Binge Review 9: Marvel’s The Punisher: Season 2

Here we go again.

With Frank’s revenge well and truly gotten, the season that followed was in a great place for introspection. Instead of regurgitating the same “being a killer is wrong” and “why can’t you stop killing” dreck that permeates the Walking Dead from episode to episode, season two of Punisher got into the actual motivation behind Frank’s vigilantism. I would rather not spoil how the show approaches the subject, but if you have read my other Punisher related posts, it would not be hard to imagine.

Season two is a remarkable improvement in quality. The narrative is not convoluted with five different plots happening at the same time and settles for the standard three. First you have Frank’s story, then Jigsaw’s, and a new character named Amy, a teenage con artist on the run from a mysterious hitman. Each episode devotes an equal amount of time to each plot without feeling too bloated, but not as often as anyone would like.

I understand the demand to fill time in 13 one-hour episodes. In school, I was taught you need to not only write complete stories, but also space them out between commercial breaks. All entertainment is based around a blueprint that has worked since Man learned to draw on cave walls. Everyone follows this blueprint, but like all the Marvel Netflix shows, there is a consistent issue of each show having too much space to fill.

While the story is not convoluted, the show spends so much time on its three plotlines that it becomes a slog. Rather than compartmentalize the plots with Frank’s character exploration as a framing device in a comfortable nine episode run, we get thirteen where different elements of each plot tag-teams converge. What you get is a season that flows about as well as bowels packed with concrete. The show is still better than before, but it is a chore to watch.

Jon Bernthal remains the best incarnation of the character since Ray Stevenson. His signature intensity has made his take on Frank wholly his own and I could not be happier. However, Ben Barnes’ version of Jigsaw took me completely by surprise. Instead of a villain that is a little more deranged than your average goodfella, Jigsaw is extremely traumatized from what happened to him last season. He has no recollection why Frank slashed his face and cannot remember events up until the maiming. Jigsaw lashes out at his therapist, has constant mood swings, and endures spats of pain. He is in pieces, but as he puts it all together, he develops into a great foil for Frank’s own journey.

The action scenes received a well-deserved upgrade with more brutal, close-quarters combat. Almost every episode Frank is stabbing or smashing someone and bathing in their blood. He also never walks away unscathed, either sliced or plugged with a hole or two. It is really a credit to the character as a hero that does not care about personal injury or that he is vulnerable. Frank wants to get loud and nasty.

The downside is relegated to the gunfights. As you probably know, I am a gun owner and an Effects Nazi, and I can tell when real blanks and squibs are being used. It is hard to fake unless you have a great VFX team. On the subject of bad gun effects, the Walking Dead does not hide the fact they use fake guns because, somehow, the production could not get real guns and blanks in RURAL FUCKING GEORGIA! There are airsoft weapons that simulate blowback and/or recoil and they could not have bothered buying just a few for less than grand of budget.

Jesus Christ.

Taking into account Punisher was shot in a New York, it is understandable that the best practical weapon effects could not be utilized and the show made due in both seasons. The issue with the gunfights is they are poorly choreographed. Early on no one acts like they know what they are doing. They just stand around holding rifles poorly before getting shot. Then there are scenes where muzzle flashes and accompanying sound effects are out of synch or poorly timed. Actors fall over before they are supposed to be shot or they are shot and do not fall down at the right time. Chalk it up to poor editing, but if maybe the guns functioned in a way the actors could see and hear them go off, you would not have much of a problem to begin with.

I also have a personal problem with how Frank is portrayed in the gunfights. 80% of the time he uses the same pistol over and over in a C.A.R. stance, where he is holding the gun to his face. This method works in the John Wick movies, but it looks stupid and everyone in the show does it. How about hold the gun like you are not trying to give yourself permanent hearing damage? When Frank is given a rifle it is a breath of fresh-air and adds a little diversity. In the comics he uses a variety of weapons depending on the situation, but all he has on the show is a pistol.

Lastly, and this is something I intentionally neglected to mention in my review of the first season, the Punisher costume sucks. In fact, it has sucked since its introduction in Daredevil. Nobody makes body armor like that. Not because it does not look practical, but because it looks stupid. There are exposed adjustable straps at the front, some shell loops that are not big enough for any caliber of ammunition, and there is no webbing for attachments like modern body armor.

This is kind of unfair, but if you look at this shot from the Edmondson/Gerads run of Punisher, Frank is wearing gear that works for his job.

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He has a plate carrier with ammo pouches painted with his signature skull and a hitcoat to protect his arms. The man is dressed practically and it looks cool because Frank makes it look cool. He is a military man that does not need fancy high-tech crap that looks like it was made by a cross-eyed cosplayer. He needs something that will keep working in hazardous situations and there is nothing more practical and foolproof than genuine military gear. I apologize to the costume designers, but if my own Punisher vest looks better than the one you made for big budget show, it is time to go back to the drawing board.

I thought about going in depth into the pre-release controversy, where people promoting season 2 were saying one of the characters is Alt-Right, but I decided otherwise. I will say, however, the character in question played by Josh Stewart is a reformed Neo-Nazi and born again Christian. That is not Alt-Right. The Alt-Right does not give a shit about Christianity, most of them are Pagans or Atheists, and they care even less for Neo-Nazis, a catchall for gang-bangers that hate each other more than non-whites. This controversy was just manufactured outrage to drum up viewers from a demographic that do not watch these shows in the first place.

