Piotrek: And the winner of my personal favourite tv series of the year award is… Stranger Things, again. Punisher is a close second. It means a lot, considering in 2017 I’ve seen American Gods, Legion, Samurai Jack’s final season and discovered Rick and Morty. It was even better than this little beauty that sparked my hopes a few years back. I might go as far as to say Netflix might have saved its part of the MCU with this, although it is not a typical superhero show. And it’s not as linked together with Jessica Jones or Daredevil, Frank Castle wasn’t even part of The Defenders (and good for him 😉 ). It is a TV series based on a Marvel comic, part of the geek takeover of the pop-culture of our times, but mostly it is a great story about, and commentary on, the war on terror, military/society relations, and, most of all, individuals involved in all this.
Ola: Huh, for me it’s the other way round: Punisher just a hair breadth before Stranger Things, right up there with the first season of Daredevil among the very best MCU has to offer. Punisher is the comic-based TV series I’ve been waiting for: dark, gritty, realistic, tackling vital and controversial themes and topics in a way that is both respectful and immensely entertaining. It is closely linked with Daredevil, both in the overarching theme of violence as a means of justice, with DD and Punisher two sides of the same ethical coin, and in the supporting cast of characters – most notably Karen Page, who plays an important role in both series.
Thankfully, after the lessons of The Iron Fist and The Defenders, the creators of Punisher decided to go all out and not make a simplified, “fun”, tamed version of the titular anti-hero. Punisher’s dark allure stems at least partly from the fact that he’s morally ambiguous, at least from the perspective of conventional, everyday morality. He’s the dark side of Captain America, Jungian Shadow, if you will. The difference between the two of them boils down to the difference of experience – WWII compared to GWOT comes out as an easy, straight type of conflict, where you knew what was good and what was evil. This assumption is reinforced by both the Marvel comics (confrontation between Punisher and Cap in Civil War) and movies (vide: Captain America: First Avenger with its cartoonish image of WWII).
Piotrek: Do we need to assume anybody got here without having the basic knowledge of the MCU and its Netflix division? Maybe, maybe not, so let me just briefly state the basics. And it makes sense here, because, more than most, this show stands well on its own – although it gains in the context, and comparisons with Daredevil and Cap are particularly justified. So, if you want no superpowers of any kind, but a bitter veteran vigilante sounds like fun – start with Punisher. A vengeance-obsessed Marine veteran who made his debut in 1974 trying to… kill Spider-Man. Yes, he’s usually somewhere between anti-hero and troubled villain. Generally – a bloodthirsty vigilante, whose goal is to kill the bad guys (and guess who decides who is one….). It wasn’t common these days, where the earnest goodness of Captain America was the norm, not a refreshing oddity. He continued in various incarnations, a fairly recognized face in the Marvel Universe, sometimes going from grim to grimmer, as in a Punisher MAX run I think I’m going to read soon. In Netflix’s corner of the MCU he arrived in the second season of Daredevil, fighting against the devils, but not necessarily on the side of angels.
A tough hero of a show asking tough questions, without offering easy answers. One topic where Punisher gets really controversial – for me – is the gun control discussion. What is said here fits the franchise, but not my delicate European sensitivities.
Ola: It’s a tough one for Europeans, that’s for sure. I was actually quite surprised with how moderate Punisher, of all Marvel/Netflix creations (!) is in this respect. When you look at the opening sequence, the gun fetish is there in all its terrible beauty/ugliness (depending on which side of pond – literally and metaphorically speaking – you are). The whole sequence is actually a love letter to lethal weaponry 😛 In all MCU/Netflix productions there is an undercurrent of ambiguity related to the whole idea of vigilantism. Is it OK for you to take law into your own hands? What makes you so special and better than the rest of society? And in Punisher it is doubly emphasised – both in the main characters of Castle and Micro, and in the supporting story arc of Lewis.
