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I’m Shocked by How Much I’m Enjoying ‘The Punisher’

I'm not watching 'Jessica Jones' season two until I finish Marvel's secretly great, arguably anti-war series.

Danielle Riendeau

All images courtesy Marvel

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Yes, Jessica Jones season two just landed, and yes, Jessica Jones has long been hands-down my favorite Marvel anything ( Black Panther, though, has a pretty solid shot at number one). But I haven’t watched it yet, and that’s partially because I’m knee deep in a Marvel series I thought would kind of suck: The Punisher.

Outside of Jessica Jones and Legion, I’ve not been impressed with most Marvel shows (or movies, but that’s another story, and there are exceptions). Daredevil bored me, despite the surface-level fun of a lawyer running around NYC beating up bad guys, and then it got too silly to even pretend to take seriously. Catholic Guilt Batman is just not my dude, I’m sorry.

Frank Castle (aka The Punisher!) showed up in season 2 of Daredevil, and he’s an angsty, angry white guy with a dark past. They tend to be among my least favorite superheroes, and here again, I’m not terribly invested in Castle himself—a vet who did shady things in the war and came home to have his family slaughtered—though he has more weight to him than I first expected. But the rest of the show, and the universe of the show, is far more complex and interesting than I ever dared hope.

I’m mid-way through the first season, so things could get very Marvel from here. But the show thus far has been a fascinating, nuanced, arguably anti-war piece that seems legitimately interested in the experiences of servicemembers. Many scenes revolve around a talk therapy group for vets, where one of Castle’s old war buddies tries to help other folks who served into a successful “second life” in the civilian world. It’s not super subtle, and there sure is a big NRA/MAGA fan dude in the group (that storyline also goes places, I'm told), but the show goes to lengths to soberly present the PTSD that rocks folks who have been made to experience violence, and the cold welcome they receive in an uncaring country.

The scene that cemented the show for me in the anti-war category involves Castle in a brutal battle with Wish It Was True by White Buffalo playing over it. It’s unglamorous and rightly disturbing.

Subtle? No, of course not. But it’s refreshing. Most action shows revel in the badassery of violence, the sexiness of military uniforms and jargon and guns. I'm not saying that the show never tips into that. But it has other ideas.

The Punisher would rather give us glimpses of a boring, gray, painful life that many vets get to deal with after coming home. Working crappy jobs. Barely scraping by. Not getting the proper help or treatment they deserve after serving. It’s not the whole focus of the show, but the fact that it is thematically supported on every tier and storyline, and given much more than lip service is a step.

Now, I'm not the only person who reads the show this way, but I'd be very remiss if I didn't point out that it is also a hyper-violent power fantasy about an angry guy with guns who goes after bad guys. I realize there's a lot to reconcile there, and it brushes uncomfortably close to "good guy with a gun" rhetoric that the fake-vet NRA plant who tries to recruit at the support group spouts.

At the very least, I think the show is aware of the tension.

And then there’s Special Agent Dinah Madani, a field agent who did her time overseas and wants to expose the wrongdoing in the world (and the war). She is a complex character, a Persian woman who believes 100% in herself and in the power of the system she works for, and in the possibility of actual justice. I like her, but I like her mom even better, played as she is by Shoreh Aghdashloo (aka Chrisjen Avasarala on The Expanse, an older diplomat who Takes No Shit), and they have fantastic mother-daughter chats about the moral grays of the universe.

So, yes, I will absolutely get to Jessica Jones’ second season soon. But not until I finish up The Punisher, officially my first “very glad I didn’t judge this book by it’s cover” selection of 2018.

How about you, readers? Is there a game/movie/show that looked like it wasn’t your thing, but ended up pleasantly surprising you? Let us know in the forums!

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