Netflix Review 1: Marvel’s the Punisher

Oh, boy. Here we go.

Six months after finishing off the gangsters responsible for the death of his family Frank, played by Jon Bernthal, retires from vigilantism and goes into hiding. While haunted by nightmares of his dead wife, a former NSA analyst named Micro, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, contacts him incognito. They team up when Frank learns there is more to his family’s murder than he once thought.

I am going to say something out character as a fan of Punisher. I know the guy like the back of my hand and when you get down to the nitty-gritty, why his family was killed does not matter. The what is more important because it was the trigger that turned Frank into the Punisher. The only why that has any meaning is the question of why he keeps killing after getting revenge.

All this stuff in the show about the CIA’s wet-work operation and tying up loose ends was boring and played out. We get it; Frank did some stuff back in the day that the Company wants to keep secret. They try to kill him, it does not work, and he kills them back. His very simple and complete revenge story was finished in Daredevil season two and the first five minutes of Punisher. We did not need all this convoluted Jason Bourne crap with Homeland Security and a private security firm caught in the middle of a CIA agent’s quest to redeem his masculinity.

The overarching story is the only major issue I have with the show. It was run-of-the-mill, had way too many moving parts, and I totally understand why. Frank is not a difficult character to get, but trying to make a watchable season of 13 one-hour episodes about a Nietzschean Void is impossible. Imagine a show about Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men; that is what a proper Punisher series would look like and it would be horrifying.

An action-based deconstruction of the anti-hero archetype would be an ideal show. Thing is, no one would watch it. It would be depressing with Frank mass-murdering criminals without feeling or remorse with accompanying narration. It is all he wants to do because he is driven by pure animalistic instinct. Delve deep enough into his character and you find there is so much that cannot be put to screen for mainstream audiences. The show Mindhunter is all about the psychology of murderers, but that is not Marvel-friendly material.

Taking out the depth of the character, a straight action show would be indistinguishable from the rest. There has to be something else to break up the monotony. Punisher’s convoluted story had to be that way with a lot more meat on its bones. So, we got the family connection, the CIA operation, and Homeland Security to pad out the show. It would have been fine with just Frank, Micro, and a bad guy in nine episodes.

The actual execution of the story was fine. Each plotline per episode got an equal amount of coverage without overshadowing one another. It worked as a cohesive whole; it is just too bad half of it was not very interesting.

Frank and Micro’s arc was the best part. They have great chemistry as partners in vigilantism with similar experiences. Where Frank lost his family, Micro had to leave his family after a little whistleblowing almost got him killed. Things get interesting when Frank plays surrogate father/husband for Micro’s family. Their personal conflict comes out of their dueling personalities. Where Micro is sympathetic and easy to understand, Frank is a killer with a moral compass. In that way they worked really well together and I cannot wait to see them again for season two.

Another good element of the show is the action. From what I could see, real blanks and squibs were used for the gunfights. You can tell a lot of work was put into making each fight different with a heavy dose of visceral violence. People are stabbed, punched, and pumped full of lead like an old fashion action movie. While not very creative these scenes are flawlessly executed. There is also no shaky cam and you can tell what is happening at all times. I would love to talk about my favorite scene, but I think you should see for yourself.

Those two elements make the show. The rest you can skip.

First is the Homeland Security plot. We follow Agent Madani, played by Amber Rose Revah, and she is terrible. I get characters need motivation for narrative, but Madani was so unlikeable and one-note I could careless. Her whole deal was meant to parallel Frank’s quest for vengeance. She wants justice for an Afghani police officer that was killed under mysterious circumstances and that is all. There is nothing to her. Madani is a boring strong female archetype that no one put any thought into when they had to meet a quota.

She is not even big or tall enough to come off as an agent of anything. She is five-foot nothing with the body of model. In the scenes where she is holding a gun, the weapons are bigger than her. My short friend in the Army was looking to replace her old personal side arm because it was the size of her head. She had to buy a tiny Sig Sauer to have any hope of hitting something. Madani looks like a Barbie doll got mixed in with the GI-Joe toys by accident.

