Review: Netflix's The Punisher

"Guys like you and me... we're not good people, Frank."
I guess it's a sign of the times that it was difficult to track down a review of Netflix's The Punisher that was simply a review. Apparently, that type of simplicity is boring now. Instead, the pre-release reviews all seemed to have a very similar spin: The Punisher was good, but it missed the opportunity to "make a statement" about guns. This is a narrative that, alas, does not hold water. But in the interest in rectifying the lack of thoughtful critique of the actual show (at least in major media outlets), I will rectify that first before explaining to those dipshits exactly what The Punisher and Frank Castle were saying about guns and what they do to people.

First off, the show is fantastic. It begins where Season 2 of Daredevil left off, with Frank Castle AKA The Punisher finishing off the last two men who were involved in the murder of his wife and two children. With that task finished (and in fine fashion, may I add), Frank settles down, returning to New York under a false name, comfortable with the world thinking he is dead. He stops in to see Curtis, his old Doc (that's Navy Corpsman to you civilian folk) who lost one leg in Iraq thanks to IED. Curtis now runs a support group for war veterans, who come to him to heal because they know others simply wouldn't understand. Curtis keeps Frank's secrets, even though he rightly sees that without a war to fight, Frank is more than a little lost.

The lull doesn't last long, as Frank is contacted by Micro, a former NSA hacker who the world also thinks is dead. He needs Frank and, as it turns out, Frank needs Micro as well. So long story short, Frank Castle comes out of retirement, this time facing his own misdeeds as well as those of the people who betrayed him. The plot is tightly woven and full of good people, public servants mostly, who just want to do the right thing, and many of them pay a heavy price for it. The acting is top-notch, with the wonderful Amber Rose Revah (no relation to the model with the big butt) playing a very believable Homeland Security agent, Dinah Madani. She has all of the brains and commitment, but not the over the top machismo and unexplained super strength that many female law enforcement agents seem to have in movies these days. Ben Barnes brings in a much better performance than I would have expected from a British former model, and I'm happy to say he brought exactly the right counterpoint to Jon Bernthal's roaring, grunting Castle. Finally, there was the wonderful Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Micro. He is not a tough guy. He is not a bad ass. He's just a guy who loves his family and would do anything to protect them and that single-minded loyalty softens even the growling Frank Castle, though it took some mild sedatives to do it.

But you wouldn't have guessed about any of those rich and well-drawn characters from reading the early reviews for The Punisher.

Instead, they focused on Lewis Walcott (played by Australian actor Daniel Webber), who is a member of Curtis's Veteran's support group for a while. Lewis is badly afflicted with PTSD. After shooting at his father after he awakened from a nightmare, Lewis digs a god-damned foxhole in the backyard and lives in it. In February. In New York. He doesn't have the dreams when he sleeps outside, he says. Everyone tries to help Lewis: his father who is also a veteran and loves his son; Curtis, who knows better than most what he's going through. But it gets bad for Lewis. Real bad. And the same people who patted him on the back and thanked him for his service are the same ones to point their fingers at him and call him a terrorist later on.

Because here's the point the show makes very clearly on multiple occasions: Guns hurt the people who use them and that hurt is happily ignored by the people who give the orders, the ones who make the policies, and the ones who so condescendingly speak about "those people" who have the nerve to own guns, all while paying underlings to do violence on their behalf.

We saw that theme repeated in several episodes with quotes like, "I point, you shoot," and "Men like me do the planning; men like you do the dirty work." We saw it in the actions of an anti-gun Congressmen who waxed philosophic about violence begetting violence, sneering down his nose at a security contractor for using guns as part of his profession... and then hiring that same man to protect him, and fire those guns if necessary. Finally, we saw that theme at a Veteran's support group, where one man used the trauma of his fellow veterans to promote his own political agenda. This man was himself a veteran, but he served the way I did... at a desk. But that wasn't enough. He lied and claimed to have been in battle, to carry the psychological and physical scars of doing violence to others. And he used those fictional scars as justification for his angry rhetoric... rhetoric that seeped into Lewis's mind and gave him a mission—something he had been missing since coming home from combat.

Frank tells us that it is the silence that comes after the gunfire that can be most frightening of all, and we see how true that can be. But we also see, through Micro, what it means to come in from the rain, to have a home and a family waiting for you after something terrible has happened. We also see the effects of violence that continue long after the guns fall silent and the terrible cost of humans treating other humans as tools.

That lesson seems to have been lost on the New York-based content writers who turned on this show hoping for some insight into the Las Vegas shooter, or the California shooter, or any of the other ones that are coming in ever-faster succession. They were so intent on searching for their own narrative, that they missed the one that was in front of their faces.

So yeah, The Punisher had plenty to say about guns. It just wasn't what you wanted to hear.


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