Punisher, 10 Episodes In
1. Some day I’d like to ask the Marvel Netflix producers what professional, emotionally mature black men did to them that was so terrible.
More seriously, the racial politics – or rather, the calculated lack of racial politics – of this show are confounding. In some ways, it’s a fantastic study of white male entitlement, but it refuses to engage with the fact of that whiteness in a very noticeable way. The support group for veterans is predominantly made up of black men (and one woman), and yet, with the exception of Curtis, all the veterans we spend time with are white, male and ANGRY. I’m going to take a wild guess that the reason for this is that the armed forces in the States are disproportionately made up of minority groups (the military traditionally offering opportunities to people who are disadvantaged), though I’m willing to be corrected on this point.
But it kind of flags up the very…particular power fantasy that Frank Castle represents. Because if American racial politics are anything like I understand them to be, it’s impossible to imagine that a black Frank Castle could exist and be credible to the audience. The social structures that allow Frank to slip through society undetected only exist for white men.
And yet…Mohammed Ali is mentioned multiple times as a figure they admire, despite the fact that Ali’s outstanding trait, the trait that truly made him the Greatest, was MORAL courage – a trait which, needless to say, seems to be desperately lacking in all of these veterans.
2. As a side note, we end up with at least three former soldiers who display noticeably anti-social personality traits. Is it worth pointing out that any military worth its salt is going to do its utmost to weed those people out with extreme prejudice? The whole point of military training is to prepare people to carry out extreme violence ONLY in very specific situations. If anything, I would expect the military to attract people with more rigid or authoritarian mindsets, because those ways of thinking lend themselves to maintaining iron-clad distinctions. It’s a feature, in other words, not a bug. (It’s also why any professional soldier HATES fighting against a guerilla campaign, as those rely on blurring the very clear line between civilians and military that soldiers are trained to think of as uncrossable. Similarly, I saw a fascinating play about the development of the British nuclear bomb, which showed the British generals as absolutely opposed to it – because, by their very nature, nuclear weapons are anti-civilian, and therefore…sinful is the only word strong enough).
3. This really would be a far more interesting show if it wasn’t hemmed in by its comic book roots – by which I mean, if it didn’t need to keep Frank a hero. They attempt to convey a distinction between Frank and Lewis, because Frank only murders criminals and yet… Well, the rip-roaring rampage of revenge is too well established a story line in every culture to imagine it will ever go away, but Frank’s story relies on a very personal sense of justice. As in, the showrunners have to continually elide the idea of justice as a Societal virtue, in order to keep us on Frank’s side. Put it another way, we don’t try and convict criminals purely so they are punished, we try and convict criminals because the public act of doing so contributes to the cohesion of an entire society – not least, because societies that are notably unjust become ripe for revolution. Or, as hard as this can be to grasp, justice is not ABOUT the victim (though it can be essential if victims are ever to have any peace), it is about US, as a society, and what we will and will not tolerate. So, Frank may have his revenge – and I’ll even allow the fantasy that said revenge is always righteous, though that is extremely questionable – but longer-term, his actions are ultimately destructive because they deny society the chance to reckon with and publicly rebuke criminality.
4. Without wanting to seem like I have a type (tall, dark, handsome narcissists), I find Billy Russo the most interesting character on the show, especially his relationship with Madani. Not that I’m rooting for them exactly, but it takes extraordinary sang-froid to murder a woman’s partner and then comfort her about it. And what’s more interesting is…I think at least some of that is sincere – I think he may actually love her, albeit in an extremely stunted way. He went out of his way to avoid killing her in the shootout, after all, and not without personal risk to himself. It’s just that, because he has, at best, extremely maladapted attachment mechanisms, he approaches the entire relationship as though it’s a game which, if he wins, demonstrates his worth. (And, depending on his mood, winning can be sex or laughter or forcing her to cry) (in other words, fascinating though it is to watch, Madani should run like hell, because it is beyond fucked up). I also appreciate that Ben Barnes doesn’t tip his hand, so to speak, in any of their scenes together – you’re not wondering why she doesn’t suspect him.
4. I don’t know enough to comment in detail, but I find the class dynamics kind of fascinating. Frank’s ‘authentic’ basically middle-class identity is heavily contrasted with Billy’s fake upper class trappings (his elegant suits and expensive haircut) and actual lower-class background. I’m probably missing some of the class ‘markers’ but it’s clear a very particular form of masculinity is being held up as ideal here – men who read but don’t waste their time on fine wine, who develop highly technical skills but don’t waste their time on self-adornment (that’s left to their wives).
5. Politically, however, the show is all but completely incoherent, and dragging gun control into it doesn’t help much. I’d argue that it is an interesting…illustration of how pre-existing political narratives are rushed into place after a terrorist attack, but I don’t honestly think they do anything particularly interesting with it. On the most basic level, a show that exists in a fantasy world where a) Frank never misses and b) his victims are always deserving of terminal violence, doesn’t really have any business invoking the spectre of gun violence as it exists in the real world.
6. Not to mention that it brings up the interesting question of how Karen would appear to anyone normal – this is a woman who’s been kidnapped FIVE times now? (I may be missing some). It’s a miracle she’s not a paranoid shut-in at this point, but the idea that Karen wouldn’t realise that widespread access to weapons has facilitated the many times she’s been victimised is kind of an insult to the character’s intelligence.
7. Speaking of which, I’m weirdly charmed by the idea of Matt and Frank going for drinks and bonding over Karen’s tendency to always fling herself into the path of danger – doesn’t she have any other way to solve her problems? (If Daredevil season 3 actually engages with the idea that no, Karen doesn’t, she is rampantly self-destructive because she is hugely motivated by guilt, I would be delighted – because unlike some of Matt’s manpain, Karen’s guilt seems earned).
8. Madani’s hair is so STYLED – I keep getting distracted by how much work it must be.
9. The corrupt general was remarkably trusting, despite the fact that Billy was walking him into the most obvious murder room imaginable. How does someone that dumb get involved in a complex international criminal conspiracy?
10. Every time Karen’s journalism is read out loud it is LAUGHABLY bad – is it really so hard to replicate actual news copy?
11. Despite my many issues with the writing, I have to give the actors – Jon Bernthal in particular – they’re doing a fabulous job.