight up vigilantism, in which the targets were to be killed rather than simply trussed up and handed over to the proper authorities, was a novelty for American comics. Although originally meant as a sort of secondary character, Castle was popular with readers. It will come as no surprise (to anyone who doesn’t know it already) that the Punisher came to real prominence as a character in a run of Daredevil done in the early 1980s by Frank Miller, he of dark inclinations and moderate neo-fascist politics.

 

In that series, and in several others right up to the present day, the Punisher has been presented as a sort of other side of the coin in terms of strategies for dealing with evildoers. This has most often been the case with Daredevil, as Matt Murdock’s (often somewhat paradoxical) commitment to the validity of the system of criminal justice, as well as broader moral codes precluding the taking of human lives when not immediately necessary, contrasts starkly with Frank Castle’s “when I put ‘em down they don’t get up” ethic.

 

There is little in the way of surprise that Marvel decided that the Punisher would be a good subject for a stand-alone series in its collaboration with Netflix. His appearance in the second season of Daredevil was the best thing that show had going for it, especially since the second half of the series was devoted to the slaying of hordes of (already dead) ninjas and the pursuit of a gigantic hole of (at that point) indeterminate significance. Just as an aside, the question that I had after watching Daredevil Season 2 was: suppose you’ve got 200 zombie ninjas to get from place to place in New York City. How in the hell do you do it? It’s not like you can just all get on the subway. Does The Hand own its own limo service? Now that I think about it I’m sure they do, but are you going to roll up the stretch Humvee with the dancing pole in it to get your ninjas from place to place? Maybe you would. My experience with zombie ninjas is relatively limited.

 

In any case, Frank Castle really did add something to Daredevil. My most comics-aware friend and I argued for days about the difference in approach between Frank Castle and Matt Murdock. Her view, and given the otherwise moderate nature of her character, was that Murdock was being hypocritical since he had no real way of being sure that the extremely rough treatment that he was dealing out to be guys was, in practice, not going to be lethal to them. In any case, she argued, Frank Castle is dealing with some very, very bad people, so it’s probably all for the best that he kills them. Also, and with this part of her argument I had rather more sympathy, Frank is altogether honest, whereas Murdock’s dishonesty with people (particularly Foggy Nelson and Karen Page) was likely to put them at even greater risk than simply telling them the truth.

 

Much as I love Daredevil, and people who know me will know that my interest in that particular character is just this side of obsession, I had to admit that she was right. Of course, I still think that there is a non-trivial difference between the possibility that one might kill or permanently disfigure one’s opponent and seeking to kill them as the first tactic out of the box. On the other hand, it really did no good not telling Foggy and Karen about his avocation, since they were in danger either way, and knowing the actual situation might have allowed them to make an informed choice about whether or not they were cool with that. One thing you’ve got to admit about Frank Castle, when he says something you can be pretty certain that it reflects the state of the world as he knows it.

 

[Before going further I should now point out that there are spoilerish things in what follows. If you intend to watch the series (and strongly suggest that you do) you might want to put off reading this until you’ve done so. Unless you don’t care. Then just plow ahead.]

 

The first five episodes of Punisher were pretty much exactly as I feared. They were slow, overwrought, and featured so many flashbacks to Frank’s dead family that I came to feel that I’d rather that he put me out of my misery than have to watch even one more. You might think that, given the spasm of catastrophic violence with which Frank blazed out of Daredevil Season 2, the list of names on his list of those-upon-whom-vengeance-must-be-taken might be relatively small. But you would be wrong. Much time and effort are expended in episodes 1 through 4 or so establishing that the conspiracy that led to the killing of (the vast majority of) the Castle family was rather more extensive the previously supposed.

 

Ripping their plot from the headlines (or at least of the headlines from a few years ago), it turns out that the whole thing related to a secret CIA running assassination program in Afghanistan. Indeed, one of the most excruciating episodes in the whole series explores a great depth the kind of program that anyone with a lick of sense assumes is going on there all the time. Frank’s foil, as he sets out on the project of ejecting those responsible for his family’s death from this mortal coil is a neurotic former intelligence analyst who, having discovered the operation, was forced to fake his own death and now spends half of his time plotting his revenge from a computer lined bunker and the other half voyeuristically checkout out his family on the spy cameras he installed in their home. I suspect that this was meant to demonstrate the intensity of his concern for his family but invariably came off as creepy and controlling instead.

