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Marvel and Netflix’s The Punisher (Review)

Given how Iron Fist turned out, The Punisher could have been a catastrophic misfire.

Iron Fist was a show that landed at the wrong cultural moment, a tale of thoughtless cultural appropriation landing right at the moment when pop culture was engaging with tough questions about the tendency of western entertainment to co opt foreign culture for its own amusement. Of course, Iron Fist was also a terrible television series on its own terms, with a variety of fundamental problems; an awkward lead, a convoluted plot, flat action sequences. The film’s clumsy blundering into the middle of that larger culture discussion was icing on the proverbial cake.

“The only person you’re punishing is yourself.”
Yes, the first episode includes this line. Completely unironically.

On paper, The Punisher seems ready to wade into a similar debate. By its nature, The Punisher is the story of an angry white man with a gun, and it will arrive on Netflix forty-seven days after what was arguably the bloodiest mass shooting in recent history and twelve days after another recent massacre. More than that, The Punisher arrives at a point in time when there are larger debates about the use of force in dealing with suspected criminals, and the lack of consequences for law enforcement representatives who have shot and killed minorities. This is a minefield for The Punisher to navigate.

The good news is that The Punisher (largely) avoids this potential minefield. The bad news is that The Punisher does this by largely not being a show about The Punisher.

Skullduggery.

The Punisher is a challenging and provocative character. He has been since he was first introduced in The Amazing Spider-Man #129, written by Gerry Conway and illustrated by Ross Andru. Frank Castle was a fascinating creation, a former Vietnam veteran who had devoted himself to a one-man war-on-crime. He was initially set up as an antagonist for Peter Parker, but the public quickly latched on to the skull-wearing vigilante, and Frank Castle was soon starring in his own miniseries and his own on-going monthly comic books.

Like Luke Cage or Iron Fist, or any number of comic book characters, Frank Castle can be contextualised as part of a pop culture trend being reworked within the framework of superhero comic books. If Luke Cage was a blaxploitation comic book hero, and if Danny Rand was a kung-fu-ploitation superhero, then Frank Castle represents an attempt to graft the no-nonsense vigilante into the shared comic book universe. Frank Castle was part of the same ambient culture that created icons like “Dirty” Harry Callaghan or Paul Kersey.

In the context of the seventies and eighties, Frank Castle spoke to a world that seemed to be disintegrating, in which there was no law that could impose order on a chaotic universe. It is telling that the second season of Daredevil sought to contextualise Frank Castle as part of an extended homage to late seventies and early eighties New York, an absolutist in a world gone mad. Frank Castle belonged to the same social fabric as the New York City Riots of 1977, the Son of Sam murders, straight through to the Bernie Goetz killings.

However, Frank Castle was never a hero. He existed in sharp contrast to more traditional heroic figures like Spider-Man or Daredevil, a foil rather than a corrective. However, the character was always compelling and provocative, at once fascinating and revolting. The appeal of Frank Castle’s worldview was obvious, with his capacity to mete out justice with absolute certainty and enviable efficiency. However, there was also something horrifying in that concrete absolutism, the dark abyss pulling the reader in.

Music to their ears.

The best writers to work on Frank Castle always understood that engaging push-and-pull, that the reader should be at once drawn to Frank’s efficiency and disgusted by Frank’s brutality. This is perhaps most obvious in the work of later writers like Greg Rucka or Garth Ennis, who were willing to acknowledge that Frank Castle was a truly monstrous figure who was also ruthlessly efficient. “You can’t ever like Frank Castle,” reflected Nick Fury in Ennis’ Fury MAX #7, “but you can sure as hell appreciate the man.”

So The Punisher poses a challenge for Marvel and Netflix, in the same way that Iron Fist posed a challenge. How to tell a story about Frank Castle while carefully navigating the minefield that exists around the character? In an era where gun violence is generating national headlines, and in which the public should be increasing wary of extrajudicial executions, how do you construct a story about Frank Castle? The Punisher is undoubtedly in a very difficult position, and it is clear that creator and showrunner Steve Lightfoot has thought a great deal about that question.

