Couch Potato

The Punisher Suffers from Depth

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By now I would think that it should be pretty clear that I’m a huge mark for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, that includes their foray into streaming television with their Netflix Defenders series. Yeah, Iron Fist was a bit of a mess, but by and large I’ve enjoyed all of these series, warts an all. I can admit that these shows aren’t perfect, that I would love if they were a little lighter, had more costumes, and almost across the board were shorter and more concise. But, I still like them quite a bit, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting every new entry into this franchise. Well, except for one. The season that I’ll be talking about today. I am not the world’s biggest fan of the Punisher, as a character or a concept. I think that he can occasionally be used to interesting effect, but almost exclusively as a side-character. To me, personally, the Punisher only works when he’s guest-starring in a more interest characters story, serving as a dark reflection to their own heroics. He’s a perfect example of what a character would be like if they went off the deep end and started murdering their adversaries. I’ve harped on this a lot on this site, but to me heroes are interested in protecting the innocent, not punishing the guilty. So, the Punisher is not a hero to me. I’ve seen a couple interesting Punisher solo stories, but for me you need to do something very weird with the character to make him interesting. Which means I wasn’t exactly thrilled for a Punisher solo series on Netflix. Jon Bernthal put in an great performance as Frank Castle in the second season of Daredevil, and I think the character worked to great effect in that season, but that didn’t mean I felt like he could carry his own season of plot. And, well, I think that that summation kind of held out. The Punsher wasn’t as bad as I feared, but it also wasn’t great. It was just a mediocre season of television that seemed to have way too many ideas no clear way to execute them.

The season picks up several months after the events of Daredevil Season Two, with Frank Castle finishing off his crusade to kill all the men responsible for the death of his wife and children. And, with that taken care of, Frank decides to just drift through life, working as a construction worker and wallowing in his own special brand of PTSD. However, he gets rudely pulled out of that complacency when he’s suddenly contacted by a man named David Lieberman, who calls himself Micro. Lieberman was an NSA annalist who faked his death after the CIA came after him for releasing a video that seemed to show a covert group of soldiers executing an innocent man in Iraq, because he wasn’t bowing down to the illegal activities of said group. And, wouldn’t you know, one of those soldiers was Frank Castle. Castle and Lieberman begin working together at this point, especially when Frank ends up finding out that his family’s death wasn’t an accident. See, Frank and his platoon were roped into working for a corrupt CIA agent named William Rawlins who used them as a private hit-squad to cover up all the illegal things he was doing in Iraq. And, when that video showing their crimes was released he assumed it was Castle who filmed it, and hired people to kill him. Unfortunately, they didn’t succeed, and only killed Frank’s family, turning him into the Punisher. So, the Punisher has a target.

But, there’s a lot of other things going on in this season. Frank is helping Lieberman track down Rawlins, but also gets involved in Lieberman’s family, who don’t know that he’s still alive. Frank befriends Lieberman’s wife and kids and becomes a surrogate father figure for them. He also has to deal with a right-wing veteran who decides to emulate the Punisher, and become a domestic terrorist after he decides he can no longer cope with his PTSD. We also have a Homeland Security agent named Dinah Madani who is trying to find Frank, not because he’s the Punisher, but because she thinks he can corroborate that Rawlins is dirty, and will help her bring him down. Frank also has to deal with his former best friend, and Madani’s boyfriend, Billy Russo who we find out was in on Rawlin’s plan back in the day, and is still working for him now while creating a private military force called Hammer. Frank has to keep all these plates spinning while people around him start dying. And, by the end, Frank reunites Lieberman with his family, kills Rawlins, proves Madani right, exposes the plot, and even gets vengeance on Russo, shredding his face on glass so that he could appear in a future season as his comicbook counterpart Jigsaw. And, with all of that taken care of, Frank moves on to his next adventure, killing more people who he deems as guilty.

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This show didn’t frustrate me as much as Iron Fist did. It was actually competently crafted this time, at least on the aesthetic side of things. The series had  gritty and visceral style of direction that suits the character, and some shockingly brutal violence and fight-scenes. Thankfully, the show was just the Punisher shooting people for thirteen episodes, and they did at least mix things up a bit, giving him some creative ways to dispatch people. Jon Bernthal continues to give a great performance as Frank, letting him be the rage-filled slasher villain at times, and a pretty deep and tortured man at others. Ebon Moss-Bachrach was a lot of fun as Micro, giving the series some comic relief while also diving far deeper into this character than I’ve ever seen him be before, at the expense of kind of making him a completely different character. Amber Rose Revah was terrific as Madani, giving us an actually principled and likable source of good in the show. I also really liked Ben Barnes as Billy Russo, and if this show gets a second season and we get to see him playing completely unhinged as Jigsaw, it could be a lot of fun. So, there was a lot working for this season of television, but there was a larger problem that kept me from really enjoying it. And, it’s a problem that I feel like the Punisher as a character runs into quite a bit.

Depth.

Specifically, too much depth. I understand that there are people out there who really like the Punisher. There are also people out there who primarily like the character because he shoots people, but those people are broken, and not really worth discussion. But, to me, the Punisher doesn’t really work as a focal point of a series, because he’s not really a deep character. People hurt him, so he hurts people. He’s basically a force of nature, a street-level Galactus who can’t be reasoned with, and who doesn’t have any motivations other than his primal need to kill evil. When a Punisher stories hews closer to that idea, I feel like it can work. It also works for me when they toss Punisher into absurdly comicbooky situations, like having him fight Doctor Doom or something, but, that doesn’t happen often. But, what doesn’t work for me is when people try to use the Punisher to make deep statements. And this show tried to do that. I suppose if this series had just been a metaphor for the current state of veterans, and how PTSD can ravage a person, it couldn’t have been interesting. But, instead this series tossed out as many heady ideas as it could, almost as if it was paranoid that people wouldn’t take it seriously if it was just a show where Frank Castle kills a bunch of people for revenge. Instead, we’re given back stabs, PTSD, homegrown terrorism, right-wing extremism, corruption in the CIA, the legitimacy of the Iraq war, a Snowden-esque question of revealing the truth vs treason, and about a dozen other smaller ideas. And, as a result, most of these only get a little bit of examination, and end up becoming disappointing. The show brings up a lot of concepts, but doesn’t know what to do with them, and doesn’t give any insights into them. Which, aside from creating a scatter-brained and rambling series, also succeeded in making a kind of boring Punisher story. I, personally, don’t see the need to reveal that Frank’s family were actually killed by the CIA, and therefore making his quest be to punish corruption rather than crime. Like I’ve said, I’m not a huge Punisher fan, but I think the idea of having him fight against random crime, and taking down mobsters, drug dealers, and other criminals works far better than him rallying against institutional corruption. This series easily could have been about the Punisher learning about some horrible mob boss, and fighting his way though a cast of colorful and weird assassins. But, instead, the show seemed fixated on the idea that it needed to be deep, to be about something. And, as a result, it tried to be about too much, and ended up accomplishing none of it.

 

The Punisher was created by Steve Lightfoot and released by Netflix, 2017.

 

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