Maybe you should just shoot him!
by Thom Yee
“Sure, I use a lot of automatic weapons and they have their place in combat. But I also have gone into my share of combat with a pump shotgun. The U.S. Marines use a Remington Model 870. I made great use of several in Vietnam, where I kept a cut-down shotgun close to me at all times. We’d cut down the barrel to, like 10” and load it up with 00 buckshot. Because, when ambushed, you might get the piece pointed in the general direction before you pulled the trigger. But, sometimes that was all that would be needed. Rapid-fire shot loads have the same effect as machine-gun fire, especially when there’s more than one shotgun.”
The preceding is a quote from The Punisher Armory #10, a comicbook published in 1994 at the height of the Punisher character’s popularity. Each issue in the series focused on different parts of the Punisher’s arsenal, its pages filled with equal parts technical and historical knowledge on various weapons as well as some sort of anecdote on what they’re used for (killing) and who they’re used on (bad guys). The above isn’t necessarily the most graphic or horrific account, but when you consider that comics in the ’90s were still considered to be primarily for children, the whole concept of The Punisher Armory starts coming across as off-colour as using a story about knife murder to sell your catalog retailer’s night shirts (Sleep tight mates!).
Ask a lot of comicbook people, people like me who grew up collecting and reading comics, and you’re probably not going to find many of us who would call the Punisher our favourite comicbook character. But if you ask a more normal person, particularly ones who grew up in the ‘90s, who may have read a few comics or who had comicbook-collecting friends but never really got into comics themselves, who their favourite comicbook character is, I think you’d be surprised at how many remember the Punisher fondly. The Punisher is one of those few and select comicbook characters who’s left a cultural imprint that far exceeds his origins. As a comicbook character the Punisher was one of the headlining players of the so-called “grim and gritty” era of the ‘80s and ‘90s that saw gun-toting vigilantes and killers outnumbering the more traditional heroes in capes and tights, but as a piece of our collective pop culture, the character represents a strangely accessible type of urban violence.
The skull symbol of the Punisher in particular can be seen all over different social groups, many of them at odds with each other, whether it’s in street art, gang symbols, military signs, or kids’ lunch boxes, and I think there’s a very significant part of that that comes from how much us ‘90s kids were sold violence as entertainment. And, looking back, that’s really weird. We were growing up in the wake of ‘80s action movies that lionized murder as justifiable and violence as the only solution, we consumed media that had us convinced we were going to grow up to become hero cops, military champions, and covert operatives with licences to kill, we carried knives and bats and home-made nunchuks with us everywhere we went, and sometimes I think the only thing that stopped us from becoming self-righteous, homicidal lowlifes was the meta-commentary inherent in the fact that, as the ‘90s progressed towards the 2000s, those grim and gritty movies and comics gradually became less popular.
Or maybe that was just me. Anyway, here’s our Punisher season one review, likely the last major piece we’ll be publishing before the holidays. Merry Christmas.
What’s it about?
With the death of his family by the mob now avenged, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), dubbed the Punisher by the media, is slowly recovering from the violence that’s consumed his life. Sort of. Okay, not really. Not really at all. A former marine and a spec-ops specialist, Frank’s spirit is restless, and when he discovers that the details of his family’s death go much further than he first thought, he partners with Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), himself the victim of a government conspiracy that separated him from his family, to punish (i.e., kill) those responsible.
At first glance, there’s not really a whole lot to the Punisher. In some ways, he’s the definition of a first-glance character: He’s big, he’s mean, he carries a lot of guns and knows how to use them, he’s just about the furthest thing from a superhero while still wearing a recognizable logo on his shirt, and, if you cared to find out, vengeance for his dead family is his origin story. The creation of writer Gerry Conway, the Punisher first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #129 in 1974 as an antagonist for the titular webslinger who, at the time, was wanted for the murder of Norman Osborn (a.k.a., the Green Goblin, a supervillain who, by the way, wasn’t dead or at least never stays that way). Though not quite a villain himself, the Punisher was one of the first comicbook characters who actively killed criminals rather than abiding by the ol’ “If we killed our enemies how would we be different from them?” code that most superheroes tend to spout, and if we limited ourselves only to that type of first-glance, brass-tacks look at the Punisher, that would be all you need to know about the character. Luckily (especially for the purposes of watching an entire 13-episode series on the character), there’s at least one other factor when it comes to the Punisher story, and that’s that he’s a war hero, a wrinkle that not only explains the character’s skills and methods but adds significantly to the breadth of potential Punisher stories.
