On paper, the Punisher looks like a pretty obtuse effort to zap Netflix’s marvel canon on the chest and pray for a new beat. In reality, it’s the best series they have created for the comic brand to date- by far.
This is surprising given the headlining themes.
Frank Castle grunts in gravelly baritones from one massacre to the next as he tries to quiet the ghosts of his murdered family by making many, many more ghosts.
The profile of Frank’s character doesn’t really leave a lot of room for manoeuvre here, former marine turned torture-assassin operating from a shadowy corner of the CIA’s Kandahar caravan can hardly be expected to open a world foods store.
Frank Castle shoots and stabs people he’s never met. He likes it. He does it a) because he is pissed and b) because; ‘AMERICA! fuck, yeah!’ type thing.
This should make the show more cringe-fest than crack-TV. ‘Macho men’ are a ball and chain on society’s intellectual progress, the conduct of certain ‘civilised’ armed forces is at times a real life horror story that has left the army’s image on the road-side and Frank doesn’t even rock a beard (much). I mean, what period was this show even made for!?
And yet it all feels so poignantly relevant that it need ask no permission to be taken seriously.
The characters in the Punisher are polydimensional. They are good and they are bad, some are more than others, none are all of one (with one possible exception). Even the most nefarious villains have logical arguments for the worst of their behaviour; unlike the series’ heroes who seem to have a hard time justifying their own sacrifices. The most saintly of the protagonists is quite overtly a self-important manipulator.
Violence and the acclimatisation to violence, in particular domestic terrorism is a recurring subject that one could imagine pulling air through the clamped teeth of Netflix execs as they read the script. How can a brutally bloody revenge tale posited on a despicably corrupt American marine ever be fertile ground for thoughtful, measured conversations about gun control, veteran neglect, mental health, the ugly side of utilitarianism, surveillance, violence as a last resort and domestic terrorism? Dunno, but it does.
None of these themes feel stretched or shoe horned, they all feel well handled and spookily on point. It delivers a slight shudder as it reminds you of the world we live in and how in a lot of ways- most of the world still behaves much like an American marine with a claret KA-Bar. Dim but busy, practised at bad stuff, conflict-oriented and quick to anger.
These well handled, grown up themes seem to have two complimentary functions. Firstly, it adds genuine credibility to the contentious subject matter in the series, secondly it offers unbound permission to enjoy the Punisher as he runs about doing what he does best. Shooting and stabbing people he has never met in glorious theatrical effect.
Go watch, it’s wicked.