I’m Shocked by How Much I’m Enjoying ‘The Punisher’


#1

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Yes, Jessica Jones season two just landed, and yes, Jessica Jones has long been hands-down my favorite Marvel anything ( Black Panther, though, has a pretty solid shot at number one). But I haven’t watched it yet, and that’s partially because I’m knee deep in a Marvel series I thought would kind of suck: The Punisher.

Outside of Jessica Jones and Legion, I’ve not been impressed with most Marvel shows (or movies, but that’s another story, and there are exceptions). Daredevil bored me, despite the surface-level fun of a lawyer running around NYC beating up bad guys, and then it got too silly to even pretend to take seriously. Catholic Guilt Batman is just not my dude, I’m sorry.

Frank Castle (aka The Punisher!) showed up in season 2 of Daredevil, and he’s an angsty, angry white guy with a dark past. They tend to be among my least favorite superheroes, and here again, I’m not terribly invested in Castle himself—a vet who did shady things in the war and came home to have his family slaughtered—though he has more weight to him than I first expected. But the rest of the show, and the universe of the show, is far more complex and interesting than I ever dared hope.

I’m mid-way through the first season, so things could get very Marvel from here. But the show thus far has been a fascinating, nuanced, arguably anti-war piece that seems legitimately interested in the experiences of servicemembers. Many scenes revolve around a talk therapy group for vets, where one of Castle’s old war buddies tries to help other folks who served into a successful “second life” in the civilian world. It’s not super subtle, and there sure is a big NRA/MAGA fan dude in the group (that storyline also goes places, I'm told), but the show goes to lengths to soberly present the PTSD that rocks folks who have been made to experience violence, and the cold welcome they receive in an uncaring country.

The scene that cemented the show for me in the anti-war category involves Castle in a brutal battle with Wish It Was True by White Buffalo playing over it. It’s unglamorous and rightly disturbing.

Subtle? No, of course not. But it’s refreshing. Most action shows revel in the badassery of violence, the sexiness of military uniforms and jargon and guns. I'm not saying that the show never tips into that. But it has other ideas.

The Punisher would rather give us glimpses of a boring, gray, painful life that many vets get to deal with after coming home. Working crappy jobs. Barely scraping by. Not getting the proper help or treatment they deserve after serving. It’s not the whole focus of the show, but the fact that it is thematically supported on every tier and storyline, and given much more than lip service is a step.

Now, I'm not the only person who reads the show this way, but I'd be very remiss if I didn't point out that it is also a hyper-violent power fantasy about an angry guy with guns who goes after bad guys. I realize there's a lot to reconcile there, and it brushes uncomfortably close to "good guy with a gun" rhetoric that the fake-vet NRA plant who tries to recruit at the support group spouts.

At the very least, I think the show is aware of the tension.

And then there’s Special Agent Dinah Madani, a field agent who did her time overseas and wants to expose the wrongdoing in the world (and the war). She is a complex character, a Persian woman who believes 100% in herself and in the power of the system she works for, and in the possibility of actual justice. I like her, but I like her mom even better, played as she is by Shoreh Aghdashloo (aka Chrisjen Avasarala on The Expanse, an older diplomat who Takes No Shit), and they have fantastic mother-daughter chats about the moral grays of the universe.

So, yes, I will absolutely get to Jessica Jones’ second season soon. But not until I finish up The Punisher, officially my first “very glad I didn’t judge this book by it’s cover” selection of 2018.

How about you, readers? Is there a game/movie/show that looked like it wasn’t your thing, but ended up pleasantly surprising you? Let us know in the forums!

Have thoughts? Swing by Waypoint’s forums to share them!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/3k73jb/the-punisher-anti-war

#2

Really happy to hear more people are giving The Punisher series a chance, if for none of the reasons you pointed out in the article then at least for Jon Bernthals earthshattering performance as Frank. He so utterly embodies the character and finds such a great balance between being an almost nature-like kind of force and being so vulnerable and damaged. He just oozes pathos in every possible way, and I honestly think he might be my favorite performance over the entire Marvel/Netflix universe.

The show is fantastic, especially because, like, it could’ve been such a fucking tragedy considering the source material and the themes it deals with, but it never felt to me like the show wasn’t aware or acknowledging the potential pitfalls all the way through. Maybe some of it isn’t exactly original, but the way it puts the button on most of the plot elements is pretty damn satisfying.

Edit: Also, Tom Waits has a song in the first episode which… I mean if you ever want to sell me on a show then put some Tom Waits in there.


#3

I tapped out three-quarters of the way through because, even though the show is nowhere near as right-wing in some ways as it could be, it still expects us to empathize with someone who is, explicitly, a war criminal. I grew up steeped in the traditions of The Dark Knight and “Catholic guilt Batman” and, yes, the Punisher as favorite comic book characters, but as I get older I find myself unable to stomach the rationalizations required for these particular hero fantasies.


