If you think you know The Punisher – Frank Castle – you probably do, and not just from the Marvel comics. (Frank Castle made his debut in this The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974.)
There was The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren 1989. No plot, cheesy sets, and as much bad acting as deaths. I saw it in the theatre. I wish I had that money back.
The second go-around movie The Punisher was in 2004 starring Thomas Jane (and John Travolta and Roy Scheider). While leaps and bounds better than the Lundgren version, it too was lacking.
Surprisingly, in 2008 Punisher: War Zone was supposed to be a sequel to the Thomas version, except it got tangled in production Hades, and problems and delays. It eventually starred Ray Stevenson and went straight to DVD. Again, it was a mess. All The Punisher movies felt like punishment.
All the problems in all those movie characterizations boil down to one simple fact: there’s a lot more to Frank Castle than simple revenge. There’s horrific pain behind the anger, desperate anguish behind the violence, a formidable sense of justice behind the punishment. Whether it was because of bad scripts or bad acting, or bad production – or a combination of all of these – none of those movies were able to give us an actual fleshed out version of Frank Castle.
So when it was announced that Jon Bernthal would premier as Frank Castle in the second season of Dare Devil, I was concerned. Not about Netflix doing the character justice, but I wasn’t sure about Bernthal. I liked him as Shane in The Walking Dead (back when that show was truly worth watching).
Turns out I was wrong. In DD Season 2 Bernthal proved he could play this decimated and simultaneously angry man. Bernthal knows Frank Castle, bringing a blend of rage, grief, violence, and vulnerability that defines the man, as in this DD scene:
But could Bernthal pull off playing Frank Castle in a stand-alone series of The Punisher? Yup. Unequivocally, yup. He’s great. The cast is great. The narrative, while weak at certain points, was overall solid.
However, I had a few dilemmas with the show. Let me start by confessing that I like violent movies. From war movies to action movies to horror movies, I always have. As I told people when Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables movies came out: “I want to watch old men blow sh*t up.” Truly that was the extent of it. That’s all I wanted. And that’s all it was.
And I know that many of these movies are basically heteronormative hyper-masculinist violence porn. I get that. And I recognize that.
However, what makes a violent movie or series interesting – rather than just full of action-packed violence – is when it says something about that violence and its impacts on people and society. That’s what makes films like Platoon, Taxi Driver, and A Clockwork Orange, different than XXX, The Expendables, or any of the 2 Fast movies. That’s what makes Breaking Bad different than Longmire. Each of the former says something important about the violence itself: its futility or its necessity, its reason for being, its influence on individuals who use it, and those upon whom it is used.
Ultimately, that’s my problem with The Punisher. It includes a lot of brutal violence. It includes a lot of brutal gun violence. Seriously brutal. It even goes to great lengths to include the discourses and the debates we are currently having in the country about gun violence and mass murder. However, it does not speak to either of those topics in any meaningful or intelligible way. I don’t want a TV series to beat me over the head with “the moral of the story” like one of those old Afternoon Specials, but I do want it to say something to me that is insightful and intelligent, even if I disagree with it.
And finally, The Punisher doesn’t touch on the most important aspect of all – American masculinity and violence – and given that the show is very much predicated upon American masculinity and violence, that’s a shame.