So The Punisher largely side steps a lot of the potential problems with adapting the character for television, very meticulously and very precisely positioning Frank Castle so as to avoid having to deal with the more problematic aspects of a gun-totting vigilante using firearms to shoot civilians according to his own moral code. The Punisher very conspicuously plays down the idea of Frank Castle as a “lone wolf”, a one-man killing machine engaged in an existential war with the world around him, instead giving the character a laser-guided focus on a military conspiracy.

Of course, Frank Castle does occasionally target criminals over the course of The Punisher. Indeed, the first episode of the show does an excellent job of suggesting what a Punisher television show might look like. 3 AM opens with a wry black-comic montage in which Frank Castle systematically dismantles a massive criminal organisation that spans the length and breadth of the United States, even beyond its borders. Over the course of 3 AM, Frank even finds himself embroiled in a botched hit on a mob scene, recalling the set-up from Moment of Truth and Code of the Streets in Luke Cage.

A sight for sore eyes.

However, these story beats are very much the exception rather than the rule, as is a late-stage subplot involving a Second Amendment bomber in Front Toward Enemy and Virtue of the Vicious. Indeed, The Punisher seems very uncomfortable with the fundamental idea of The Punisher. Frank Castle spends a lot of these thirteen episodes trying not to be the Punisher. He gets a job on a construction site in 3 AM knocking down brick walls. It is an effective visual metaphor for the pointlessness of what Frank Castle might try to do, a one-man war on crime that accomplishes nothing worthwhile.

The Punisher never makes this suggestion. Instead, it repeatedly suggests that Frank Castle is trying really hard not to be the Punisher. He retires to anonymity in 3 AM, and seems to want a more tranquil life at the end of in Memento Mori. There is a sense that The Punisher believes that Frank Castle is fighting a war that can end, that there remains a possibility that Frank could find peace. Indeed, the last scene of the season suggests the possibility of healing, as Frank sits down with a group of veterans and confesses, “First time I can remember, I don’t have a war to fight. And I guess I’m scared.”

The Punisher does this by building on the template established by the second season of Daredevil. Frank Castle is not waging a one-man war on the abstract concept of crime in order to satisfy some monstrous urge inside of him. Instead, Frank Castle is exacting a very specific and precise revenge scheme on the people who murdered his family through an insane Rube Goldberg conspiracy that involves biker gangs, cartels, the military and the district attorney. As such, Daredevil and The Punisher can have the superficial trappings of the character without engaging with his weighter themes.

Marvel Studios has built a reputation for its fidelity in adapting source material for the big and small screens. Indeed, a large part of the company’s “brand” is in moving away from the sorts of clumsy “in name only” adaptations of comic books that populated the multiplexes during the nineties and into the twenty-first century; films like Steel or Catwoman or Judge Dredd. The idea is that these adaptations are curated by writers and directors who actually care about translating the essence of these four-colour heroes from one medium to the next.

The Russo Brother.

There are any number of examples. Ed Brubaker was a huge influence on Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Warren Ellis was the cornerstone of Iron Man III.  Even Thor: The Dark World featured extended homages to the work of Walt Simonson. The television adaptation of Daredevil is a loving tribute to the work of writers and artists like Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev and Frank Miller. Jessica Jones owes a lot to the work of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, even as it restructured the story to fit its format.

This is true even within the looser adaptations. Thor: Ragnarok is undoubtedly a Taika Waititi film, but it is still steeped in the source material. The look and feel of the movie is very obviously informed by the work of Jack Kirby, recalling some of the early cosmic stories featuring the character. An entire subplot was added for the character Skurge, in order to build to an iconic moment from Walt Simonson’s run. actor!Loki even makes a fleeting reference to frog!Thor from Walt Simonson’s run. Even the most free-form films are mindful of their inspirations.

In contrast, The Punisher might be the most fast and loose adaptation that Marvel Studios has ever produced. It is a series that carries the name of the Punisher, and even features some of his iconography. However, it uses these to present versions of the characters that bear little relationship to their on-screen counterparts. This is most obvious in the character of Frank himself, who shares little relation to his comic book counterpart. Indeed, Frank often seems hesitant or unsure about his violent nature. In Resupply, Frank catches Turk selling guns, but cannot bring himself to execute him.