#4

No shade on Danielle, but I’ve noticed a lot of excited recommend articles about Marvel stuff like this comes with the caveat “I’m only halfway through the show”. I don’t blame anybody for being this way, I kept trying to have this hope for their stuff too, but boy it’s hard not to be immensely skeptical of where the shows are actually going by now.

Like, a show like The Punisher can seem like it’s anti-war for most of its runtime but it has ample opportunity to 180 (or like, 90 or 45 in instances like this) at literally any time. Antihero stories are playing with fire and TV writing is abysmal at handling that fire, doubly so for how Marvel stuff is forced to frame things by their wrapup.


#5

If anything I’d say the Punisher doubles down on being anti-war in the second half. It does get more violent to be sure, but, like, it’s never “pretty” if that makes sense? Like The Punisher might be the least violence glorifying violent tv show I have ever seen, every time violence occurs it is so ugly and, I hate to use this word, “real” that it’s borderline impossible to feel like they are trying to put it on a pedestal, and the same honestly goes for Frank.

I feel like the writers were very aware of the fire you are talking about, and Frank is never put in positive light by way of his violent or malicious actions, In fact it’s quite the opposite. Frank’s violent acts tend to serve as a reminder of the fact that he very much isn’t a hero, and his emotional damage stemming from family tragedies, trauma from the war, betrayal, being desensitized to violence all serves to underline the what broke him as a human being. It is, ultimately, what the Punisher at it’s heart is about: Broken people trying to put their lives back together. The fact that they’re broken is never glorified, it’s simply used to underline the tragedy of the characters.

The way the show makes you look at Frank Castle is very much the same way you’d look at a beaten dog who bites anyone who comes close to it. Sometimes it may bite some bad people, but it’s never cool, it’s never nice. Most of the time it’s just really god damn sad.


#6

I think that’s a pretty good reading @Lassemomme; Frank-as-abused-dog holds for most of the show, and the violence, even as it escalates later on, never feels celebratory or even “right”.

My thing with the back half of The Punisher is that it stumbles whenever it tries to directly address its own politics; it’s either unwilling or unable to take a side, or, maybe more telling, find a meaningful way to interrogate the sides in play. There are a couple of episodes where it dips its toe into the gun control debate, but it muddies the waters by making these ad hominem arguments about those pro- and anti-gun - it conflates anti-gun sentiments with a cowardly, sneering, money-hungry politician and pro-gun with a truth-seeking, iconoclastic journalist, all in a ham-fisted attempt to balance all the Bad Bad Gun Violence that suffuses practically every other scene.

It’s like every time it raises a thorny, complicated issue, it immediately turns tail and runs full speed in the opposite direction, searching for some kind of neutral middle-ground, usually by alienating the audience from the characters who serve as a mouthpiece for that issue. It turns the MAGA stand-in into a pathological liar and radicalizes every character in the throes of PTSD, it thinks the intelligence community is deeply corrupt and then celebrates its hero agent for ignoring protocol and the rule of law in service of vigilante justice.

And the thing that’s frustrating about that is that when the show isn’t trying to be overt in its politics, it does a way better job of engaging with them; it’s at its best (and FWIW I think, for the most part, it’s at its best more often than it’s at its worst) when it’s about complicated, damaged people crashing into each other, looking for some kind of connection or peace.


#7

Stepping away from the Punisher critique and going back to the question of something I liked that I thought wouldn’t be my thing; we’re gonna travel back in time to think about a little game called Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

While I always though extreme sports were cool, I always wanted truly over-the-top stuff when it came to video game sports. I wanted the flipping dunks in NBA Jam, the illegal street races of ESPN Extreme Games (not actually a good game… just one I was fascinated with because it had street luges), and the pool jousting from Skate or Die. So a game that had real names attached and real tricks seemed like it would be very much not my thing. But the incredibly positive reviews eventually wore me down, I gave it a shot, and I couldn’t have been more happy to be wrong.


#8

I think these are all good points, and maybe I’m a bit more forgiving of the show not taking as hard of a stand as it probably could because I just didn’t expect it to get any type nuance right, like, at all. I absolutely agree that the politics of the show are probably the weakest aspects of the show, and the show kinda leaves a lot on the table by not presenting it’s own attempt at answering its own questions, especially considering how deftly they use these questions as a backdrop to shape their characters.

I don’t know, I think maybe the reason I’m good with that in this case is that the interpersonal stories they create around Lewis, Frank, Billy and Curtis (incidentally probably the only person who isn’t mentally scarred beyond repair by war, but paid his price in flesh) are so satisfying, and are handled with so much care that I sort of get lost in that part of it.