And do not get me started on her partner. The guy is David Arquette annoying.

Then there is the CIA story taken from Punisher MAX. Here we follow the character Rawlins, played by Paul Shulze, who wants to kill Frank before he exposes the Company’s operations. There is a character in MAX of the same name and a million times more interesting. Show-Rawlins is a standard Company man who uses national security to justify his actions. MAX-Rawlins is an asshole that relishes being an asshole before Frank pries out his eyeball with a knife. Being a tough guy piece of shit was a façade because his persona and business depended on it.

Show-Rawlins has that masculine insecurity evident in his need to torture Frank for taking his eye, but the rest of him is boring. He is this box-standard dude that believes in protecting his country, even by illegal means. Something with depth, like the implication he enjoys torture and murder, is nonexistent. Maybe it was the actor’s lack of charisma, but there could have been a scene or two where he is smiling and laughing at the possibility of getting his hands dirty. MAX-Rawlins had a lot more to him beyond the traits of a cartoony Gareth Ennis villain character.

There is plenty of good to be had, but the whole of Punisher would have fallen apart if not for Bernthal’s best performance to date. The guy has the makings of a young Kurt Russel or Clint Eastwood, full of charisma with intensity to boot. Not only does he sell the character’s pain and anger, but he is also scary to watch. I expect nothing less from the guy that accidently clocked Jonah Hill in the mouth on Wolf of Wall Street because he was so into the scene. I have no idea how Bernthal could top this in the future.

When it comes to expectations everyone has a vision they want to see come to fruition. For me and other fans, we wanted an incarnation of Punisher to rival Ray Stevenson in War Zone. The second season of Daredevil gave us a taste of what was to come in the following year. Marvel’s the Punisher is the most we can ask for. There will never be a perfect incarnation, but Jon Bernthal is damn close. I highly recommend it if you are a fan of the character and of action, especially the graphic kind. But get ready to skip over a lot of boring shit to get to the good stuff.

Editorial 18: Daredevil Season 2

It was great.

Season 2 brings Daredevil into an expanded world with more problems and developments that put the characters through rigorous trials (pun intended). Matt struggles to maintain his dual life, while Foggy is forced to take the initiative, and Karen pursues an agenda that conflicts with the group. With the advent of the Punisher, Matt questions if what he is doing is good for the city, and if he is actually making a difference. Things come to a head when his old flame Elektra returns and everything spirals out of control.

And that is all I am going to say.

To be honest, I had a lot of trouble writing about Season 2. My vision was clear, but I could not put the words to paper because I do not think I understand the show as well as I should. I spent all day Friday watching Daredevil in anticipation for review and when I sat down to write none of it worked. Even when I wanted to talk about Punisher I struggled until I gave up.

Instead of posting what I already have, I think it is best to go through the show again and post a review focusing on the Punisher at a later date. I know that sounds biased, but what do you expect from me? Regardless, Daredevil Season 2 is great and you should watch it.

Editorial 13: Jessica Jones

Feeling compelled to diversify my content output, I find it fitting to provide an analysis of the Jessica Jones (JJ) series that just premiered on Netflix. I spent a day mainlining all 13 episodes and I believe I have a good enough understanding to tell you what I think. I have never reviewed a show before, seeing as how television is contemptuous garbage, but since this series transcends regular television I thought I would give it a try. In terms of structure I am winging it, so please bear with me.

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JJ is based on the Alias comic by Brian Michael Bendis, a MAX series with adult content like Garth Ennis’s run of the Punisher. It follows Private Investigator Jessica Jones, who after years being a superhero, falls into a state of depression and alcoholism. That is where my knowledge of the source material ends. I find dark versions of conventional heroes appealing, but I never gravitated towards Alias because I am not a fan of Bendis.