Many of the characters in The Punisher shares names and connections with characters from the source material, but little else. The secondary antagonist Rawlins is named for a supporting character in Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX run, but one with a very different personality. Even the visual similarities are downplayed; the comic book character wears an eye patch perhaps to contrast him with Nick Fury, while his live action counterpart simply has a milky eye as a result of the run-in with Frank Castle.

A shotgun in the dark.

However, the character of Billy Russo has been completely reinvented. In the comic books, Billy Russo is a stereotypical mobster who has the distinction of becoming one of Frank Castle’s few recurring foes. He is known as “Jigsaw”, owing to the facial disfigurement that Frank gave them during their first encounter. Dominic West played Jigsaw as a live-action cartoon in Punisher: War Zone. However, The Punisher leans into a very different take on the character.

Most superficially, Billy Russo keeps his face intact for most of the runtime of The Punisher, with Frank brutally disfiguring him at the climax of Memento Mori. Indeed, the season ends without providing the audience with a glimpse of Russo’s mangled face, instead teasing a shot of the catatonic character under lots and lots of bandages. This is akin to telling a story about Bane which ends with him discovering the combination of steroids and weight lifting, or a story about the Joker that cuts to black when he lands in the vat of chemicals.

However, even beyond the decision not to bury Ben Barnes under prosthetics, the version of Billy Russo introduced in The Punisher may as well be a new character. He is not a mobster like his comic book partner. Instead, Russo is a veteran just like Frank. More than that, Russo and Castle served together in Afghanistan and have a strong emotional connection. In The Judas Goat, Russo reassures Frank, “Your family’s gone. But you’re still my brother.” There is a sense that Frank feels a similar connection.

Of course, Russo inevitably betrays Frank. The Judas Goat ends with the reveal that Russo is working with Rawlins and is complicit in the illegal drugs trade being funnelled through Afghanistan. This reveal is a somewhat underwhelming mid-season twist, given that Russo shares a name with the Punisher’s most iconic adversaries. It is incredibly frustrating, as if a Superman movie waited until the midpoint to reveal that Lex Luthor was really the bad guy. It is interesting to wonder if the dull thud with which this plot twist lands contributed to the decision to screen the whole season for critics.

Benched.

The version of Billy Russo introduced in The Punisher feels like he belongs in an earlier and clumsier comic book adaptation, the product of people with a minimal understanding of the source material beyond the fact that it has a built-in fanbase. Positioning Billy Russo as a character with a long-established history with Frank Castle recalls the connection that Batman established by presenting the Joker as the man who killed the Wayne family. It is a very clumsy choice that suggests that the source character was of little interest to the production team outside his name.

To be fair, there are any number of nods and references to the source material, especially to the work of writer Garth Ennis on the character. The Punisher very clearly conceives of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in a manner similar to how Ennis described Vietnam, with relentless cynicism. The pairing of a hyper-competent female agent with a male loser in a dead-end job evokes Welcome Back Frank. The mobster family in 3 AM is named “Gnucci”, while Frank discusses a different sort of literary tiger in Gunner, more Yann Martel than William Blake.

However, there is a clear sense that The Punisher is afraid of what a direct adaptation of Frank Castle might look like, so it puts up all sorts of caveats and restrictions upon the version who makes it to screen. Frank Castle is not waging an existential war on crime, he is avenging one very specific crime. Frank Castle’s fixation on the conspiracy around the death of his family seems serves to focus him, to prevent him from seeming like another lunatic with a gun. It gives his story a clear end, and fixes his violence within defined parameters.

Of course, because Daredevil and The Punisher have to fill more than twenty hours of screen time with Frank Castle, this means that the conspiracy around the murder of his family has to continually expand to ridiculous proportions. Daredevil and The Punisher both fixate on the idea that Frank is killing in order to avenge his family, not to feed some darker part of his nature. There is a sense that The Punisher is deeply uncomfortable with what the comic book iteration of the character is, and is eager to avoid having the television version evolve into a similar figure.

Micro managing.

