Ben Watches Television : The Punisher, Season One (2017)
It's 2017 and I am sick of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Don't get me wrong, I am sick of comic books' systematic colonization of popular culture, but I am particularly fed up with Marvel's bland, formulaic and revenue-driven way of doing things. I hate the colorful protagonists, their elaborate origin stories, their unfunny and repetitive jokes, their weak-ass space villains who always want to destroy the universe for some reason. And they're everywhere. Marvel Comics even has colonized my house.
Because there are Netflix series now. Five of them: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron First and The Defenders. All of them ranged from disappointing to there's-no-fucking-way-I'm-watching-that-not-even-with-a-gun-on-my-head. The writing is lurid and opportunistic and blatantly rips off the headlines in order to sell us back heroes that care about the same things we care about. Superheroes are empowering if they solve all out problems, right?
And then, this happened.
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
I've learned three things from this trailer:
1. Every previous adaptation of The Punisher doesn't matter anymore.
2. I really want to see Jon Bernthal kill motherfuckers for thirteen hours.
3. One is even better when it's not about a guy with no arms, no legs and no face.
But how's the show, right?
I have good news for you : it's fucking great. Way better than anything I would've expected. And there's a lot more to it than Jon Bernthal killing motherfuckers. See, the thing about this new Punisher project is that it's incredibly well-written. Not unlike the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, except it ambitiously tries to mix the hyperviolent heritage of the comic book with social commentary about PTSD and the treatment of war veterans... and it kind of works? Even... brilliantly? Hey, I was the first surprised.
The first original thing about The Punisher is that it's not about Frank Castle murdering organized crime figures to avenge his family. Well, there are three minutes or so dedicated to that and then, it moves on to what happens after. Deprived of any reason to live, Castle spends his days working construction and smashing down walls for a living. This sets up this iteration of the character really well : he's a man looking for a reason to live. A hollow shell bearing the weight of horror he imposed to others and that others brought back on him.
And destiny comes knocking when he receives a DVD featuring him and a squad of elite soldiers torturing and killing Ahmad Zubair, an Afghani cop that had no relationship whatsoever to terrorism. Not only someone is trying to blackmail him, but that person is trying to tell him something even more important: organized crime might've not killed his family. It might be his ex-employer, the government of the United States that did. So, The Punisher redirects what was a rather basic conflict of a good, conventional American father against the faceless evil of organized crime and makes it a conflict between a a dispossessed man and a bankrupt system.
It.... kind of casts Frank Castle into the terrorist part? The intangible threat going against a superpower with intent of spreading death and chaos. But, that's only the first brilliant thing about the show. Fans of the comic book love The Punisher because he's a ruthless killing machine with nothing to lose. He's entitled to killing because, well, what are you going to do to him? Kill him? You're only going to help him see his family again. Imprison him? He already is shackled by the tragedy that took his family for him. So, people find a certain catharsis in watching Frank Castle killing motherfuckers because he can.
But, it's not exactly the case here. The violence in this new Punisher series is never free of charge. There's this gorgeous scene in episode three that portrays the weight that extreme violence carries super well. Castle is progressing through a hallways full of Talibans, methotically taking them out. The more he progresses, the more the chip away at him : shooting him in the shoulder, fighting hand to hand and making him lose his weapons. By the end of the hallway, Castle has to bash an enemy's head in with a rock in order to survive. White Buffalo's Wish it was true slowly starts playing in the background in the middle of the scene and peaks right as Castle watches his enemy dies with a face full of blood.
By the end of the Afghanistan flashback, Frank Castle is so shell-shocked by what he just did, he turns against his superior. What is so great about that scene is that it took the legacy of the ultraviolent legacy of the comic book and applied it to real world individuals. So, the storyline is 100% comics and the characters are... maybe, 90% human beings, creating a new and unique dynamic for the show. PTSD and the impossible situation of veterans coming back is also addressed through support characters like Curtis, O'Connor and Lewis, which bring even more nuance to the argument that violence, while sometimes inevitable, affects everyone differently.
Otherwise, this is just a tremendously written show. The Punisher has a knack for confronting clichés and turning what would be run-of-the-mill scenes into memorable moments. Firefights are one of the show's battle horse. They're either quick and brutal (like real firefights) or not at all like you'd expect them to be. In episode 7, I believe, there is a firearm confrontation where like two or three shots are fired in five minutes. Protagonists are wandering in a room where two smoke grenades went off, looking for Frank Castle and only hearing the sound of their own breathing.
Steve Lightfoot. Remember that name. He's the creator and showrunner of The Punisher. It's the first project he's leading, but he worked on Hannibal (wrote 20 episodes) and Narcos before. Given that Netflix and Disney are going to part ways in a year or so, I wouldn't be surprised that the former called Lightfoot to work on it and make it different than the poor excuses for series that came beforehand. The Punisher is maybe one of the 6 or 7 best shows I've seen. I like it that much. It's that much better than whatever Marvel has on the market right now, partly because it's not a superhero story, partly because it doesn't try to be and partly because Steve Lightfoot is a tremendous writer.
There's a lot to look up to, but it's OK if you watch The Punisher and keep ignoring the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.