JJ, essentially, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) equivalent of the MAX line. It has very explicit themes like rape, PTSD, drug addiction, and alcoholism. It also introduces a gay couple with Carrie-Anne Moss’s Hogarth going through a divorce. Unlike a lot of the press, people calling it X-rated and too gritty, JJ is quite tame. Sex scenes were not graphic or revealing, the violence toned down compared to Daredevil, and the overall feel was closer to PG-13 or a revolting CW show. I was a little disappointed, but it was exceptional for how it handled its themes.

The MAX line is known for gratuity. Punisher MAX was notorious for its borderline racist caricatures and excessive violence. I like the books very much, but its depiction of… well, everything was a little too much, and this is coming from a guy who laughed while watching Green Inferno.

JJ is respectful about its subject matter and does not pull any punches. Jessica’s alcoholism is a serious issue that affects her attitude and lifestyle as she tries to cope with her various traumas. She has flashbacks that result in violent tremors, harbors intense shame, and lives an introverted lifestyle that pushes people away. It is even clear she has given up taking care of herself, wearing the same clothes everyday and neglecting her apartment.

Jessica’s objective is to apprehend Kilgrave, the main antagonist with the ability to control people. In the past he made her his “girlfriend,” taking her out to dinner, buying expensive things, and having sex with her while she was completely aware. On their last night, he dies in an accident, and she is sent on a downward spiral of depression. While working a new case involving a missing girl named Hope, the circumstances behind her kidnapping are eerily similar, and Jessica puts aside her anxiety to clear Hope’s name.

This sets the stage for the show’s main arc. While conducting the investigation, Jessica realizes her experiences could help not only Hope, but also others controlled by Kilgrave. Slowly she develops some semblance of empathy as she assumes the persona of a hero. Jessica starts caring about her junkie neighbor, repairing the relationship with her friend Trish Walker, and works toward genuine recovery by cutting down on liquor consumption. The personality of an anti-hero is still there, but her sense of being good and conducting herself in a professional manner is greater. She wants to do things by the book, no matter how difficult it can be. It is not an ideal situation, but Jessica sticks to her principles.

In that way, JJ is very frustrating. Killing Kilgrave would not have helped Hope, but it is a simple solution that could have saved everyone a lot of stress, not to mention lives. It is the curse of all hero stories: they are unable to act outside the law because it would make them no better than criminals, trusting the system to render punishment. This both helps and hinders Jessica’s arc. The idea she cannot do everything the easy way exacerbates her anxiety, affecting her thought process to the point she takes extreme measures to get at Kilgrave. Her heroism comes from not only sticking to the system, but also working with it in the face of trauma. It presents a realistic examination of the hero archetype, as opposed to Batman or Superman, who are always content adhering to a code of ethics. Jessica has a code and hates it with a passion.

One of the more impressive aspects of JJ is Kilgrave himself. For the first time in a while, I believe Marvel has found its most sinister villain yet. Ultron was pretty cool, but a homicidal AI monster is not as unique as a legitimate sociopath with mind control powers. He knows what he wants and does whatever he can to get it. He does not care about anyone but himself, casually using his ability to enslave and punish in horrific ways. His perception of reality is warped, failing to see the rape in controlling a woman to have sex with him or the obvious evil behind making people kill themselves or each other. It paints a grim picture that trumps most of the MCU’s current rogues gallery.

Kilgrave’s detachment is thoroughly developed over the course of the show, but his full introduction does not happen until six episodes in. Before then you have to endure a dragging plot where nothing really happens. Everyone makes and repeats the same points that were already brought up in previous episodes, nothing changes, and no one moves ahead from where they were, except for some minute details that do not matter.

The goal is simple: catch Kilgrave, but the lead up to what eventually happens is so frivolous, that about three episodes could have been cut completely. Daredevil took three to reveal Kingpin and the build up was potent because we knew next to nothing apart from reputation. Having such a prolonged build up for a guy we learn more about after episode two is totally redundant. I have a feeling the show-runners had a lot they wanted to introduce and took their sweet time cramming it in wherever they had available space, eating up whole episodes’ worth of time that could have been better utilized or discarded entirely. It is a great waste that does nothing but cause fatigue until episode seven.