One of the defining characteristics of the comic book version of Frank Castle is the notion that he is a soldier deeply in love with the idea of a war. In fact, various writers have repeatedly suggested that Frank Castle’s vigilante violence is simply an effort to extend that love affair with war, to bring the Vietnam War back to home soil. It is an expression of a war that Frank carries around inside himself, suggesting that Frank is the literal embodiment of warfare, an eternal soldier who manufactured a war in order to feel at peace with himself.

The Punisher nods in this direction repeatedly. The series returns time and time again to the therapy sessions that Curtis runs for veterans. The Punisher is very pointedly engaged with questions about what happens to veterans when they have served their purpose, the way in which society treats those who offered their life in service of their country and found themselves turned into killing machines by their government. It is an interesting angle through which to examine Frank Castle, one which suggests Frank Castle is a modern iteration of Steve Rogers, a representative and veteran of a less valourous war.

Indeed, The Punisher owes quite a lot to The Winter Soldier, a rather strange piece of symmetry with Ragnarok. It seems that November 2017 is “Winter Soldier Tribute Month” within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Much like Steve Rogers, Frank Castle discovers that his best friend is running therapy sessions for disenfranchised veterans. As with Steve Rogers, Frank Castle finds himself a soldier without a war to fight. Much like The Winter Soldier, there are aspects of The Punisher tied up in questions of abuse of state power.

However, as in The Winter Soldier, these questions ultimately feel rather shallow. The Punisher is anchored in a conspiracy to smuggle drugs from Afghanistan into the United States in order to fund clandestine operations, reflecting a cynicism about American involvement in foreign wars like Vietnam and Nicaragua. However, The Punisher meditates upon this question for thirteen episodes and never comes up with anything more interesting than a nefarious cabal led by Rawlins. There is no exploration of systemic corruption or violence or cynicism.

Taking a Page from the comics.

After all, pitting Frank Castle against a military conspiracy raises all sorts of interesting questions. Most obviously, it broaches questions of complicity and responsibility. If Frank Castle is chasing down a conspiracy masterminded by somebody like Rawlins, how does Frank deal with those soldiers and recruits sent to stop him. After all, those soldiers (and even those mercenaries) may not be complicit in the conspiracy. They have simply been trained to follow orders. Is Frank justified in killing them?

The Punisher waffles back and forth on this point. “Am I supposed to kill a U.S. soldier for doing his job?” Frank ponders in Crosshairs, deciding on a non-lethal approach when storming a military base. He confesses afterwards, “It’s just a lot easier when you can kill people.” He makes a point to pull Dinah Medani from a crashed car following a brutal car chase in Resupply. However, Frank had no such compunctions about killing the soldiers or mercenaries sent after him in Gunner, with the series even shooting that action sequence like a first-person shooter.

There is a recurring sense that The Punisher is trying to have its cake and eat it. The series acknowledges its more contradictory elements in passing, but never actually grapple with them. Ideas are broached, but never explored. One gets a sense that the entire conspiracy plot line in The Punisher serves the same purpose as the fixation upon the death of Frank’s family as his primary motivating factor; it is a narrative sleight of hand that allows the narrative to sidestep some of the more uncomfortable aspects of the character. It focuses the character’s narrowly-defined rage on clearly-defined antagonists.

The Punisher does fleetingly broach broader issues about military culture and the treatment of veterans. The Punisher is very keenly aware of how militaries train soldiers by dehumanising them and turning them into weapons. “Soldiers can’t question morality or legality in the moment,” Russo explains in Two Dead Men. “That’s a way to get yourself killed.” Indeed, Russo seeks to capitalise on this training by building a mercenary army.

He’s got Billy’s to pay.

In Resupply, Russo suggests that the military is ultimately a capitalist enterprise, one producing killing machines rather than any other appliance. “What do you think that cost?” Russo challenges the veterans. “Fifty thousand dollars. And that’s just for starters.” He elaborates, “This government, this country, the one you all swore to protect; it invested in you.” The military is presented as something that imbues purpose in its recruits. “We didn’t want our lives to be just grey. We wanted them to mean something. We wanted to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Indeed, the series even goes so far as to suggest that Frank’s central internal conflict is whether he is a man or a weapon, an individual or a tool. “Every missile needs a guidance system,” Micro tells Frank in Kandahar. “Without me, you’re just a blunt instrument.” In Danger Close, Rawlins dismisses Castle in similar terms. “Think of it as decommissioning surplus ordinance,” he muses of a plot to kill Castle. “That’s all Castle is. A weapon we no longer have any use for.”