Piotrek: Sure. But Netlifx shows do not cater to your usual pro-gun audience… or so I believe. And it’s one thing when we have warriors playing with weapons, but when a gun-control senator gets ridiculed, and Karen – the moral compass of this universe – calmly advocates always carrying a gun with you…
But lets go back to the wider picture… I’m not that well versed in the world of Punisher, but what we see here agrees with my picture of this character. His background, his enemies, both ones he had to face in season one and the ones he created there…
Ola: They actually changed a lot from the original comics – and Punisher as a story is so much better for it. I read this whole series as a pean – and dirge – to all GWOT veterans. Jigsaw (to avoid spoilers I’ll be using only code names here) was originally just a petty criminal, elevated to the status of Castle’s archenemy by an accident and not a common history or – even deeper – a moral dichotomy. Micro has changed a lot as well when compared to the comics – and I think for the better. And I won’t even mention Karen Page, who in comics is a traitorous junkie and in the Netflix series becomes the most grounded, interesting and strong-headed female character (and yes, I count the superhero groupie Night Nurse here as well).
Piotrek: I still want the Night Nurse to get her own show. Another worthy addition to the MCU(N) is Dinah Madani, Department of Homeland Security agent fighting both racism and sexism to do her job, and right some past wrongs. Which is where her trajectory coincides with Frank’s…
Ola: Frank’s character needs a special place here – Jon Bernthal plays him incredibly well, showing under the hard, unforgiving surface an inner vulnerability the original comic book character seemed so devoid of. But I also very much liked Karen Page mentioned above (not in the least for her ambivalence, indicated above) – and Curtis. He represents one other possibility for Frank – the chance of becoming a member of a meaningful group, of finding his own place in a society which has turned its back on the morally and physically wounded soldiers. And he’s not your poster boy, without problems or doubts – in the short series the creators – and Jason R. Moore – managed to make Curtis a multi-dimensional character. I also warmed up to Dinah, whose general Wild West attitude and love for old muscle cars strongly reminded me of a 70’s American flick, Vanishing Point :).
Piotrek: There are no superpowers here. Strange thing for a comic book show…
Ola: And for once I’m glad of it. It makes this whole endeavor much more realistic, letting the creators reach far beyond the admittedly limited (at least recently) roots of superhero genre. I know I’m rather alone in my conviction that superhero movies can – and should – say a lot about our society, that the broad boundaries of the genre admit a slew of topics not readily invited to you regular commercial, blockbuster cinema – such as diversity, tolerance, xenophobia, moral ambiguity, not-happy-endings… And I mean not just slogans slapped at a fast-food concoction of nice faces and fashionable clothing peppered with product placement, but a real, in-depth reflection of what they really mean. Punisher is a fresh start for reflection like this. It doesn’t force the viewers to think, but it definitely invites them to consider at least a few of the controversial themes it covers: from the morality of war, through the values of modern society (and its hypocrisy as well), to the Big-Brother nature of today’s world and the limits we must impose on ourselves or else be lost in chaos. But at the same time, Punisher is highly entertaining, darkly funny, emotional, and with action scenes rivalring those from the big screen.
Piotrek: And we should remember that comic books are a medium, and superhero comics only a part of the vast, glorious world. I mean, Eisner himself, patron saint of the comic books’ authors (via their most important award)…
Another medium, one missing from comic books – music (I know, music goes well with them, but the actual sounds are not included). Tyler Bytes, composer I’ve noticed for the first time in 300 back in 2006, created a superb, guitar-heavy soundtrack, and let me just quote him (from Variety text on music Marvel’s TV shows):
The rough edges and broken nature of it leaves a great deal of space for emotion and interesting color – and a bit of an attitude. Otherwise it’s not going to be an authentic expression of the idea. There’s a darkness in there that I’m happy to tap into.
So, Punisher… it’s entertaining, thought-provoking, graphic, is it realistic? In its depiction of veterans, war trauma, the different effects of extreme experiences on human beings? Nobody could shoot as good as Frank Castle, and nobody could survive so much damage, but what about the different kind of realism?
That is a very interesting topic that will be the focus of another post, soon to arrive at Re-enchantment 🙂
Score: 10/10 Ola, 9,5/10 Piotrek