Krysten Ritter plays Jessica and I cannot think of a better casting choice. She is absent heroic features, looking like an ordinary person. Her demeanor is spot-on with light sarcastic quips overshadowed by a cold dismissiveness that drives home her anti-hero personality. David Tennant, the best Doctor, pulls his weight as Kilgrave in his best performance in years. He is as entertaining as terrifying with a casual attitude that enhances his sociopathic tendencies. He is gleefully arrogant and happily selfish as he orders people to kill themselves and do his bidding with apathetic delight.

Rachel Taylor plays a total opposite to Jessica as Trish, a former child star turned paranoid radio talk show host. She is the most together of the characters, but she is also naïve and totally separated from Jessica’s world. She has heart, yet is too sheltered to operate in a volatile environment. Luke Cage pops up as another supporting character thanks to Mike Colter. Taking note from the source material, Cage is a pretty standard hero with a normal personality. To put it simply, he is just a guy with indestructible skin and Colter captured that just fine. Wil Traval takes the reins as Simpson, and if you know who that is, I am happy to report he nailed it with some welcome additions. I am eager to see what becomes of him in the following season.

If you can endure the first six episodes without quitting, Jessica Jones is well worth the struggle. It takes the Netflix side of the MCU into territories not often seen in television, let alone a Disney property. The compelling set-up and depth-full examination of the hero/anti-hero archetype makes for an interesting watch that anyone interested in the concept should find enjoyable. It is well worth your consideration.

Movie Review: Beasts of No Nation

I do not mean to sound creepy, but I find the concept of child soldiers rather interesting. It says a lot about the pressure of cultural masculinity and the glorification of war. Growing up we, are often forced into the role of a strong, idealized male regardless of what we really want. Action heroes in movies become our role models before we realize they are all just killers. Child soldiers bear the brunt of this zeitgeist in the worst way possible. In no time they learn the truths of life and become utterly consumed. They accept their roles as men, content their childhoods are beyond lost in face of life long trauma.

Never is the culture of masculinity more prevalent than in Africa. Many tribal customs revolve around masculinity like female circumcision, breast ironing, and the participation in war. From Shaka Zulu to Charles Taylor, it has become commonplace to see children too small for their AKs fighting alongside adults. With an excess of orphans and the consumption of drugs, including gunpowder, using kids has become easier as times grow more dangerous. The issue, however, has received limited converge in entertainment. Blood Diamond and MGSV are the best examples I can think of that feature child soldiers. What does Beasts of No Nation have to say on the matter?

In the midst of the Sierra Leone Civil War, Agu, played by Abraham Attah, becomes orphaned after government soldiers kill his father. Wandering through the jungle, he happens upon a group of rebels where he is trained to fight under the leadership of Commandant, played by Idris Elba.

Beasts is not your average war movie. It is not straightforward nor does it tell you anything. Whatever we learn comes through in the acting and light narration. Aesthetically it has a lot in common with Apocalypse Now, deliberately surreal and dreamlike with bright colors and unconventional editing. There are many long shots and slow pans in the midst of chaos, set to a score of ambient noise or nothing at all. It bears a very natural quality as it takes place entirely outdoors and naked to the elements. I found myself immersed, the very atmosphere of the environments coming off the screen. You can almost smell the bodies under the sun or jungle in the aftermath of a battle.

Being his first staring role, Attah did a great job. He gives Agu an inherent innocence that slowly wanes as he becomes assimilated into the life of a soldier. A part of his childhood remains, but forever changed by the horrors he has seen and inflicted upon others. Elba carries his share of the movie along side Attah. His charisma and intensity complement Commandant’s fierce leadership style as he inspires his men to fight. He is both scary and compelling, a man whose sole purpose is war. He is similar to his soldiers, but all the more worse.

Beasts of No Nation is a movie you do not see too often. It is a provocative, tragic art film with beautiful, striking visuals. It is important for what it has to say on being a soldier, young and old, but it is not for the faint of heart. If you have Netflix, definitely give it a look. Best of all, it does not cost the price of a movie ticket.