This is all vaguely interesting, but The Punisher never really does anything with it. The show touches on the fact that many veterans have been abandoned and overlooked by their country, and that they are prone to be exploited or manipulated by sinister forces on their return to society. However, the show stops just short of asking really tough questions. The show never touches on issues like the recruitment of former soldiers into white supremacy groups or militia organisations.

A lot of this is clearly out of deference to the military and its institutions. After all, the cast and crew of The Punisher even produced a promotional video to celebrate veterans and their contributions to the country. It is telling that the only truly racist person to show up at the veteran meetings is not a former soldier at all, revealed to be a fraud and a parasite. When a former does go rogue, the show never explores the appeal of militia organisations or white supremacy groups, instead having the character act as a lone wolf.

“You know, when I said you were a ticking time bomb of rage, I feel like you maybe took that a little bit too seriously.”

Indeed, the biggest problem with this approach is apparent in Front Toward Enemy and Virtue of the Vicious, when a former veteran goes off the rails. Louis has clearly been traumatised by experience overseas and abandoned by his country at home. Louis is justifiably angry. He responds by taking up the cause of the Second Amendment, loudly protesting the government’s desire to curtail his right to own and maintain firearms. This comes shortly after Louis almost shoots his father in the head. Louis is a character who should not have access to firearms.

This should be an open and shut case. Louis is a dangerous and emotionally vulnerable young man who longs desperately to hold on to the power that a gun affords him. On paper, the story arc focusing on Louis makes a very strong case for gun ownership, not only because it overlaps with any number of real-life stories about marginalised and radicalised young white men who chose to use firearms to express their sense of powerlessness and frustration upon the world.

However, because The Punisher is so committed to the art of sitting on the fence, of not offending anybody, the show needlessly complicates matters. Louis becomes a gun advocate who targets his victims using bombs. That is a very strange choice from within the narrative. Louis wants to talk about guns, so why wouldn’t he want to use one? The obvious reason is external. The Punisher does not want to deal with gun violence, instead skirting around the outside of the issue.

Indeed, the show goes out of its way to hedge anything resembling a political opinion in this storyline. Front Toward Enemy and Virtue of the Vicious introduce a politician who advocates for tighter gun control, Senator Ory. This character is treated with nothing but contempt by the narrative and the characters within it. “Ory is a craven political animal who would do anything to improve his q-rating,” Karen Page explains in Virtue of the Vicious, also taking the time to berate “New York liberals.” It feels like The Punisher is wary of taking a political stance.

“I think I spotter a political statement about two blocks over, but if we’re smart we should be able to get around it.”

Tellingly, Frank Castle is infuriated by these bombings, but he seems really mad about the bombs rather than the violence. In Front Toward Enemy, the Punisher lays into Louis by specifically attacking his method of domestic terrorism. “You are nothing like me. You are nothing like me. People I went after, I stood in front of them. I looked them in the eye before I put them down. Not you. You’re a coward, you hide behind these goddamn bombs.” There’s a weird sense that Castle would respect Louis more if he had used firearms rather than explosive devices.

There is something very disingenuous in this, a clear desire on the part of The Punisher to avoid the more problematic aspects of its lead character. The series repeatedly humanises its central figure, having him become a guardian angel to Micro’s family, and having him wax lyrically about how much his own family meant to him. The Punisher seems to be under the mistaken belief that its central character should be quoted in inspirational gifs.

When Louis bombs New York in Front Toward Enemy, Frank Castle responds with an emotional salute to the city’s resolve and character. “They think they’re going to scare people into doing what they want? They’re wrong. It just pisses people off, brings them together, makes them stronger. New York doesn’t forget.” It is a sentiment that recalls the ending of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, in which the entire city comes together out of tragedy. The problem is that it doesn’t feel earned in the context of The Punisher.