Unfortunately, Netflix’s The Punisher isn’t exactly debuting at the zenith of the Internet streaming network’s term with the street-level heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Neither Iron Fist nor The Defenders, the two Netflix shows that preceded it in this little corner of the MCU, were received as warmly as Netflix’s earlier MCU forays (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage), and with the news that Disney, Marvel’s parent company, is planning to launch its own streaming service, it appears that Netflix is on borrowed time when it comes to any of Marvel’s properties (movies or shows). Plus there’s the whole gun violence thing, something that, for good reasons, is an ongoing debate in America, but also something that’s, horribly, become increasingly hard to avoid with the number of American mass shootings. Two of the deadliest mass shootings in American history, the Pulse night club shooting in Orlando and the Harvest Music Festival shooting in Las Vegas, happened just this year, the latter of which actually caused the cancellation of The Punisher’s planned promotions at this year’s New York Comic Con. None of that’s very good news for the Punisher’s very first prestige-format miniseries (not that those last ones, mass shootings, are ever good for anyone), but, like I said a bit earlier, luckily there’s more to the character than just gun violence.
Is It Any Good?
At this late stage of the game in Netflix’s Marvel shows, two-and-a-half years and six series into it, it’s only natural to be a little skeptical if not outright dismissive of The Punisher. Especially after the critical misfire that was Iron Fist earlier this year. And ESPECIALLY in light of recent mass shootings. A vigilante at best and a mass murderer at worst, the Punisher is far from what we’re usually looking for when it comes to heroes, and as much as we can understand the character’s pain and motivations with the wrongful, violent, and premature death of his family, it’s hard to get behind the image of a cold, merciless, gun-toting killer as a hero let alone the hero we deserve right now. And that’s too bad, because there’s a lot more going on in The Punisher than you might think, and, despite the sheer brutality at the heart of the character, I think The Punisher is easily the most thought-provoking of Netflix’s Marvel shows.
When we first meet Frank he’s apparently concluded his Punisher tour of vengeance, having killed the last of the mobsters involved in the killing of his family and given up the vigilante lifestyle in favour of a simple construction job, and given the realism that’s soon to follow with the rest of the series, it’s a good thing that he’s burned the skull symbol flak jacket he donned in Daredevil season two because it’s the type of thing that would come across as an unnecessary affectation if he wore it throughout the entire 13 episodes. The Punisher doesn’t take place in a world full of superheroes or villains, there are no superpowers or rooftop battles with mystical ninjas, and not once is there even a mention of the famous Battle of New York from 2012’s The Avengers. People don’t fly in this world, bullets go right through them rather than bouncing off their chests, and most fights end quickly with deaths that reverberate with consequence, so wearing a costume, even one as grim and foreboding as a deathly skull, might not come across right.
If you watched the trailer above, you might think that The Punisher is a pretty violent show, and while it is violent, I wouldn’t say it’s very violent. It doesn’t revel in violence, glorify violence, or overdo it. By it’s nature it’s violent, but this show isn’t “The Punisher! F*ck yeah!”, it uses its violence sparingly and shows you just how devastating the impact of each of these violent actions is. The Punisher is really more of a character piece. From the outset it’s clear that Frank is still a tortured soul, tortured over the loss of his family to be sure, but as the series progresses it becomes increasingly clear that even if his family was still alive, he wouldn’t be okay. As a war veteran, an incredibly effective and efficient killer, and as a soldier who was called on, under orders, to perform sometimes unspeakable acts, he was never going to be okay, and it’s an open question as to whether or not his time at war cost him everything or it simply awakened a beast already inside of him.
It’s those same unspeakable acts performed under orders that fill out the story that’s focused on in this first season of The Punisher as we learn of the later machinations of the people at the head of the special operations Frank, along with his war buddy and best friend, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), engaged in. The broader picture of Frank’s family’s death, the specifics of those he killed in Afghanistan on spec-ops, the intentions of his superior officers now vying for greater control of their various covert organizations, and the Homeland Security officers after him all come together in sometimes overt and sometimes subtle ways, and when he’s contacted by Micro, a former NSA analyst forced to fake his own death to keep his family out of danger, the game is on.