Editorial 3: Who Are the Secret Warriors?

If you have read my Marvel Cinematic Universe review on Smashwords, you probably know my feelings on Agents of SHIELD. Unlike Daredevil, there is nothing that sets it apart from convectional television. It is boring, predictable, and not at all reflective of the quality of the movies. It has more in common with a run-of-the-mill procedural. Joss Whedon was at the helm and the show still failed to hold my interest, compounding my decision to give up on television as a whole. I must confess I have not seen season two or Agent Carter as I wait for it to become available on Netflix. I do not know if it has improved, but my instinct says otherwise.

Recently it was announced season three will feature the Secret Warriors (SW), a team from a story of the same name that I just happen to be a big fan of, as indicated in my profile picture. The first issue I bought was number two in my formative years as a comic junkie and I proceeded to read the entire series. The appeal was author Jonathan Hickman’s signature big idea concepts and the set-up of a team similar to Special Forces or CIA operators. It was a great series that inspired a part of my Punisher script and the idea of Hydra controlling SHIELD in Winter Soldier.

The last thing I want to see is my favorite team on a below average prime time slog fest. So, like any pissed off nerd, I am going to use this as an opportunity to explain who the Secret Warriors are and why they are the greatest. By the way, if you want an X-Men equivalent breakdown, look not further.

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ORIGIN

The SW was formed before the beginning of Secret Invasion, a Marvel Event where Earth’s mightiest were captured and replaced by Skrull agents. Nick Fury (who had passed his position of Director to Maria Hill following Secret War) formed the team to expose possible infiltrators in SHIELD and later showed up to assist in the final battle. The Skrulls were defeated, but Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, delivered the final blow. To commemorate his victory, he was made Director of SHIELD, later renamed HAMMER. Fury then tasked the SW to cause chaos and pull apart Osborn’s regime in Dark Reign.

 

THE TEAM

Colonel Nick Fury– The Nick Fury of comics of vastly different from Nick Fury of the MCU, apart from the difference of race. Where Black Fury is cool, smooth, and likeable, White Fury is the most unreasonable, secretive, and pragmatic human being that has ever existed. Imagine Snake Plissken, Big Boss, a little bit of Frank Castle, and Bruce Campbell’s hair combined into a singular cyclopean super spy badass, whose sole purpose in life is to protect the world and its people. Not only did he fight in WWII as one of the original Howling Commandos, he served as a CIA operator in Cuba, Vietnam, and Nicaragua. Even as a senior citizen with a bullet in his head he finds a way to keep fighting or uses his espionage skills to get others to do it for him. He has defied governments and destroyed friendships to accomplish his goals and has no problem making sacrifices without remorse. He manipulates anyone and everyone, even people who do not know him, hidden behind layers upon layers of secrecy.

Daisy “Quake” Johnson– As before, Daisy from the comics has nothing in common with Skye from Agents. The power set is the same with vibration manipulation, but the whole master hacker crap that does not make any sense for someone that beautiful is nonexistent. Their personalities are also contrasting. Daisy is by and large a tomboy who cuts her hair short to be proficient in her duties and has natural leadership skills. She is in charge of the SW, but treats it like her family, and respects Nick Fury as her superior.

JT “Hellfire”– The grandson of the Phantom Rider, JT is an Atlanta native that can set chains on fire. He is a suave character in the same regard as a frat boy who hits on anyone of the opposite sex. He is also loyal to his friends and eventually Daisy when they begin a romance.

Alex “Phobos” Aaron– Alex is the god of fear and son of Ares, who was an Avenger before his death in the Siege Event. On the outside he is an 11 year-old with thousands of years of godhood to his name. Alex can induce an extreme feeling of fear with just a look, leaving his enemies petrified and vulnerable to attack. Despite being a god with minor precognition abilities, he still acts like a child because he can get away with it.

“Yoyo” Rodriguez– Yoyo is a mutant with a super speed power set and daughter of the super villain Griffin. After completing a full run, her body automatically slingshots back to her point of origin. She is an innocent character who is thrust into Fury’s world and comes out stronger on the other side.

