On The Punisher

The Sixth installment in the netflix Marvel series, Jon Bernthal returns to his role as Frank Castle, an ex-marine who, after witnessing his family’s death at the hands of criminals, vowed to never let the same thing happen again.  By punishing the criminal underworld… punishing them with death.

I’ve been a fan of the Punisher comics from the early ’90s for about five years now, but luckily I have a father who obsessively collected them for years.  I’ve read pretty much every issue of every Punisher publication (There were three) from at least 1991 to 1995.  These comics, based in the traditions of Norris, Schwarzenegger, and Stallone (Dolph Lundgren played Frank in the first screen adaptation) tended to be bombastic, high octane, and fairly short on plot intricacy, focusing more on the ins and outs of the token mass assassination than any kind of character development.

In keeping with this, the taglines on the cover tend to be pretty ridiculous

  • “Urban Renewal!”
  • “Let us — PREY!!!”
  • “A Game Of Chicken… Punisher Style!”
  • “The Punisher takes a vacation… and Hawai will never be the same!”

These books, far fetched as they are, are always enjoyable to me for some reason.  I suspect it is the titular character that fascinates me more than anything.  It certainly isn’t the complex villains.  Most of Frank’s antagonists tend to be low-life crack dealers that catch a bullet by the end of the story.  Castle’s creators imbued him with a sense of integrity, and a moral code that he never strayed from no matter what.  As long as a building was full of thugs and murderers, he would have no qualms about wrecking it down to the foundation.  But throw in the chance of an innocent’s harm and he wouldn’t touch the building.

The Punisher is a character pretty close to my heart, and he was dealt with pretty faithfully in the Daredevil netflix show.  The way that the writers depicted Frank and Matt bouncing philosophy off of each other (as well as blows) was very faithful to the characters and their respective ethe.  From the new show I expected more of the same.  It followed that there would probably be more violence (even though Daredevil pushed the envelope pretty aggressively) but I was looking for more masterful scenes like this one.  (Which contains language and is really bloody by the way… just a heads up.)

Unfortunately the new show doesn’t really have anything like that, even though it is indeed very bloody.  There are a lot of sequences with potential.  Especially because of John Bernthal’s fantastic performance, but the show’s editing blows a lot of it.  Things were done to these scenes in postproduction, like cutting frames out of impressively choreographed shots that make them more jarring, but take away from the ability to simply sit back and relish the combat as one could in Daredevil.

Even more disturbing is the ideological hole in the show’s writing.

Okay, maybe “hole” is an overstatement, but there are some pretty radical changes made to the thematic direction of the show as compared to the comics.  Basically, Frank Castle and the characters around him become metaphors (or representations at least) for the different manifestations of shell shock, and the emotional scarring that comes with military service.

Frank Castle falls directly in the center of this spectrum.  He is clearly scarred by what happened when he was in service and the death of his family, which is more or less a consequence of events that occurred as a result of his service.  However he realizes that his behavior is borderline psychotic, he even tries to quit near the beginning of the show (obviously not for long).

Curtis Hoyle falls on the far left.  A former medic, his combat specialty symbolizes a pacifism that none of the other characters possess.  Curtis realizes that he did terrible things in the military, and lives his lives his life trying to distance himself and others from that past with the support group that he helms.

All the way to the right is Billy Russo.  Head of Anvil, a cutting edge private security company that flourishes, mainly because of Billy’s tactical expertise.  He isn’t bothered by war like Frank and Curtis.  He loves it, and he profits from it.

Midway between Russo and Castle falls young Lewis Wilson.  A good, obedient soldier like the rest, Lewis has done terrible things in the name of following orders.  He knows like Frank that these things were horrible, but for him, war is a drug.  He can’t sleep without a two foot dirt wall around him and his rifle at his side.  When he can’t adjust to a new life in a changing world like Hugo’s Javert before him, he ends his life.

Then there are characters that aren’t on the spectrum at all: David Leiberman A.K.A. Microchip, and O’Connor who you might say rest somewhere above and just below the line respectively.  O’Connor is a fraud.  A vet that never saw combat and didn’t win the earn the medals he flaunts.  In this way he is not dissimilar to Russo, they both use war for their own selfish ends.  Lieberman is unlike all these though.  He’s in the thick of things with Frank, but he really isn’t a soldier.  He also has his family, alive and well.  It isn’t too late for him to go back to them and away from the life that Frank has resigned himself to.

Now this is all well and good, actually it’s fascinating.  Such a compelling four-corners conflict is something that a lot of comic book properties try and fail to create.  Steve Lightfoot’s writing is not to be scoffed at.  The problem is that it is inherently un-punisher.  Not that this sort of moral ambiguity isn’t interesting, it just doesn’t belong in Punisher story.  Having Frank feel guilty about murdering an innocent man in cold blood (something the real Punisher would have never done) undercuts his strongest asset: his rock-solid moral compass.

I understand that the prospects of successfully marketing the quintessential killing machine in his original form are slim in our society with the current social climate and the accompanying  uneasiness regarding guns, and people who use them to kill lots of people.  However, the show over-corrects, to the point where Frank Castle isn’t really the protagonist.  Dinah Madani is.  Like us she watches from the outside, helping Frank and rooting for him, but still aghast at his actions and methodology.

Like I mentioned, this addition to the Netflix-Marvel canon is a competent one.  It’s a heck of a lot more watchable than most of the other shows, but I found myself a little unhappy with the way the titular character was treated.  He is a hero, albeit one with some unique characteristics.  The way this show is written, its hard to see him that way.

On the bright side of things, I’ve been reading Garth Ennis’ Punisher: The Platoon which is a fantastic miniseries that really fleshes out Frank’s character through his friends’ recollections of his time in Nam.


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