Well, not exactly, Frank and Micro don’t exactly get along at first, and it’s watching the two try to work with each other that makes much of this show work. They’re the classic odd couple, only both aren’t particularly concerned with the state of their living conditions (try not to pay too much attention to how gross the bathroom of their hidden bunker location is), and there’s a part of me that could watch hours of this show just driving each other crazy. For the most part, the characters in The Punisher all bounce off each other well and genuinely, and, unlike a lot of superhero shows, nothing about what happens in The Punisher feels predicated on their stupidity. The Punisher is full of realistic and competent people who aren’t stupid or annoying or ignorant for the sake of the plot, and that’s, surprisingly (and unfortunately), refreshing for a series like this.
In fact, if you didn’t tell me beforehand (and I ignored the more obvious signs), I wouldn’t know this was a Punisher show at all. It feels more real than anything else in the MCU, and while there’s obviously an element of intentional design in that, it’s realistic execution that pulls the whole thing through. Exchanges between these characters feel genuine, they’re not virtuous and heroic, mustache-twirlingly villainous, especially good or bad, and mostly true to life. The show has protagonists and antagonists, but there’s no clear heroes, villains, big bads, or even throughlines for the show to continuously follow in its 13-episode run. Normally a lot of that is actually bad, especially the lack of an identifiable overarching bad guy, but here it speaks to a more realistic situation than some big, fat, real-estate-manipulating Kingpin or some wannabe gangster in a ridiculous outfit, and most importantly, it doesn’t keep the show from having a constant sense of motion. When you finally learn the ultimate cause of Frank’s family’s death, it’s actually kind of heartbreaking to see who’s involved, and he (or she!) turns out to be less a straight up villain but someone who’s bitter about his/her past and, from that past, learned how important it is to be in control.
There are things going on in The Punisher that go much deeper than any previous Netflix Marvel show, things that certainly have to do with the effects of violence but have more to do with the effects of war. Where gun violence will always be somewhat hard to comprehend, war is beyond all reasonable comprehension. Whatever you may think of the military industrial complex, what happens to the soldiers who go to war is something that should never be ignored or forgotten, and that informs the majority of The Punisher’s reason for existing. There’s a whole side of the Punisher character that has little if anything to do with comicbooks, kids stories, or urban violence, and this iteration of the character, his story in this first season, and how truly messy war can be for all sides is a topic that’s handled with almost shocking sensitivity in this show.
So Should I See It?
I’ve never really liked the Punisher. So right there that’s probably not a good foot to start off on with this show for me. He doesn’t appeal to the part of me that loves comicbooks, the fantastic and extraordinary, the universe-shattering consequences and heroes who always save the day. I don’t usually collect Punisher comics and I don’t spend any particular time thinking about the character, but when a good Punisher story shows up, I’ll usually try to pay attention. This is one of those stories.
Jon Bernthal is a perfect Punisher, ripped straight out of the John-Romita-Jr.-drawn comic book page, with the functional toughness and unrelenting intensity that the character calls for, and the story being told in The Punisher in this first season is one with universal appeals and heavier themes than most other comicbook properties. All our lives we’re told to find our places in the world, to find what we’re good at, to find ourselves, and that once we do we’ll be free. That’s the dream at the core of who we’re all trying to become. But what if what you are might be something horrible? That’s the dilemma at the heart of the Punisher character, and this show understands that. It’s brutal, it’s hard and mean, but it’s real, and it’s willing to face some real issues that are relevant, have always been there, and, unfortunately, probably always will be there. Of all Marvel’s Netflix shows, I think this one has the best shot of making you really care.
Thom’s The Punisher season 1 final score
On the Edge
- Gnucci family reference!
- What kind of weirdo has a picture of their family as their desktop wallpaper? A well-adjusted person?
- Knew he was going to take the Mustang! As soon as I saw a bunch of exotic cars and a Mustang, I knew he would go with American muscle.
- Anvil should do security work for Hammer Industries. I mean, the poetry practically writes itself.
- That’s two prestige-format shows (this and Westworld) that Ben Barnes goes out like a punk.
- That Turk actor must have a pretty good Netflix overall contract; he’s in Stranger Things and he escaped the wrath of the Punisher!
- Brett, the cop from Daredevil! Continuity!
- Speaking of, I really liked Daredevil’s Karen Page here. I like her better as a confident, smart character rather than the naïve one she started off as before undeservedly being given a job as a journalist (as if you don’t have to go to school for those things).
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