Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Vocabulary of Bullets: The Punisher

Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle in The Punisher, on Netflix.

Country, I was a soldier to you.
I did what you asked me to.
It was wrong, and you knew.

Country, now I'm just a stranger to you.
A number, a name; it's true.
Throw me away when you're through.
– "I Wish It Was True" by The White Buffalo/Jake Smith
Now, that’s more like it. After two long years, we finally get a Marvel/Netflix series worthy of the promise demonstrated by the first season of Daredevil and the audacious Jessica Jones. (The last 18 months have given us an uneven sophomore season of Daredevil, the missteps at the end of the otherwise impressive Luke Cage, the terminally sluggish Iron Fist and the fun, action-packed, but ultimately forgettable Defenders team-up miniseries in August.) Frank Castle – a.k.a. The Punisher, played again by Jon Bernthal – was the best thing by far in Daredevil’s second season, and now he is back in The Punisher. If you (like me) lost faith in Netflix’s small urban corner of the MCU sometime during your viewing of Iron Fist (I abandoned the show in the middle of its 8th episode and have never looked back), this first season of The Punisher is likely to bring you back to the fold. Though bloodier by far than any other Netflix/Marvel outing, Punisher offers its most character-driven story since Jones, and its most relevant since Luke Cage.

The new series – which premiered on Netflix on November 17 – picks up Castle’s story six months after at the end of Daredevil’s second season. With “Frank Castle” officially dead, he has been living under the name Pete Castiglione, a brooding and largely unspeaking construction worker with a full beard and a thousand-yard stare. We’re re-introduced to Castle as if he’s been in a stupor since his last appearance, having put down his Kevlar and automatic weapons months earlier after having dispatched the man he believed was behind the killings of his wife and children. Soon, however, the mysterious “Micro” reaches out to him, closing the circle on the man behind the word scrawled on the DVD that Castle grabbed from his apartment in his final moments on Daredevil. “Micro” is, in fact, David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Girls), a former NSA analyst and hacker who – also believed dead – has been living off the grid for over a year after doing “the right thing” and sending damning video evidence of American misconduct in Afghanistan up the chain of an increasingly corrupt command. (That video also, it turns out, holds the key to Castle’s own personal quest to track down every last person responsible for his family’s gruesome murders.)

The relationship that develops between David and Frank (with its oil & water/black coffee & camomile tea chemistry) is one of the strongest components of the show. Since both are innately solitary and mistrustful, it takes several episodes for either of them to break through the layers of shielding resulting from the pain and (well-earned) paranoia each carries, but the slow-burn friendship ultimately rings truer than most of the others pairings the Netflix shows have given us. Moreover, the scenes that Frank (as “Pete”) shares with Lieberman’s wife (Jaime Ray Newman, Mind Games) and children provide us with the few crucial glimpses we have of what Frank may have been like before watching his family get gunned down. A season’s worth of the soft-focused memories that regularly come to Frank as dreams reveal less of the kind of husband and father he was than any one of the short scenes he shares with David’s daughter (Ripley Sobo).

Amber Rose Revah and Michael Nathanson in The Punisher.

Also on Castle’s tail is Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah, Emerald City), recently returned from Afghanistan and fixated on finding out the truth behind the torture and murder of her former partner – the ill-fated prisoner on the video that Lieberman discovered. Blocked at every turn by the powers that be, she soon finds herself face to face with Castle, who she begins to understand is not truly the domestic terrorist he’s been painted to be. Dinah is a compelling new addition to the Netflix shows, a hardcore personality who shakes off betrayal better than anyone on the show – even Castle, who is seemingly betrayed on a daily basis. Madani’s particular brand of hard-boiled kick-assery is worth comparing to the path Luke Cage’s Misty Knight (Simone Missick) took in The Defenders, and both are a welcome respite from female characters often relegated to love interest/caregiver roles. (Notably less successful is Dinah’s Homeland partner Sam Stein, played by Michael Nathanson, whose role seems largely to be to give Dinah a sounding board at the office and provide opportunities for strained banter and expository dialogue. Both Stein, and Nathanson, deserve better than this cut-out of a character with little hint of any inner life.)

But plot and intricate conspiracies aside, The Punisher’s power lies in its sensitive unfolding of Frank Castle’s true battle, the comparatively quiet one raging inside him since his return from his tours of duty. Fronting his own series, Bernthal is given the time and space to deepen a character who, up to now, has spoken primarily through a vocabulary of bullets – and it is entirely to the actor’s credit that he can invest the character with such pathos. Castle’s Special Forces training and experience has not only made him, it's also broken him. And he is joined by an equally broken ensemble cast of characters – some of them friends, some of them foes, and some of them both. This one season gives us many, and varied, characters who are each struggling in their own way to survive – former soldiers, veterans who don’t know to live on when they no longer have a war to fight, each learning to live in, as Castle puts, “the silence when the gunfire ends.” As raw and sympathetic as this portrayal is, the series also is wise enough not to pretend to offer any solutions, choosing instead to portray the problem itself in all of its urgency.

