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.

Editorial 41: Frank Castle, Ubermensch 2

So, the site in which this article was posted disappeared and all its contributor’s work with it. Thankfully, I have the original final drafts of what I wrote, including my favorite Punisher-related article. Enjoy.

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Any time I have the opportunity to talk about Punisher I go all out. Of the Marvel Pantheon, he is the most interesting character with great depth that many readers overlook. Garth Ennis was the first to delve into Frank Castle’s psychology in Punisher MAX, exploring his transformation during the Vietnam War and time as a vigilante. After reading so many comics, I have come to the conclusion that Frank is a Nietzschean Superman.

To the uninitiated, Fredrick Nietzsche was a philosopher that pioneered the concept of nihilism, the belief that morality means nothing because they are ideas adopted on the basis of human ignorance. He really spoke to me growing up and influenced how I see the world today. My knowledge of Nietzsche is cursory to say the least, so I recommend doing your own research.

One of his more famous concepts is the Superman or Ubermensch, introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The Superman is an individual that can transcend the bounds of common belief and operate on his or her own terms. They are completely independent and function on logic alone, forming a set of values that supersede those of the majority, and shaping their destiny.

In fiction and history there are positive and negative examples of the Ubermensch. The Founding Fathers, Napoleon, and Hitler overcame society and did what they wanted. Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now discarded morality for instinct to fight the Vietcong. The Emperor from Warhammer 40k developed the logic based Imperial Truth to unite disparate human worlds across the galaxy. The Brotherhood of Steel from Fallout worshiped technology because it means salvation for the Wasteland.

The Superman concept fits right in with the pseudo-objectivism of superheroes. A hero using their powers to save people could be a form of showing how much better they are. Does Clark Kent really care about humanity or does he enjoy being revered? Why else would Batman enforce his own justice if not to assert his values? Does Captain America use his inherent symbolism as a way to show others how to act and behave? Though cynical, it is hard to deny the underlining motivations of vigilantes. What really drives someone to take up a symbol, a set of principles, and enforce it upon the people they do not like?

Castle’s transformation into a Nietzschean character happened in Vietnam. Overtime, he could not live without war because he loved fighting. In the story Born, America was pulling out and Frank actively prevented his unit from leaving their post. Later his war ended, but when he returned home, the incident that killed his wife and children forced him back into the mindset of a soldier.

He is driven by a bloodlust resulting from PTSD. Usually soldiers at home will want to go back to the front because that was the last place they felt normal. You spend a year in place where everyday could be your last and when you transition into a whole other environment, it can be difficult to accept the change. Hunting Vietcong was Castle’s normal and after his family was murdered, he saw the gangsters, murderers, and child molesters as Vietcong. Even after getting revenge he kept going because he believes he is fighting a war and does not want to stop.

Frank’s set of values as an Ubermensch is based on basic justice and pure instinct. His motivation is very simple: If you are evil, you die. He has no problem murdering someone for even associating with people connected to a major crime. He killed his partner Microchip because he worked for a heroin kingpin and executed a thug that helped him infiltrate a gang hideout.

He sees the world in a black and white moral spectrum. Castle thinks you are either totally bad or totally good with no in-between. When dealing with good, he acts with a compassion that penetrates his stoic demeanor. He was once a family man and when reminded of that life, he regresses into a father or husband. Frank is selective about what he cares about, but he actually cares and feels emotion. Mother Russia has the strongest example where he rescues a little girl from a missile silo and prevents her from seeing the worst of him. When fighting off waves of Russians, he made sure the girl was nowhere in sight of the violence and safe.

Castle holds so close to his values that there is no room for hesitation. He is a practical man, using his training as a soldier to function in all aspects of life besides work. If he owes someone a favor or they have something he needs, Frank is willing to play nice, which happened a lot in Punisher MAX. He is dismissive about working with others and moves on once he gets what he wants.

There is also no feeling behind his need to punish because to him it is normal. It takes a very specific event to really compromise Castle’s cold exterior. One time was a mobster filming himself defiling the corpses of his family. Another was a prostitute telling her story about being a victim of human trafficking. In those instances, Frank’s stoic bearing broke and he was a different man all together. After the deed was done he returned to a state of calm.

