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Daredevil – Dogs to a Gunfight (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

Dogs to a Gunfight is the only episode of Daredevil to engage with the Punisher on a philosophical level, and it does so only fleetingly.

This is largely because the Punisher still exists as an abstract menace at this point in the narrative. The character stalked through Bang, but was largely remote. The Punisher gets a bit more to do in Dogs to a Gunfight, but is still largely unknowable to the audience. The name “Frank Castle” has yet to be uttered. Although his victims all fit a pattern that will be articulated in Penny and Dime, and expanded upon in The Man in the Box, those facts are concealed from the audience.

Coming up with these puns on a daily schedule promises to be a pun-ishing endeavour...

Coming up with these puns on a daily schedule promises to be a pun-ishing endeavour…

As such, deprived of characterisation or development, Dogs to a Gunfight can present the Punisher in his purest form. The Punisher is a man with a gun who kills bad people. That is a fairly potent vigilante motif, particularly in the current social and political climate. The Punisher is a very loaded concept, tied into broader questions about justice and violence in a way that is more relevant than undead ninja assassins or blind radar-guided superheroes. The Punisher is something very primal and very basic; but also something unsettling in the modern world.

Watching Dogs to a Gunfight, there is a sense that the Punisher might easily have provided a window into a broader cultural debate. Jessica Jones was able to use Kilgrave to jumpstart a clever and insightful discussion about gender issues, so it makes sense that Daredevil might be able to use the Punisher to spark a discussion about contemporary cultures of violence. Unfortunately, it seems like the show sees this discussion coming and runs very quickly.

"The Punisher's just a mad dog. I want whoever let him off the leash."

“The Punisher’s just a mad dog. I want whoever let him off the leash.”

The Punisher is a rather strange superhero. In fact, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about whether the character could actually be described as a superhero. He is really more a vigilante with a gun. In Dogs to a Gunfight, Officer Brett Mahoney explicitly evokes Death Wish while discussing the serial killer, and it certainly feels like an apt comparison. There are arguments to be made that the Punisher does not really fit within the context of the larger Marvel universe, more suited to his own gritty narratives of crime and retribution.

Certainly, this is a sentiment to which actor Thomas Jane subscribes. Garth Ennis is widely regarded as one of the most consistent writers to work on the character. Some of his work took place within shared Marvel continuity, under the Marvel Knights brand. However, a larger portion took place under the MAX brand, offering what many fans would consider to be the definitive portrayal of Frank Castle in a world far removed from characters like Spider-Man or Daredevil.

sign of the times...

sign of the times…

There are moments at which Dogs to a Gunfight seems to tease this idea of the Punisher as something that exists in his own bubble quite removed from spandex and armour. As writer Doug Petrie reflected in press before the launch of the show, the Punisher exists in an entirely different context from Daredevil himself:

“Viewers watching the show will be rooting for this guy with a gun but we’re also going to force people — the way we force Matt — to second-guess themselves,” Petrie says. “Taking lethal justice into your own hands in America in 2015 is tricky s–t. We have not shied away from the rich complicated reality of Now. If you’ve got a gun and you’re not the police you’re going to incite strong feelings. We’re stirring the pot and we’re aware of the headlines where we live and we’re trying to get people to think.”

Petrie has a point. While vigilante justice using radar senses and kung-fu taught by the cranky adherent of an ancient religion might have little relevance to contemporary society, the idea of angry individual taking up a gun in order to settle old scores is something that will resonate with contemporary audiences.

Protect and serve.

Protect and serve.

Mass shootings are an increasingly common issue within the United States. Reports suggest that there was more than one mass shooting per day in the United States for the year of 2015. Statistics for early 2016 suggest that mass shootings are still unnervingly frequent. Even with all of this going on, gun control remains a hotly-contested political issue in the United States. In this context, the imagery of a man tearing through a crowded hospital at the end of Bang is potent and powerful.

At the same time, even the application of what might be considered “righteous” violence is subject to increased scrutiny. The shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmermann sparked debates about the authority of civilian organisations like neighbourhood watches to police their own streets with lethal force. More than that, the public is becoming increasing skeptical about the application of lethal force by those how actually hold lawful authority; police departments find themselves under increased scrutiny in exercising lethal force.

"Oh, hey! These water towers are practical, too!"

“Oh, hey! These water towers are practical, too!”

This is a heavily political area. In many respects, it evokes the way that Jessica Jones used its characters to explore prickly areas like consent and assault. The Punisher should serve as lightning rod to debates on bigger issues that are more culturally relevant and engaging. Is the Punisher a folk hero or a psychopath? Is he a freak or the logical outcome of a culture in which guns are so readily available and righteous violence is so readily embraced? Does the Punisher taunt contemporary culture or does he reflect something back towards it?

Jessica Jones embraced these sorts of tough questions. Daredevil panics. In fact, the show retreats from these questions incredibly quickly. In Penny and Dime, the show begins investing in an incredibly (and pointlessly) convoluted mythology around the Punisher simply so that it won’t have to explore what the character actually represents and how he fits within the larger social context. The show adopts a ball-and-cup approach to the subject, making a point to keep the plot moving fast enough that there’s never time to focus on themes.