All superhero narratives, on some level, testify to some degree to a broken or impotent system. (What else does is Commissioner Gordon declaring every time he presses the button that flashes the Bat-Signal above Gotham?) To their credit, Marvel/Netflix has jumped in with both feet on these questions in every one of its shows – most pointedly in the struggle within lawyer/part-time vigilante Matt Murdock. In Daredevil’s second season, the introduction of Frank Castle, a man-sized, gravel-voiced incarnation of Matt’s own inner demons, powerfully externalized that previously internal conflict. (That season’s comparatively less compelling story of Daredevil’s pairing with Elektra and the war with the ancient criminal organization called “The Hand” pales in force to the Castle storyline, and so it is not surprising that the two series which pick up that side of the plot – first Iron Fist, and then, reaching its noisy apex, The Defenders – have been less successful.) Fortunately, The Punisher was waiting in the wings to pick up the other mantle and run with it.

Of all the vigilante heroes Marvel has given us on the page and screen, Punisher has long been among the most honest and self-aware. He knows who he is and what he does. When he showed up in comics (his first appearance was in 1974, and his first ongoing comic launched in 1987), his anti-hero aspect and gun fixation threw a splash of cold water on the superhero world. But that was then, and this
is . . .  2017. And now it is exceedingly difficult to make a case that this is the right time to cheer on a character who settles his differences with a hail of gunfire and wry, post-mortem quips. (Batman, as dark, and often silly, as he can get, has always pointedly refused to pick up a gun or kill – and his quarry always survives to end up behind bars.) For Punisher, however, killing is the rule – and mercy only the exception. On these terms, this is either the best or the worst time for The Punisher to premiere. For all its strengths, with respect to the high-calibre elephant in the room – the American debate over guns – I would recommend keeping your expectations as low as possible.

Ebon-Moss Bachrach in The Punisher.

It is noteworthy that Punisher’s writer/creator Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal) has refused to water down Castle’s kill-‘em-all ethos (Netflix must have broken their bank on gun-splatter effects alone), but having taking it on, the show offers little of substance to the current, if largely abortive, gun debate in the U.S. – except to pause long enough to characterize both sides as equally insincere and opportunist. The gun-control proponent U.S. Senator Ori (played by Rick Holmes) and the Second Amendment warrior O’Connor (played by The Wire’s Delaney Williams) spend the bulk of their time on screen mouthing slogans and clich├ęs. (E.g., O’Connor: “We've got to do something about the liberal, do-gooding assholes . . . who want to take our rights and our guns.” Ori: “The regulations I'm pushing aren't about taking certain guns away from all people. They're about taking all guns away from certain people.”) In the end, the show offers internal justifications for why both sound like they’re delivering platitudes: neither of them really believes what he is saying. The writers’ indifference to the details of the gun issue is no more apparent than in the slapdash characterization of Senator Ori, whom everyone – himself included – repeatedly refers to as “anti-gun” and not as “pro-gun control.” This is more than a semantic nitpick: only anti-gun control proponents (i.e., pro-gun advocates) ever refer to pro-gun control politicians as “anti-gun.” It’s the equivalent to referring to a pro-choice politician as pro-abortion – and rings just as falsely.

In the end, The Punisher only really owns one small corner of the debate: the argument that the system is broken and thus we need to be able to defend ourselves and not depend on the authorities to protect us. (But even that point was already well established by Karen Page, played by Deborah Ann Woll, in the second season of Daredevil, and here all she does is repeat it.) It is perhaps too much to expect a single television series to be able to offer anything to clarify the messy and complicated issue of guns in America, but stepping into a debate only to proclaim that the conversation itself isn’t worth having is an ironically weak-kneed and quietist position to take for a show whose heroes are anything but passive.

All that said, it is fortunate that The Punisher’s true ambitions reside elsewhere: in its raw portrait of the cost of violence and war on the men and women in uniform – the consequences of suffering it and the consequences of perpetrating it. And there the show casts a powerful spotlight on the true wages of war, borne not on battlefields but in homes, community centres and hospitals and on the streets across America.

There may be, in the end, very little politics to be found in The Punisher, but there is an awful lot of humanity; the series’ strength lies in the personal, not the political. Revenge-fuelled as his current form may be, there is little doubt that Castle’s real drives are his love for his family and the horrific depth of his loss. It's always personal for Frank – as it is ultimately for the show’s other heroes, Lieberman and Madani, (Even the power that the villains seek is to feed their own very private demons.) There’s clarity that comes in that narrower frame, and it all adds up to a story that hits hard – in every meaning of the words.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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