I started to write a Sunday! post about Marvel’s “The Punisher” season one on Netflix but, golly, it just ain’t possible to do that and *NOT* talk about politics or religion or adjacent. So I figured that an “extra” was appropriate.
A warning: we will probably get into spoiler territory in here so if you absolutely positively wish to avoid spoilers, you probably want to hit “back” right now. If you want to put spoilers in your comments, I’d ask that you either use the spoiler tags or wait until the third or fourth sentence to start talking about how “DUDE, THE PUNISHER SHOT A GUY!” so as to protect the people who might let their eyes stray over the state of the discussion comments.
Alright, the preamble is out of the way.
The show relies on a fairly straightforward technique… in pro wrestling terms, it’s “heat“. As Al Snow explains it, “heat” is a want, a need, a desire that you build in the audience and make them frustrated because they *WANT* to see a particular outcome. The Babyface knows what the audience wants and tries to give it to them, the Heel is playing keepaway and is trying to take it away. The example Al Snow uses is the Heel punching the Babyface when the ref isn’t looking… and when the Babyface comes back, the ref stops him. Perhaps in a few moments, the Babyface gets caught in a headlock and the Heel punches him again… and then jumps out of the ring. And the match continues for a bit with the Heel throwing a punch to stop any momentum of the Babyface. The audience is getting frustrated and angry and events conspire to keep the Heel punching the Babyface and the Babyface not being able to punch back… until the end of the match where, tah-dah, the Babyface can *FINALLY* punch the Heel in the face at which point you should just end the match right there and let everybody go home.
The Punisher gives you a want. For example (and there are spoilers for the first episode here, be warned), the Punisher is shown at his day job using a sledgehammer and slowly demolishing a wall. We see that many of his co-workers are jerks. The show continues, we see that these same jerky co-workers are criminal jerks. Finally, we see that these very same jerky co-workers are *MURDEROUS* criminal jerks.
All episode, we’ve seen the Punisher use this sledgehammer against that brick wall. All episode, we’ve seen these guys be jerks. Finally, at the end, events conspire to get The Punisher in the same place as these jerks and, yes, his sledgehammer happens to be there too. That breath you were holding all episode? You’ll be able to exhale it at the end of season one, episode one.
Of course, episode one is prologue to the season proper. We start talking about stuff like the corrupt government, war crimes, the shabby way that soldiers with PTSD are treated, illegal gun runners, duplicitous government functionaries who falsely categorize friendly fire incidents as enemy ambushes, and, of course, the horror of war in the first place. Punctuated, of course, by orgies of violence that give you exactly what they’ve wanted you to want all episode.
It’s not just The Punisher this time around, though. They introduce a handful of characters for us to care about (or, alternatively, hope to get shot). They’ve got a handful of three-letter agency agencies populated by both good agents and bad agents. A couple of cameos of characters that we will recognize from previous seasons of Marvel shows. And, of course, Micro. (If you’re familiar with Punisher lore, you’ll recognize the name “Micro”. (They got a skinny youngish actor (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) instead of a middle-aged chubster… but I guess you can’t really sell Wayne Knight as Micro a second time.))
Now, I have not yet finished the season but, so far, the morality of what they seem to be going for is awfully muddled. It seems to be a criticism of the use of violence to solve problems but, at the same time, it shows us a frightfully corrupt system that protects corrupt people while, at the same time, harming innocent ones. At the end of the episode in which Punisher and Micro forge their alliance, the Punisher states his terms: he doesn’t want trials. He wants the people they’d be going after to be killed. He’s not looking for justice… he’s merely looking for punishment. At the same time, the very show we’re watching seems to demonstrate that justice is not possible in the first place. Why? Because of all of the corrupt people running a corrupt system and the best you can hope for is someone who is corrupt in your favor and thus willing to cover up such things as the existence of The Punisher in the first place when the “authorities” come looking for him.
At the same time the show is deploring violence to resolve moral issues, it shrugs and points out that, hey, the non-violent solutions aren’t really options, given all of the corruption that protects its own. Our top picks for how things should be resolved are not options that are available to us… so what remains is either putting up with it and seeing those responsible for evil walk around free or biting the bullet and seeing those responsible for evil killed outright.
And they spend minutes and minutes documenting the evil that these corrupt people do. They show us gaming the system. They show us harming innocents. They then go on to put icing on the cake and demonstrate that these people are also venial and petty and treat their co-workers like jerks. They put their thumbs on the scale and make us *WANT* to see something happen to these wicked people who are protected from having to face justice in the system. Then they pay it off. And we can exhale.
(Picture is “Skull showing gun shot trauma Male profile, 1950s” from exhibition “Visible Proofs: Forensic Views of the Body” U.S. National Library of Medicine. Picture is in the public domain.)