Who exactly is The Punisher?

The Punisher, 2017-2018, Netflix

Review by Peter Hulm

While the British seem obsessed with the last two World Wars, perhaps as the last time they could see themselves as a world power, the U.S. resolutely turns a blind eye to its military adventures. In view of its long-standing imperialist actions across the world, this might seem a paradox. In fact, it is perhaps the pre-requisite for continuing with military intervention elsewhere, while continuing to funnel its young and its poor towards conflict zones.

What has this to do with television, movies and popular broadcast fiction such as The Punisher? Well, this is increasingly the only place where viewers can confront the issues head-on. Certainly it is not in the political arena.

We know from U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan who is The Decider. But who is The Punisher? This two-season series reworked from Marvel Comics suggests that, rather than Frank Castle — the lone ex-marine who kills the murderers that society allows to run free, the Punisher is really the system in which ordinary people live.

Justice seekers vs the Establishment

Each character in this series learns that the 'justice' system cannot deliver what it promises: to Castle (Jon Bernthal) or Homeland security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), whose police partner was killed (in the first season), or to a teenager (Giorgia Whigham) and the black ex-navy medic helping vets (Jason R. Moore, a Jamaican-American actor) in season 2.

The criminals are all embedded members of U.S. society. In season 1 they are secret service and military operatives. In season 2 they are part of the political establishment, as well as Russian mafia who operate uncontrolled across New York.

But the focus in season 1 is firmly on the impact of military service in war zones on young veterans. The show runner Steve Lightfoot, who is British, said: "We’ve been sending men to war for 15 years now and then bringing them back and expecting them to just fit back in. Clearly, that isn't what happens."

Compelling and complex, with a rocky start

Esquire described the first season as "a compelling and complex horror story about the military." Rotten Tomatoes website said it had "a rocky start", and Lightfoot's credited epidsodes seem the most heavy-handed. Esquire acknowledged his abilities on Hannibal but dismissed Punisher's efforts to dramatize the U.S. gun debate, accusing the writers of being silly about a gun-control Senator.

Hollywood has given us Vietnam as fantasy and opera (The Green Berets and Apocalypse Now) but its attempts to be authentic has just led to embarrassment about its storytelling (YouTube History Buffs on We Were Soldiers).

Glossing over truths

If anything, the film reviewer lets the director Randall Wallace, writer of Mel Gibson's infamous Braveheart, off the hook, because it does not make clear that the central character Hal Moore (Gibson) knew in advance, and protested, that the army could never have delivered enough men by helicopter to counter the North Vietnamese but General Westmoreland insisted on using his new Air Cavalry. And some Americans recognized how little attention was given to Vietnamese deaths.

So it is hardly a critique of American military thinking, where body counts replaced holding territory — surely an incitement to the later atrocities.

As for Iraq and Afghanistan, the failures of U.S. policy were even more glaring, and Hollywood's versions (American Sniper, for example, an inspiration to Steve Lightfoot) hardly question why the soldiers were/are there.

Misled into criminality

The first season of The Punisher states plainly that recruits who signed up for adventure found themselves enveigled into clandestine and illegal operations. The second also brings out the acknowledgement that hardly any of them recognized how short their careers were bound to be, compared to the rest of their lives.

The only toughie is a phony Vietnam veteran (Delaney Williams) who is murdered by a young vet (Daniel Webber) disgusted when he uncovers the man's lies.

Season 2 goes sour

All this plain speaking falls apart in season 2 when the hero turned villain Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) enlists former vets to use their combat skills to carry out robberies and help him take revenge on Castle. He makes the point that the skills they learned in the army are no use and have no value to society in civilian life.

The intellectual message may be that we are training a generation of violent criminals for our jobless world, if only they care to use those skills. But these MAGA (Make American Great Again) types (few people of colour are to be seen among them) prove to be standard cannon fodder — and quite different from the homegrown terrorists who have sprung up in the U.S. in recent years.

Attraction for terrorists

Similarly, the attempts to show how intellectuals can be attracted to terrorists stumbles around in the psychological shallows, too. The psychotherapist who falls for Russo (Floriana Lima) seems unable to distinguish between righteous violence and murder. And does it really make sense that a newspaper reporter (Deborah Ann Woll) would feel pulled towards Castle the Punisher?

If anyone could draw the line between violence and justice, it is surely a journalist who deals with crime every day. Reviewers criticised the portrayal of the teenager (Giorgia Whigham) who hangs out with Castle but missed the other blatant gaps in plausibility.

Given the more believable reaction of the Homeland Security Agent (Amber Rose Revah) who ditches Russo in season 1 when she discovers he deceived her and hunts him consistently in season 2, this represents a major flaw, even accepting the need to vary the relationships between characters for suspense.

Lightfoot said he saw the series as a Western and was inspired by the Bourne series but that's no excuse.