Cracked.

Cracked.

There is something rather disingenuous about this, particularly in the effort to narrow the character’s focus from a broad philosophical statement about violence to a much safer (and more conventional) revenge narrative. Even in Dogs to a Gunfight, before that revenge narrative has been articulated, there is a sense that Daredevil is hedging its bets in the portrayal of the Punisher. This is most obvious in the pawn shop scene, where the first criminal to be killed by the Punisher unrelated to the murder of his family peddles in child pornography. Let there be no ambiguity.

Because the show has yet to establish Frank Castle’s back story, there is some discussion about violence and retribution. However, that discussion is always and overtly tied to Daredevil. There is a sense that Dogs to a Gunfight is offering something of a disclaimer, as if nervous that viewers might take its philosophical statements at face value. By repeated reference to how the Punisher only makes sense in the context of a blind ninja in spandex, the show avoids getting drawn into any broad statements that could be read as social or political commentary.

Screaming bloody murder.

Screaming bloody murder.

For example, this happens when Brett is talking to Foggy and Karen at the station. “Some cops want him off the street, others think he’s making our jobs a whole lot easier,” Brett states. This suggests a much larger discussion about the Punisher than the show has actually suggested; Petrie and Ramirez are very consciously telling rather than showing, in an awkward manner. Nevertheless, it is a nice acknowledgement of the sort of response that one might expect from a crime spree like this. It ties the Punisher to debates about legal application of force.

However, the script immediately hedges its bets, but having Brett contextualise the Punisher as a response to Daredevil. “He’s not the first, just the latest,” Brett advises Foggy. “We call the ‘devil worshippers.’ Nutjobs inspired by the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.” Again, there is a sense that the script is telling rather than showing, dumping exposition in a clunky manner. Idea like this really deserve more space and development than they are afforded in Dogs to a Gunfight, even if the end argument is still “… because Daredevil.”

Reyes-ing hope.

Reyes-ing hope.

This bait-and-switch comes up again in the argument between Matt and Karen over the morality of what the Punisher does. Once again, Karen is very keen to tie the Punisher to Matt’s nocturnal activities, as if to suggest that the questions he raises can only really be discussed in that context. “Maybe we created him,” Karen reflects. “All of us.” That is a bold statement about the public’s culpability in a culture of violence. Unfortunately, she continues, “The moment that we let Daredevil, or the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen or whatever it is…”

Karen faintly alludes to this in her assessment of Frank’s place in the larger context of New York. “There is something about this city that makes good people want to shoot their way out of bad situations.” However, that remains the closest thing that the second season offers to political commentary on the character of Frank Castle and what exactly he represents. Castle is explicitly compared to Bernie Goetz in the teaser to Semper Fidelis, but the idea is never properly unpacked.

It's okay, Matt. It's not that bad.

It’s okay, Matt. It’s not that bad.

It feels like a wasted opportunity. More than that, it is bad storytelling. It seems like Bang and Dogs to a Gunfight cover too much ground too quickly. The Punisher is announcing himself to the world in Bang; he is attacking the gangs responsible for murdering his family. There is some suggestion that there have been other incidents, but these are relegated to more exposition. There is a never a sense of mounting threat or escalation. The Punisher goes from being a character who kills off-screen at the start of Bang to a public figure in Dogs to a Gunfight.

It seems strange that the District Attorney should be able to organise such a massive (and risky) sting operation so quickly. Of course, The Man in the Box will reveal that Reyes has her motivations. Similarly, Daredevil has never been too concerned with procedural realities. However, in terms of basic storytelling, it seems like the Punisher manifests himself upon New York too quickly. It took the city quite a while to respond to Daredevil in the first season, so the response in Condemned felt earned. (Although Daredevil wasn’t killing people.)

Holding court.

Holding court.

To be fair, part of this is down to the accelerated speed of the second season in general. According to actor Charlie Cox, this was a conscious decision on the part of the showrunners:

They flipped on its head the format of last season to this season. Last season, Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk didn’t even meet until episode nine. This year, Matt and Frank are meeting in the first episode. We hit the ground running and we gather momentum and speed from there and it just becomes more and more chaotic as the season progresses.

This certainly makes sense. The season’s biggest showdown between Matt Murdock and Frank Castle takes place in New York’s Finest, only the third episode of a thirteen-episode season.

"So... is it machine washable?"

“So… is it machine washable?”

This approach plays into the structuring of the season. Petrie and Ramirez very consciously build the season around an old-fashioned three-act structure. This structure requires the introduction and defeat of the Punisher within the first four episodes of the show, handed over to the authorities at the end of Penny and Dime. Given that the first season effective devoted thirteen episodes to the conflict between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, that means speeding things up considerably.

To be fair, it should be possible to tell a really good “Punisher and Daredevil” story in only four episodes. One of the biggest issues with Jessica Jones was the sense that eight (or ten) episodes worth of plot was spread across thirteen episodes. Breaking the second season of Daredevil into smaller chunks and covering ground efficiently is a very good idea. It is certainly one of the strongest structural ideas of the second season as a whole. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Masking his arrival.