The best stories about Frank Castle have explored the question of who he is and what he does, in particular why he does what he does. The character is not, and never has been, a hero. Indeed, the best Punisher stories suggest that Frank Castle might secretly be glad that his family is dead, that he has an excuse to feed the violence inside of him. Garth Ennis’ Born suggests that Frank made a deal with some primordial evil to sacrifice his family in return for an eternal war. Jason Aaron’s Punisher MAX suggests the last thing Maria Castle heard was her husband asking for a divorce.

Code of the Streets.

The Punisher lightly flirts with these ideas, brushing lightly over the idea that the murderous vigilante who wears a skull on his body armour might not be a healthy individual. “I could see, even before,” Russo reflects in Two Dead Men. “He was changing. He was finding it harder and harder to come back.” In Cold Steel, Micro advises Frank, “You have nothing but a war inside of you.” In Front Toward Enemy, Karen observes, “Awful things happen to people every day, and they they don’t murder people because of it.”

In The Judas Goat, Frank seems to admit this fact to himself. “I was a father and I was a husband, but I was also a marine,” he confesses to Micro. “And I loved that sh!t. There were times, whether I want to admit it or not, when I would rather have been neck-deep in blood or bullets and sh!t and be with my unit than to be with my kids. And I got to make peace with that.” It hints any number of interesting character ideas that the show never develops.

These all hint at the idea that Frank Castle might be defined by more than just the deaths of his family. However, The Punisher consistently backs away from the idea that Frank Castle is anything other than a perfectly reasonable man exacting a perfectly reasonable revenge. Frank Castle might have loved war, the show acknowledges, but he loved his family more. Frank is constantly dreaming of his wife and family. The show repeatedly defines Frank as a protector rather than a predator. In the world of The Punisher, Frank is not a wolf, he is a sheep dog.

In 3 AM, Frank Castle finds himself drawn to an act of brutal violence not out of any anger towards criminal activity, but in order to protect the only member of his work detail who has been polite to him. In Front Toward Enemy, Frank seems to invest in the hunt for Louis because Louis has targeted people like Curtis and Karen, people Frank cares about. “This piece of sh!t is going after Karen,” Frank complains. “What’s the deal with you two?” Micro asks. “The deal is nobody goes after her,” Frank responds, a paradigm of masculine heroism.

Family misfortunes.

To be fair, Karen explicitly calls out Frank’s desire to protect her as something that might be disingenuous. “Two guys who don’t like the way the world works so they just do whatever they like?” Karen reflects on the obvious parallels between Frank and Louis in Front Toward Enemy. “Do not do this and say that it’s for me.” However, The Punisher consciously a repeatedly affords Frank the benefit of the doubt. He seems to genuinely care about Karen, and seems to genuinely care about Micro’s family, and seems to genuinely care about his own family.

All of this contributes to a sense that The Punisher is awkwardly attempting to deproblematicise the character. Frank Castle was introduced in the spirit of seventies vigilante films, but the television series awkwardly reworks the character in the context of twenty-first century political thrillers. The Punisher feels like a third-rate knock-off of 24, down to the casting of Paul Schultz. Frank and Micro operate out of a set that looks like a dilapidated version of an old CTU office. However, The Punisher is four episodes of 24 stretched over thirteen hours.

There is something to be said for this approach on its own terms, particularly in the context of casting Amber Rose Revah as Dinah Medani, a Homeland Security Agent of Persian extraction. In these turbulent and xenophobic times, The Punisher is careful to avoid playing into racist clichés are stereotypes. In fact, there is some suggestion early in the show’s run that Medani’s familial experience in the United States might provide a compelling counternarrative to the brutal dissolution of Frank’s family.

The Punisher repeatedly and consciously stresses that Medani is an American character, despite her parents’ status as immigrants. “So, you’re what? Persian?” Russo asks Medani in Two Dead Men. She responds, “American, I was born here.” In 3 AM, Medani assures her mother, “I have faith in the system. Our system. The one that took you and dad in, made you wealthy. This country gave us freedom. But it’s fragile. It needs protection.” Her mother responds, “Your father’s faith in god does not mean that he can’t see the flaws in his religion.”

Bloody mess.