We idolize heroic figures because they transcend our notions of humanity. Inside us is the power to be something more and all it takes is the will to do so. Fredrick Nietzsche believed that the Ubermensch was the next step in human evolution as we drift further away from our primordial roots. Frank Castle is just one of many possibilities if we are to realize our potential. He may not be the most ideal, but even damaged of individuals have the capacity to become heroes.

Punisher Comics Review 6

Season two of Daredevil herald the coming of a new incarnation of Frank Castle, the Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal. The character has his own series on Netflix and it remains to be seen if Bernthal can keep up the momentum. Since my blog’s inception I have used it to examine the character and express my fandom, but I never talked about the comics that inspired me. And so, I will dedicate a new series to covering my favorite Punisher stories.

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The Slavers (2005)
Garth Ennis
Leandro Fernandez

If you were to compare Frank Castle to a movie slasher, Michael Myers is a perfect match. They are both shapeless entities with a singular drive, operating on instinct to get what they want. Where they differ is Frank has a defined moral compass, but remains an emotionless automaton. Nicky Cavella came close to getting a tangible emotional reaction out of Castle, but pissing on the corpses of his family was not enough. What came next would ultimately do the job in one of the darkest Punisher stories ever written.

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Lining up his crosshairs on a Balkan crime boss Frank prepares to do what he does best when someone tries to steal his kill. A lone woman nearly kills the boss before fleeing the scene. The boss sends his boys to get her, leaving him alone for Castle to perforate from his rooftop perch. Tracking the woman Frank contemplates abandoning her before the boys catch her and drop their pants. Castle makes quick work of them, saving the woman from humiliation.

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On his way out the woman begs for help, but Frank wants to stay out of it until she mentions a baby. The next day the woman wakes up in Castle’s subterranean home where she tells her story. Her name is Viorica and she lived in a village in Moldova before she was kidnapped and forced into prostitution. After enduring months of abuse and selling her body to multiple men on a daily basis, she was sent to America as a part of a larger operation run by a Romanian father/son team and a woman named Vera.

After the move Viorica gave birth to a baby named Anna, but she was only allowed to see her if she worked hard. Desperate to escape with her child, Viorica ran away and met a social worker named Jen Cooke, who was building a case against the Slavers. One day, when Jen leaves the baby in what she assumed was a safe place she gets an email from Vera meant for Viorica.

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A dead baby is more than enough motivation for Frank to rip and tear. All he needs is a who, what, and where. While telling her story, Viorica laid out the details of the operation. The Slavers have middlemen to attract clients before sending them to discreet locations where the girls are held. One of the middlemen was the boss Castle deep-sixed beforehand, leading him to the man’s club for answers. Wiping out the remaining gangsters, Frank interrogates the boss’s replacement, and gets an address.

Posing as a driver for a pair of clients leaving the house, Frank pulls over the van and makes them an offer. He wants the clients to tell him everything and then to lie to the house guards about losing their wallets once they drove back. The clients oblige until a cop shows up, siren blaring. Intent on sparing the officer Castle puts the fear of God into him before fleeing, the cop’s arrival no doubt spooking the Slavers.

While trying to get information on a new house location, Frank butchers random pimps until he realizes they do not know anything. He later tracks down Jen Cooke to get something more and she gives it up without protest.

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Tiberiu and Cristu Bulat ran a militia of foreign fighters during the Bosnian War. As they massacred whole villages, the militia took the young women, and killed the rest. Castle assumes once stability returned to the region, the sex trade would be difficult to maintain without NATO intervening. So, the Bulats took their operation underground and moved west. Frank realizes trying to get more information from veterans of the Yugoslav Wars would take extreme measures and plans accordingly.

Following up on a potential location from one of Jen’s rescues, Castle heads into rural New York in search of a house on a lake. Watching from a distance he spies a squad of heavily armed men enter the house, Cristu among them. Knowing they were ready for him, Frank knew to come at dinnertime, and spike their stew with a knockout drug. Soon the whole house goes to sleep and he gives each of the men a twelve-gauge face-lift. The only man to survive was Cristu because Frank needed answers. What followed is one of the most disturbing pages in comics.