Masking his arrival.

Instead of feeling distilled or refined, the conflict between the Punisher and Daredevil feels condensed and contracted. It seems like several character beats are missing, like there is not enough time to explore everything that needs to be explored. Instead of streamlining the character dynamics and arcs, Petrie and Ramirez attempt to do everything they possibly can within the space afforded. As a result, Matt loses his super-senses and regains them again over the course of forty minutes in the middle of Dogs to a Gunfight.

The second season is full of little hiccups like this, changes in character motivation and direction that come at strange intervals. For example, Dogs to a Gunfight suggests that Melvin Potter is increasingly wary of his mysterious client. He points out that Daredevil does not have a badge or any legal authority. It seems like a microcosm of a larger debate that the show ignores. However, when Melvin reappears in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, he is a Daredevil fanboy once again; he is mocking up snazzy prototypes on his own dime.

Dressed to impress.

Dressed to impress.

Melvin’s change of heart might be down to the arrest of Frank Castle in Penny and Dime. Certainly, Brett’s response to Daredevil at the end of that episode suggests that the incarceration of Frank Castle might restore a lot of good will. Unfortunately, there is not nearly enough space devoted to that idea. Daredevil is so eager to get to the next plot point that it never properly exploits the potential of its current thread. While condensing the season’s plotting might be a good idea, it seems like the production team are not able to exploit that potential.

It is a shame, because there is a lot of nice stuff here, amid all the jumbled plotting and fumbled subtext. Petrie and Ramirez pack their script with the sort of heavy-handed symbolism that makes these pulpy narratives such a pleasure. In particular, the idea of the wild dog as a metaphor for either Frank or Matt draws a potent parallel between the two characters. The suggestion that both Matt and Frank can find a connection to such an abused animal demonstrates the similarities between the pair more eloquently than their dialogue in New York’s Finest.

Dogged pursuit.

Dogged pursuit.

As with Bang, there is something deliciously pulpy about the season as a whole. This is very much a superhero story, and is framed as such. Daredevil plays up the tropes and clichés associated with the genre. Most notably, Melvin Potter is costumed in such a way as to evoke his persona as the Gladiator. While the first season was hardly subtle, the second season saturates his lab with yellows and blues. It feels like Daredevil is completely unashamed to be a superhero show, which is very charming in its own way.

Of course, this might explain why Frank Castle is such an awkward fit within the larger context of the series. There is a suggestion that the second season of Daredevil plays as a thirteen-episode origin for the Punisher. In fact, he even goes through many of the same beats. He gets his own epic hallway fight in Seven Minutes in Heaven, gets to protect Karen in the same way as Matt in The Man in the Box, and wears a prototype version of his costume before trading up at the very end of the season in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen.

"Whoa. You did not hook up with my ex-girlfriend in Daniel Way's Thunderbolds, did you?"

“Whoa. This leather suit really seals in the flavour.”

The Punisher does not fit that superhero template. Dogs to a Gunfight works best in the pause where the show seems to acknowledge this, just before characters insist on shackling the Punisher to Daredevil.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the second season of Daredevil:

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4 Responses

  1. I would argue that the Punisher never had any ambiguity to him. The shared universe didn’t help matters; Spidey and the Xmen sternly shook their fingers and then sent Frank on his way. But Frank Castle is very much an American archetype: the Gary Cooper figure who protects womenfolk and property, because the government is too bloated or corrupt to do it on their own. The reader is never not on the side of The Punisher. it’s just revenge porn.

    interestingly there was a sort of mirage comics ripoff called Lady Justice who dabbled in the same kind of stories, more effectively I think. the Phantasm is another fun example.

    • I don’t know about the Punisher never having any ambiguity to him.

      I’m not as big a fan of Ennis’ Punisher as most are, even if I acknowledge his work in developing Frank’s psychology. However, I think there are points in the MAX run where Castle is meant to be alien and scary. Ennis repeatedly challenges the reader with the fact that Frank really can’t hide behind the excuse of carthartic retributive violence like the stock exploitation protagonist, for example.

      I think Rucka and Aaron do it in their own way as well. Aaron strips away his “oh so sentimental” justification by suggesting that Frank was going to leave his family anyway, and the mobsters spared him the trouble.

      Rucka actually has two of his most sympathetic characters call Frank out. Clemons is very clearly “Morgan Freeman from se7en”, and so carries significant moral weight when he repeatedly and consistently rejects the Punisher. So is the child of two actual soldiers who initially thinks that Frank is a Delta Force soldier on a secret mission; when he discovers Frank’s costume, he bluntly states, “You’re not a soldier.” And that’s the end of the story.

  2. VIC NOTO the “Old School” Movie tough guy plays “Dog Of Hell” in this DAREDEVIL episode:”Dogs To A Gunfight”. He should have his own series. VIC NOTO is funny as hell and scary as well.

  3. VIC NOTO plays “Dog Of Hell”. He’s an unsung hero of old time Movie tough guys,and funny as hell too. Look at his reels youtube:Vic Noto

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