This feels like a jumping-off point into a more interesting and compelling show, one that dares to ask tough questions about Frank Castle and his relationship to America. However, the show consciously pulls its punches. Its villains are CIA spooks and private contractors, convenient boogeymen for both the political left and the political right. The show never steps far enough outside Castle or his status as a veteran to ask tough questions about contemporary society and policy.

More to the point, this extended tribute to 24 is just dull. There is nothing new or exciting here, nothing that has not alreayd been explored in more depth and with more urgency than these thirteen episodes can muster. The thirteen-episode structure is part of the problem here, The Punisher telling one achingly dull narrative over the course of a full season. It is as if somebody gave Jack Bauer Valium.

To be fair, there are some points of interest. The Punisher allows Frank to get refreshingly violent on occasion, particularly when dealing with his co-workers in Episode 1 or with Rawlins in Home. The show doesn’t skimp on the brutality, which is important when dealing with a character like Frank Castle. Unfortunately, that is all horribly undercut by the show’s refusal to deal with the other unpleasant aspects of the character.

Similarly, there is something to be said for the more surrealist and ambitious imagery in The Punisher. The Marvel Netflix shows have a very flat visual style, outside of exceptional episodes like Kinbaku. This is particularly frustrating in an era where television has become increasingly cinematic and ambitious in its visual storytelling. There is no excuse for superhero television to look as dull as most of Iron Fist or the second half of The Defenders, particularly with shows like Legion or Hannibal on the air.

They’ll never see eye-to-eye.

Indeed, The Punisher is the work of showrunner Steven Lightfoot, who worked on Hannibal with Bryan Fuller. There are certainly shades on that here, with an emphasis on dream sequences and hallucinations. In Home, Frank is caught hallucinating about his dead wife as he is brutally tortured. Even the flashes of violence in 3 AM and Home have a kinetic frisson to them that is largely absent from Iron Fist or The Defenders. The narrative of Virtue of the Vicious is non-linear and subjective. It is incredibly clumsy and lacking in suspense, but still relatively adventurous for a Marvel Netflix show.

Of course, none of this is actually allowed to breathe or to take root. The Punisher is never allowed to delve into surrealism or abstraction, most likely for the same reasons that it is not allowed to engage with the politics or the roots of the character. The Punisher feels like a television show that has been scientifically engineered to cause the minimum amount of controversy or potential backlash. It succeeds on those terms, but on no others.

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7 Responses

  1. “The Punisher does this by building on the template established by the second season of Daredevil. Frank Castle is not waging a one-man war on the abstract concept of crime in order to satisfy some monstrous urge inside of him. Instead, Frank Castle is exacting a very specific and precise revenge scheme on the people who murdered his family through an insane Rube Goldberg conspiracy that involves biker gangs, cartels, the military and the district attorney. As such, Daredevil and The Punisher can have the superficial trappings of the character without engaging with his weighter themes.”

    I hated that so much for completely missing the point. Frank Castle’s family’s murder IS NOT SUPPOSED to have been a conspiracy. It’s supposed to be EXACTLY the opposite: people who died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time (the scene of a mob score-settling murder). They’re supposed to be collateral damage, victims of the kind of random and anonymous violence from petty criminals that, in the age of gang shootings and other street crime gone through the roof, felt like it was eating urban America alive. Hence Frank’s reaction of declaring a lifelong war not on the particular perpetrators – what would be the point? – but on the entire “criminal element.”

    One big obstacle with this franchise is that it takes the problem of “it’s always 1985 in Daredevil’s New York” and kicks it up several notches. The Punisher is tied to the context of the seventies/eighties crime waves and the sense of frustration and hopelessness that came with them, in a way that just doesn’t apply or resonate in the present. So instead they filmmakers tie his story and his origin to the ultimate villain of modern television, the Nebulous Criminal Conspiracy, and as you say, that means he’s basically not Frank Castle anymore.

    • > Frank Castle’s family’s murder IS NOT SUPPOSED to have been a conspiracy.

      It’s a bit too similar to the Garfield Spider-Man films. And Batman Begins. And Captain America: Civil War.