 

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Having gotten what he needed Castle makes his way back to the house when he notices Tiberiu and a dozen men had arrived. Apparently, the father came to kill the son over a business dispute. Frank takes the smart route and hides under the cabin’s dock, hoping to given them the slip. Without a second thought he decides to go loud and gives the closest man a 45-caliber castration. Frank opens fire topside until he realizes he is not fighting street trash. The Slavers are real soldiers with more than a decade of experience. As Tiberiu gives orders the soldiers overwhelm Castle, forcing him to dive into the lake.

After returning to the city he meets Jen at a diner with two off-duty cops, Russ and Miller. They came to her after learning Jen was under surveillance by a Detective Westin, a known shitbag. Russ and Miller eventually reveal Westin is on the take from the Slavers. The cops agree to help, but on the condition that the Detective lives. Frank agrees and moves to pull apart the remains of the operation.

Making his way to a business office Frank confronts Vera, the brains of the Slavers. Plunking her two guards he throws Vera face-first into the window of a secluded room. The glass does not break, giving Frank enough time to reveal how much he knows after dissecting Cristu. He throws her again and again, slowly turning her face into a bloody pulp, while looting filing cabinets for information on Westin. With his final throw the window pops out its frame and Vera plummets to the street.

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Vera’s files give Frank the address of the last house and a possible location for Tiberiu. After setting up an explosive under the manhole by the curb of the house he waits across the street for the old man’s arrival. Triggering the bomb after making a positive ID Frank charges inside. He chases Tiberiu to the top floor where he uses a girl as a shield, knife to her throat. The old man eggs him on and Castle knows he is at a disadvantage with a scattergun. Out of options he settles for a gamble and calls Tiberiu a coward in Romanian. The old man tosses the girl aside and charges Frank before Tiberiu takes a knee to the face.

Later, with Tiberiu chained to a chair, Castle brings in Detective Westin to make a deal, threatening him with Vera’s file. Frank offers to surrender the file if Westin delivers a package to the Bulat’s contacts back home and acquires Visa’s for the rescued girls. Westin asks what package before Frank turns on a video camera and douses Tiberiu in gasoline. Sparking a flame from a flip-lighter Castle looks into the camera and says “Don’t come back here,” before tossing the lighter.

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The Slavers is Taken if it were a horror movie and actually good. It shines a light on the darkest criminal enterprise in the world and makes sure you see every detail. While acts of sexual assault are not shown on the page, the description and implication thanks to Ennis’s unparalleled storytelling makes you feel all sorts of uncomfortable. Unlike the usual story arcs, trafficking and slavery is very real, and having the Punisher in the middle of it was surreal to say the least. Instead of cartoonish gangsters and run-of-the-mill thugs, Castle is faced with real monsters that make their money on sexual violence.

If you cannot stomach sexual assault and/or violence against women, stay far away from this book. For Punisher fans, get ready for Frank’s most visceral and disturbing story yet.

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.

Scripts – 4

For a long time I have had this Punisher script sitting around on here.  I wrote it before Daredevil season two because up until then, the only other (and best) incarnation of the character was Ray Stevenson in War Zone.  I did not think we would see him appear in the MCU, so I set out to write a Punisher movie in the context of that continuity.

After Jon Bernthal’s version came and went, I could not help but imagine what a sequel to my script would look like.   I did not just come up with one follow-up; I came up with three.  Not matter how futile the effort, I saw a whole series that could be made in parallel to the mainstream MCU.  I saw the direction a quartet of Punisher films could go and the potential for other characters that have been mistreated thanks to a certain studio and a certain director being embarrassed about liking comics (you know the one).

However, the available draft of the first movie needed a little punch up.  For about a week I added some names, a scene or two, and sowed the seeds for a series that will never happen.  Regardless, I still wanted to do it and since finishing my “secret black project,” I will be devoting more time to writing these scripts.

Enjoy, I hope.

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