Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Thoughts on violence and empathy in Marvel's The Punisher

I initially set out just to review a television series; what ended up happening was a lot broader than I could have imagined. I still don't have any firm answers, but much of what facilitated my curiosity in how the violence was used in this show stemmed at least in part from how I have reacted positively to what I considered to be personally relevant (fictional) violence in the past--the primal rage that guided the actions of Kill Bill's Beatrix Kiddo. When each of my children was born, I felt such a fierce, protective love for them that I completely understood the idea that a mother could react with violence at someone's harming her kids; even though I don't think I would be able to hurt someone who hurt my child, I think it would occur to me to do so and thus I found Tarantino's acknowledgement of it validating. Over the top and again, acknowledged through fiction, but validating. I don't know if this series can achieve the same kind of validation for those who may find it personally relevant, and I don't think I could, in good faith, ask someone who might find it personally relevant to watch it. 

In any case, I suppose if Ebert can review The Human Centipede, I can review this.

The Punisher (2017)
starring: Jon Bernthal, Amber Rose Revah, 
Ben Barnes
creator: Steve Lightfoot

"After the murder of his family, Marine veteran Frank Castle became a vigilante known as "The Punisher" with only one goal in mind, to avenge them." (summary by IMDB).

Shane Walsh: The Good Bad Guy

I came to this series the way I've come to a lot of recent ones, through Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Twitter recommendations. I haven't read many graphic series, but the one I have experience with (Kirkman's TWD) put me in a good position to at least approach this show with curiosity. Fans of the television series already know Jon Bernthal as the ill-fated Shane Walsh from The Walking Dead, and if you were left wanting more from him, this show delivers it and then some. 

This is not to say that this is a program for everyone, even fans of the Marvel Universe, it's really not. It's very explicit. No superpowers, no magic stones, and no real optimism to speak of, it's a mostly plausible tale of government corruption and military trauma and is presented in a raw, unapologetic way. To be completely honest, this show might be the most violent thing I've ever seen on television to date in the form(s) of gun violence, hand-to-hand fighting, stabbings, torture, military combat, assassination, vehicular assault, and terrorist-motivated explosions. 

The story takes you through a combat veteran's active duty experiences, the murder of his wife and children, the continuing corruption of the government agencies that sanctioned these events, and the difficulty many other veterans have in reconciling their past military actions with their current civilian lives.

Can a show with all this still be a worthwhile experience? It really depends. My initial responses were either a firm "no" or a somewhat wavering "maybe." If you enjoy Marvel comics but can't handle extreme violence, then no. Definitely not. If you've experienced any of the previously described violent acts firsthand, then also no. If you're able to stomach it and to put the violence in its context, then maybe. There are a few supporting plot lines that do a little in providing slightly positive challenges for the narrative such as a member-organized support group for veterans, another insider-ally who has faked his own death to protect his family, and an Iranian-American Homeland Security officer who takes on her own department and several others in order to uncover the corruption and abuse that Frank is avenging. It's hard to know how much is too much with a topic like this given the fact that our troops' time in Afghanistan hasn't really ended yet; presenting a fictional situation in the middle of a very real, ongoing conflict comes off as crossing a lot of lines, no matter how comic-book loyal or over the top they tried to keep it, however, it does accomplish a level of empathy for our servicemen and women and builds awareness that more is needed in order to support them throughout their service. 

Speaking to the technique of the series of course seems a little dismissive after working out all of my complicated feelings about the fact that this even exists as a work of art, but I think still think it matters. Overall I found the experience of this show to be a combination of something like the procedural feel of Kathryn Bigelow (such as in The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty) meeting the more reality-based aesthetics and violence of Quentin Tarantino (such as Inglourious Basterds or The Hateful Eight). 

Bernthal's portrayal of the character was very much downplayed; he seemed quiet and sullen for his deliveries suggesting a cold, controlled, beaten-down kind of soldier, which he absolutely was. It almost felt like he put a lot of TWD's Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) into his lines, doing them as straightly as an Englishman portraying a Southern boy would do. 

The music was extremely well-matched to the dark content of the narrative and many times included driving percussion and sweeping chord progressions to set the tone for danger as well as jarring, electric guitar chords to herald Frank's entrance into situations and to present him as a threat, a badass, and ultimately the victor in every situaton. The opening credits introduction (shown below) is really quite good but don't be fooled by the folksy guitar--things are bad and get much, much worse. It's hard to know what else to say. I can't really recommend it, but should you take it on, just tread lightly and look into the pillow once you hear the metal guitar or the skull shirt comes onto the scene.

I had a "Who is this for," and "Who shouldn't watch this" all written out and ready but I deleted it. Just proceed with caution and know your limits.