 

Pursuing the case in parallel fashion is DHS operator Dinah Madani (played by Amber Rose Revah whose previous work include the character of Mary Magdalene in The Bible), who both my friend and I found rather irritating in the first few episodes. This has a lot to do with the fact that the writers have her engage in a romantic fling with another character (Billy Russo) who might as well have “Main Perpetrator” tattooed across his forehead. They seemed very much to be setting up the all too frequently seen “woman gets played” trope. This turns out not to be the case, or at least to the extent that it does, it sets up a massive turning of the tables which adds a very interesting dimension to the plot. In too many thrillers to count, the bad guys are the sort of infallible supermen, only brought to heel in the end by the countervailing superhuman efforts of the hero (usually male and bleeding profusely). But Madani’s turning of the tables on Russo, while not quite succeeding in the way, or to the degree that she intended, still shows that he is fallible and this makes the plot significantly more interesting, and more palatable.

 

Karen Page also makes a few turns in this series, and to very good effect. I must admit to being a bit skeptical of Deborah Ann Woll. Her extensive run in True Blood didn’t give one much to go on in terms of what might be expected of her as a dramatic actress. But she was quite good in both series of Daredevil, especially the second one in which her experience of having straight up plugged a guy with his own gun in Season 1 gives her a basis on which to relate to Frank Castle. My friend, who managed to get through the whole of the series a few days before I did, swore up and down that the relationship between Frank and Karen Page, which is not quite romantic but not simply friendly either, made a lot of sense. I told her I thought she was nuts but (as usual) she turned out to be right. Frank and Karen’s relationship works because he is always and unfailingly honest with her. Unlike Murdock, who simply couldn’t understand that Karen’s need for honesty trumped all the other stuff, Frank only speaks truth to her. She knows it and respects it. Also, unlike Matt, who wants to argue the ins and outs of the superhero code, Karen really just wants to ask Frank where it will all end, once he goes ahead and does what he says he’s going to do.

 

TheDefenders-s01e03-1As an aside, and unrelated to any other serious topic, I ship Messica (i.e. the relationship between Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones). I know with certainty that this will never happen. Canon calls for Jessica Jones to be with Luke Cage, and that’s fine, although I have a little trouble believing that the fact of Jessica’s having killed Luke’s wife wouldn’t present problems, Killgrave mind control or no. The writers of The Defenders did a really nice little vignette with Matt and Jessica that highlighted how well their personalities work together. They’re both damaged by things that happened to them in childhood, and both have a sort of challenging relationship to the truth. Jessica would probably be better for Matt because she doesn’t need to hear the full story about every last thing. Also, she’s pretty indestructible and very much able to take care of herself, so being with Matt wouldn’t engage his (very irritating) savior complex. Perhaps most importantly, Jessica is willing to talk to Matt in a way that he takes seriously and that would keep him in line. One of my very favorite scenes in any of these Marvel/Netflix productions is the one in which Matt Murdock tries stop Jessica Jones (who he’s only just met) from doing something dangerous to which she responds, “If you grab me like that again, I’ll punch you so hard, you’ll see.” It was a message that Matt needed to get, delivered in such a way that he got it.

 

Much as I started out to write an unstintingly negative review, I actually found Punisher at least reasonably enjoyable in the end. There is no magical Kunlun bullshit, and Finn Jones is nowhere in sight (although it would have been nice to see Frank bust a cap in him, but anyway…). There is also a refreshing absence of ninjas, and (unlike in the case of Daredevil) there isn’t any attempt to force the characters into relationships that don’t make sense. It does contain one of the most gratuitous and amateurish sex scenes I’ve ever witnessed (you’ll know it when you see it). It is graphically and catastrophically violent, but anyone spinning up Punisher in the first place should be prepared for some grisly images. To its credit, Punisher manages to integrate some story elements that, if they don’t quite disrupt the expected order of things, at least make it more bearable than thirteen unreflective hours of splattered brains, spurting veins, and man pain would have been. Having said that, I do also want to point out that there are a lot of things that I would have preferred to see. These include a Daredevil series without significant ninja intervention, a Jessica Jones series that focuses on her work as a P.I. and doesn’t involve Killgrave, and an Iron Fist series in which Danny Rand falls into a jet intake in the first five minutes and everyone moves on with their lives.

 

I recognize that you can’t always get what you want. And the fact of the matter is that the whole Marvel/Netflix thing is likely not long for this world, since Disney bought Marvel and is planning to offer its own streaming service in 2019 (or so rumor has it). But for the time that they have left together, and for anyone else planning on doing superhero miniseries, it is really worth thinking hard about whether whatever project you’ve got going can actually support the number of episodes you have planned. Punisher was ok, but all the stuff that went on in episodes 1-5 could have been much condensed without serious loss. Jessica Jones had a lot of dead space, Daredevil Season 1 had interminable scenes of bad guys sitting around talking about doing bad things, and Season 2 was going pretty good with the Matt/Frank interplay until it jumped the shark and boarded the express train for Ninja-ville. Defenders was, oddly enough, somewhat too short, although it seemed to drag on at the end due to a surfeit of (you guessed it) ninjas. Perhaps the larger lesson here how you do what you do is at least as important as what you’re doing to begin with.

 

John from the East Side

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