Sebastian “Druid”– Sebastian is a Hawaiian native and the son of Doctor Druid, a lesser-known magic user opposite Doctor Strange. He is the “fat-guy” of the team, a sad sack with low self-esteem and a skilled sorcerer.

Jerry “Stonewall” Sledge– The son of Absorbing Man, Stonewall has a power set similar to his father, without the antisocial tendencies. He can increase his size and his skin takes on the consistency of stone. Stonewall is also kind at heart despite his appearance and develops a close friendship with Yoyo.

Eden “Manifold” Fesi– Eden is a teleporter mutant that can create portals to accommodate more than one passenger and can reach wide distances. He is Aboriginal and has a great affinity for rock ‘n’ roll.

 

VILLAINS

HAMMER– Though its concept is reflective of SHIELD, HAMMER is opposite in purpose. It creates the illusion of enforcing peace while perpetuating conflict for personal enterprise at many levels of crime.

  • Norman Osborn– Known as the Green Goblin, Osborn is the Director of HAMMER and used the fallout of Secret Invasion to take out heroes and supplant his control as Earth’s new top cop.
  • The Thunderbolts– As Marvel’s equivalent to the Suicide Squad, the Thunderbolts are comprised of villains that do the jobs SHIELD cannot. During Dark Reign, however, they were given (for lack of a better word) free reign to do whatever they want. The team includes Ares, Venom, Bullseye, and Osborn himself as the Iron Patriot.

 

Hydra– The most prominent adversary of SHIELD, Hydra made a steady recovery after the Skrull Invasion with diminished numbers. In a HAMMER world, however, it became more of a threat as the two worked together in a secretive capacity.

  • Baron Wolfgang von Strucker– Compared to the film version, comic Strucker is far more sinister and plays a bigger role. He is essentially a Nazi version of Fury who founded Hydra after WWII with remnants of Imperial Japan.
  • Kraken– A mysterious and methodical figure, Kraken is Strucker’s second in command. He wears a helmet that projects a suit over his body and grants him powers.
  • Viper (Madame Hydra)– The matriarch of the organization, Viper is unmatched in her fighting ability and cunning as she manipulates others to further Hydra’s influence.
  • The Hive– Born from a symbiotic parasite attached to a reluctant victim, Hive is an anthropomorphic squid creature and conduit for an untold number of similar parasites Hydra uses to conscript henchmen into their ranks.
  • Gorgon– His real name Tomi Shishido, Gorgon is a skilled swordsman and agent of the Hand. As per his namesake, he can turn people into stone with a look and takes pleasure in honorable combat. He is also an extreme nihilist, his mind so empty his thoughts are equal to that of an abyss. His sword is Godkiller, an ancient blade forged by the gods themselves.

 

Leviathan– What happens when Hydra forgoes its Nazi roots in exchange for Communism? You get Leviathan, the Soviet equivalent of Hydra with a similar Cthulhu-ian aesthetic. They were a separate group to the KGB and remained dormant until the 21st Century. They posses one collective goal and do not allow personal needs to get in the way. They also make up for their inconsistencies in technology with superior numbers.

  • Orion– Not much is known about him, but Orion was a veteran of WWII and was there at Leviathan’s inception before going into cryostasis with other select operatives.
  • Magadan– Orion’s second in command, Magadan remained out of cryostasis to observe the progression of history and build up Leviathan’s influence before waking the horde.

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And those are the Secret Warriors. I could get into the story arcs (perhaps at a later date), but it would be futile considering Agents of SHIELD will be vastly different. I am more worried, however, about what will happen to the characters. I am fine with Black Fury because you can never go wrong with Samuel L Jackson, but I fear they will screw up as hard with everyone else like Daisy. I do not want these diverse and fleshed-out characters reduced to the department store catalog drones of the show. If Gorgon shows up and he is not my favorite undead nihilistic samurai, I will give up on all Marvel television, now and forever, excluding whatever they do on Netflix.