Marvel’s most sadistic vigilante has been an ongoing source of screen fascination, yielding movies of the uneven-to-bad variety. Although a Netflix series might look like more hospitable turf, “The Punisher” only marginally improves on that legacy, yielding a grim, plodding story that tends to confuse body count with achievement.
Joss Whedon, godfather of the geeks, hates the Punisher. And his hate isn’t just a cutesy oh-I-don’t-believe-in-guns-and-murder hate; it’s a rather extreme if-I-were-in-charge-I’d-kill-the-Punisher kind of hate.
Years ago, he called the Marvel antihero a ‘coward’ – the Punisher, you see, has a controversial affinity for firearms (and using said firearms to lethal effect). And Whedon – who has since earned the unique distinction of having directed both Marvel’s Avengers and (partially) DC’s Justice League – wasn’t done there. If you felt that he was being a tad unreasonable – we are, after all, talking about a comic book character here – and questioned him, then you were nothing but a fascist.
Well, if you’re the betting type, here’s a safe one for you: Joss Whedon isn’t going to like the new Netflix Punisher series.
Fortunately for all of us, our enjoyment of the Punisher does not depend on what Joss Whedon does or does not like, because not only does Frank Castle – that’s the Punisher’s alter ego – make use of a disgustingly huge arsenal of guns (mostly to kill, and sometimes to maim), but he does it in what is – and I do not exaggerate when I say this – a jaw-droppingly violent television programme.
It begins with a couple of stylishly done gunfights – not nearly as good as anything in the John Wick movies, but effective nonetheless – and before long, Frank’s either being tortured with merciless brutality, or he’s hacking limbs, pounding skulls and gouging the eyes out of enemies – drenched in buckets of blood as if poured by Quentin Tarantino himself.
It’ll be interestingly to see how blindsided Marvel fans are going to react to this. It might even be funny, because if humour’s what you’re looking for, you’re not getting any out of this show.
Not many people would have expected it to have gone in the directions that it did, but boy did it go there. The Punisher is already a deliciously dark character, but the one we see here – remember, he was a supporting character in season two of Daredevil, so this isn’t the first time our paths have crossed – has already avenged the death of his wife and kids, and yet, somehow, the fire in his soul rages on.
When we meet him again in episode 1, he’s still at war – but with whom, perhaps even he does not know. He spends his days hammering out his caged anger on walls, and his nights trying his best to avoid trouble. But trouble has a way of finding Frank Castle – and he isn’t the sort of guy who’d turn his back on it. He’s the sort of guy who’d stalk it from the shadows, chase it down alleys, and put a hole in its head.
And there lies the difference between this version of the Punisher and anything we’ve seen before, because I distinctly remember him turning his back on a woman being raped in Dirty Laundry, a short film based on the character, starring Thomas Jane.
But Jon Bernthal – by the way, what an absolute star he is – plays him more like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver than Christian Bale’s Batman – who is, perhaps, the closest relative of this kind of comic book hero. But his biggest contribution to this character is that he has made him human; hounded by nightmares of his family being murdered before his eyes, wracked with plunging guilt, and filled with seething rage.
Traditionally, the Punisher has always had a Kierkegaardian black and white morality – but Bernthal’s version is greyer than Woody Allen’s love life.
And this is reflected in the show’s visual language – most of the characters, like the sets, are dressed in varying shades of grey. Grey suits on dogged detectives, dirty grey walls of support group meeting rooms; steely elevators; fluorescent bunkers; grimy, Martin Scorsese-inspired New York City streets, the same ones Travis Bickle shuffled along on four decades ago… I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few weeks, dozens video essays attempting to dissect the sheer quality of filmmaking that has gone into this show pop up in my YouTube subscriptions.
But more than anything else, the Punisher has a way of sneaking up on you, unloading an armory-full of profundity, and reminding you, the geek, just how drastically the world of comic book movies and TV has changed since Joss Whedon made those comments all those years ago. We live in an era when superhero movies and shows are so much more than just men in masks punching other men in masks.
I’d be willing to wager no one – not even the most ardent Punisher fan – would have expected this show to tackle themes like PTSD, homegrown terrorism, war veterans and gun control. But it does – and it does it with remarkable bravery and insight. There’s no way of knowing just how mass shootings, a uniquely American problem, will translate here – I remember seeing AK-47s being sold on J&K footpaths like wholesale vegetables – but at least we could try.
Like its fellow Netflix/Marvel heroes – Daredevil (legal system), Jessica Jones (sexual assault) and Luke Cage (racism) – the Punisher is a beacon of hope in hopeless times. He’s the middle finger in a scabbed, clenched fist, aching to lay some hurt on the corrupt and the powerful.
The world – our world – has been unkind to Frank Castle, but however hard it tries – and it has tried really hard – it hasn’t managed to kill his humanity.