      (We’ll soon discover that Luthor manufactured the tornado that killed Pa Kent. Oh the humanity)

      • Well, that would be a wonderful nod to Hitchcock, who famously wanted the cropduster scene in North by Northwest to feature a hurricane sent by the bad guys to kill Cary Grant. He was only talked down when his writer asked how the bad guys would harness a hurricane.

    • Yep, I agree entirely with all of this, Chris.

      The Castles’ death is supposed to be senseless, and Frank’s war on crime is supposed to be an absurd response to that nihilistic shock. There’s a great line from Ennis where he talks about how Frank goes out every night and forces the world to make sense. That is Frank Castle. Not this Jack Bauer knock-off.

      I do think it’s an issue bigger than rooting the show in the 1970s or 1980s. I think it’s a result of trying to make the show relevant to modern audiences. Audiences in the 1970s and 1980s accepted that crime was arbitrary and brutal and random, that was what made it so scary. It is modern pop culture (or pop culture from the 1990s onwards) that is fixated on conspiracy theories and the idea that there is some hidden map that might make sense of the world.

  2. I agree with Chris that the conspiracy aspect is a real flaw – also tied to the obsession with massive myth arc seasons. If there had been more stories like the first episode, which present a problem and have Frank kill it, I think it would have been a better show. Indeed, as much as the Louis’s plot was clearly shoehorned in to give the show a 13 episode runtime (and Karen more screentime, which is really the only thing I liked about it), that’s the kind of thing that might have been a better choice for the series – a couple of smaller arcs woven together.

    I think the review is perhaps unconsciously showing its bias when it says that Punisher is trying to equally balance between the political right and left. While it does have a lot of respect for veterans, if you compare it to USA’s Shooter television series, you can see a stark difference in the way it treats the culture of the military – the fact that this is a segment of America that doesn’t have the same values as most of the people who make TV shows or write TV show reviews. Shooter respect patriotism, conservativism, and religion in an unshowy but pervasive way, while The Punisher respects people who sacrifice for a greater cause, but thinks they all should unconsciously share the same values as a television show writer.

    I think the one aspect of the show that actually breaks the narrative is the debate between Karen and the craven senator – but it comes too little, too late after the disgusting fake vet storyline. (Seriously, why not put a MAGA hat on him? The NRA gear was clearly a substitute.)

    Punisher is a deeply flawed series held up by the strength of its actors and its dialogue writing. But I think the fact that this review spends a huge amount of time talking about its failure to deal with the problematic nature of Frank’s work is more a reflection that the review just doesn’t like the Punisher (which is totally fine. Outside of Rucka’s run, I don’t really enjoy his stuff either. But I deeply love Rucka’s run, and that connects me to the character in a way that will probably stay with me for a long time.) But approaching it this way means that the review never seems to try to see the series from the perspective that Frank does have some heroism or justice on his side. In other words, a lot of the review could have been replaced with “This show and character are not for me.” Which, again, totally fair as a viewer.

    • I like the Punisher just fine. There are any number of great Punisher writers and runs. Conway, Ennis, Aaron, Rucka. All writers capable of doing great things with the concept, and all beloved by fans of the character.

      My big issue with the show is that the series has little interest in the concept or the character, and instead is dedicated to not offending anybody.

  3. >More than that, Russo and Castle served together in Afghanistan and have a strong emotional connection. In The Judas Goat, Russo reassures Frank, “Your family’s gone. But you’re still my brother.”

    Oh, man. I watched the show even after reading your review and this played out just as I feared it would. There is this terribly tired cliche in heroic fiction of pitting the hero against his mirror image/shadow self and in filmed adaptations it feels that they are increasingly tipping those villains so that the share an origin with the hero or are made the hero’s sibling. I guess the Evil Brother tropes is less played out than the Evil Father trope but Spectre, Luke Cage, Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder Woman and now the Punisher have turned characters who were not siblings in the original source material into siblings (or “like siblings”) for cheap emotional weight.

    In the comics Jigsaw’s only claim to fame is being the Punisher’s first “name” antagonist and only recurring antagonist for most of his publishing history. Not good enough for television! Yeah, they were super close once and now they’re going to have to fight each other, yeah, I am so emotionally invested in how Frank Castle feels about Jigsaw now that I know they used to be on the same side.

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