Despite the pacing issues and bloated runtime, Punisher season two is a great watch. The lapse in better action takes away from the appeal, but seeing Frank and Jigsaw’s dueling progression into who they really are was better than the best gunfights last season. If you can make it through the slog, the show is worth your time. Oh and be sure to skip over the parts with Madani because they still suck.

Binge Review 5: Britannia

For a little while now I have reviewed Netflix exclusives when something got my attention. Recently, Amazon has caught my eye with their selection of latest additions, and I wanted to cover what I found. Instead of starting a new review series, I chose to reboot Netflix Reviews into Binge Reviews. Be on the lookout for more in the near future.

***

Game of Thrones was both a gift and a curse when it premiered. It took a simple fantasy setting and injected medieval realism into the mix while inspiring audience mania by killing favorite characters. Thrones also perpetuated the spread of intrigue and cloak-and-dagger tropes ad infinitum. Soon a host of new programs saturated the market with stories of scheming, secrecy, and twists you could guess with little effort. Vikings and Walking Dead are the worst offenders and even though I love it to death, The Expanse is sometimes just Thrones in space. Normally I avoid these kinds of shows, but when I heard about Britannia, I was interested to say the least.

Obviously I have a massive bias for Ancient Rome, but the way Brit approaches its subject with repetitive tropes is different. The intrigue is just one part of the complete narrative and it plays into the real meat of the story. We follow what I assume is a young Queen Boudicca, a Druid outcast, Roman invaders, and a Celt clan locked in conflict with another. That sounds like Thrones 101, but it is all tied up in a unique bow.

Brit deconstructs the ideas of fate and prophecy. The Druid characters are powerful religious figures. They oversee marriage, decide who succeeds royalty, and forbids reading and writing. The leader Veran, played by veteran character Mackenzie Crook, is seemingly prescient and manipulates others to go along with what he sees. Given the historical realism of Brit this raises an important question: do the Druids really know the future or are they asserting control over the masses through deception?

As the series goes on, you realize there is more to the Druids than you once thought. They force a clan leader into sacrificing himself, appoint an heir they control out of the line of succession, and keep a hoard of wealth in secret while living in squalor. We also see Veran use his position to make deals with the Romans to shift the balance of power. Basic intrigue/cloak-and-dagger stuff, but what makes it different from Thrones is the ambiguity.

On the one hand the Druids appear to be fantastical beings that know more than everyone because of magic. Veran is said to be the First Man and he looks like living zombie. His prophecies are on point and how he plays others against their interests is masterful. However, because the Druids have a monopoly on literacy, they use that power to trick the masses into thinking they speak the truth of the Gods. They also consume hallucinogens that inspire visions perceived as prophecy, remaining in a constant trancelike state. The enigmatic facade the Druids put on further compounds this point in regards to how the Celts believe what they say. They appear weird and dangerous, inspiring curiosity. And when they start ranting about the Gods and predicting the future, they seem credible to the ignorant. Brit uses these ideas to break down religion and the idea of believe to ask its questions on fate and prophecy.

What really got me into the show was how it approached the Romans. Brit takes place during the second invasion of Britain after Caesar failed a century prior. For the first time since HBO’s Rome, we see how the Romans fought pitched battles, and approached the nuances of ancient warfare.

In combat they were all about crowd control after learning a harsh lesson at Cannae. The first episode has a scene where legionaries march into a village in columns. They are charged by Celts, but no one scatters or moves out of formation like they did in real life. When a smaller force is attacked, they move into formation against the attackers. The last episode has a siege scene where the Romans use all of their artillery before moving in, exactly like they did to bring Europe into compliance.

However, combat was only one part of the Roman war machine. Rather than slaughter their enemies outright, they would make allies with a faction in a disputed region, and use them as leverage for a greater conflict. During their cold war with Parthia, Rome gained control of Armenia through political negotiation to establish a buffer zone. In Egypt, Caesar allied with Cleopatra and used her supporters to take the throne from Ptolemy, securing the region as a vassal. The same occurred in Gaul before the rise of Vercingetorix and later in Israel before the First Jewish-Roman War. In Brit, the Romans stoked the conflict between the warring clans to gain a better foothold and keep the natives compliant, playing the intrigue game.

Aside from all the themes and history, Brit is a pretty fun show. It is very gory and violent with people losing their heads, skin, and thoroughly dissected post-sacrifice. In the large battle at the end, multiple warriors are skewered by ballista, something I have not see depicted on film until now. Then you have the character dynamic between young Boudicca and the outcast. They both hate each other, but can’t help staying together, making for nice moments of levity. The best character and performance comes from David Morrissey’s Aulus, a Roman general. He is cunning and knows it, relishing in his ability to lead his men and make others bend to his will.

I would not go so far as to call Britannia a Game of Thrones killer, but it takes the same tropes and does them better. It also deconstructs and explores the meaning of fate and prophecy where other shows have not. For history buffs, get ready for something as good as Rome, but you may complain about the leather lorica segmentata and lack of centurions. If you have Amazon Prime, it is worth a look if you are missing Thrones.