Saturday, November 18, 2017

REVIEW: 'The Punisher' - Frank Castle Enacts His Vengeance Then Assumes a New Identity in '3AM'

Netflix's The Punisher - Episode 1.01 "3AM"

Former marine Frank Castle takes the law into his own hands while struggling to come to terms with his traumatic past.

All of the Netflix-Marvel shows have been inconsistent. They are inconsistent with the characters as well as the plotting. Everything basically changes based on the demands of the plot. Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle was a fascinating addition to Daredevil during its second season. That was a really frustrating season of that show that was then extended into some problematic elements on this summer's The Defenders miniseries. Frank Castle was a character that creative team didn't always know what to do with. He's an anti-hero in a story already centered around an anti-hero with a moral code. Frank didn't have the same morals as Matt Murdock. He was perfectly fine killing. It took a lot of prodding from the other characters to discover that Frank was motivated by finding justice for his family who were killed after he returned home from serving in Afghanistan. Frank became more interesting once that history was established and he could form complex relationships with the other characters. It allowed him to be seen in a different light that could justify his horrifying actions. He made personal sacrifices for his country. He did horrible things overseas. But when he returned home, he got no protection or assistance from the enemies who targeted him and his family. He was all alone and needed to take up the mantle of The Punisher in order to enact his vengeance.

That was a familiar character arc that played out across that season of television. It wasn't new or different. But it was a story that was competently told and was well acted by Bernthal. And now, he has the added pressure of playing this character as the lead of his own show. It's a major revision to the deal that Netflix and Marvel first struck with each other. At first, the companies were only going to produce five series - Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders. But then, Frank Castle stood out in the second season of Daredevil and inspired this series to be born. Of course, it seems like the show is restoring the status quo a little bit at the start of this season. It's depicting Frank carrying out his mission to kill everyone associated with the conspiracy that killed his family that he discovered at the end of Daredevil. He accomplishes that mission before the opening title sequence begins. That means Frank Castle needs to be found in a new headspace at the start of his own series. He's at a point where the identity of Frank Castle and The Punisher is gone. He's just a man haunted by the past that won't let him escape from it despite him seemingly providing closure. It's a fascinating place to pick up the character. It's just still very unclear if it's a direction the show can actually make interesting and compelling for an entire series.

The majority of "3AM" feels like the show just teasing Frank to see what will be his breaking point and get him to start killing again. It then forces the audience to question whether or not it is right for him to be killing people based on the crimes they have committed and Frank's awareness of them. The direction is eying Frank's sledgehammer for a long time. In the early going, it's simply the tool Frank is using to let out his aggression. He is no longer killing people. He has just assumed a new identity and is working an unassuming job as a construction worker. He's not making friends with anyone else on his crew. He's coming to work early and staying late. He eats lunch by himself at the top of the building. He returns home to a small New York apartment. He's still haunted by dreams of his wife. This is the life he is living. It's not happy. But he doesn't believe in happiness either because his entire life has been destroyed when he feel into a sense of contentment with what he had. This job brings him stability. It gives him purpose. But one bad move could be the thing that inspires him to kill once more. That motivation needed to be perfect in order to kickstart this new story for the character. And in the end, it still feels forced. It's the inevitable conclusion because the story needs to get moving. This premiere is very slow and deliberate. It sets Frank in a place where he's not doing much but is still traumatized by his past. That can only be interesting for so long though.

And so, it always seemed like the other guys on the construction crew would ultimately rub Frank the wrong way. They are constantly teasing him. They are bullies who believe Frank is the reason why their lives aren't going according to plan. They are being denied overtime work because Frank is just too good of a worker who is doing more than he is asked. They see him as the problem even though they are scummy people who associate with gangsters. Donny is the newcomer to this world and is eager to fit in with the rest of the crew. He doesn't see Frank as this imposing figure ruining his life. He sees a man who has experienced life. He wants to connect with that and Frank doesn't want to be whatever Donny needs him to be. And so, Donny becomes entangled in a plot with the other workers to rob a bunch of gangsters in order to pay off one of their debts. It's a case of the show trying to endear this guy to the audience to justify why Frank takes such drastic actions in the end. The job doesn't go as planned because Donny accidentally drops his wallet revealing his identity to these gangsters. He becomes a target and the rest of the crew is ready to kill him. All the while it's a mystery as to when Frank is going to intervene. He doesn't lose his temper when these guys are bullying him on the job site. He doesn't ultimately care about Donny all that much. But when the guys are ready to kill Donny, that's when he springs into action. Frank knows about the job and Donny becoming a part of the crew. But he doesn't stop Donny from going down that path. He's only at the construction site that night because a dream of his wife wakes him up. And it's only when being confronted by death that Frank starts killing again.

All of it is treated as such a rousing moment though. The final ten minutes are where Frank Castle comes back to life. That's slightly problematic again because it's unclear how the show wants the audience to view the violence that Frank enacts. It's justifiable in the opening moments because of his personal vendetta against those who killed his family. The show gives an explanation in the end by saying that Donny is about to be killed by these guys. But is that enough to explain why Frank kills all three of them as well as the gangsters that they robbed earlier? Yes, it's all in protecting Donny. But that doesn't seem to be a character of ongoing importance. Frank knows that Donny needs to leave town. He leaves that message for him. It feels like a moment where the monster within Frank has finally been released once more. He put on this persona because he needed to in the past. He felt it was his personal mission to make everyone in the cartel suffer for what they did to his family. And now, he's just a shell of a man incapable of getting himself up out of the hole and continue living his life. The show goes for something very thought-provoking in exploring veterans' issues. How this country sends people overseas to commit heinous acts without making sure they get the proper treatment upon returning home. That's a fascinating focus for the series as well. But it still feels like the show expects the audience to be cheering once Frank Castle springs into action once more. It's this fight sequence that highlights the fatal blows Frank delivers to each of his intended targets. It's brutal and vicious to watch. And again, it's all because of robbery and attempted murder. The justification is there. The show is even saying that Frank doing this outs his presence to someone looking for him. It will springboard into a larger story. But the contemplative nature of these actions needs to resonate as well. And right now, it doesn't seem like the show has the confidence to do so.

Some more thoughts:
  • "3AM" was written by Steve Lightfoot and directed by Tom Shankland.
  • Elsewhere, a Homeland Security agent named Dinah Madani is trying to get an investigation started into the death of a colleague overseas because he happened to uncover some precarious mystery. It's a story mostly establishing this detective character instead of digging too deeply into the mystery of it all. But Amber Rose Revah carries herself well and justifies being the one character who can carry a story outside of Frank Castle at the moment.
  • It's also so important to see that scene between Madani and her mother. It makes her seem like a human being and not just a plot point in the overall show. That could very quickly change over the course of the series. But it's nice to see this glimpse into her home life and the unique perspective she has on the world coming from a family of immigrants who made something of their lives in this country.
  • The veterans support group scene tackles the worry about this show being about bland, rah-rah conservative patriotism right away. As one soldier is talking about the destructive liberal agenda and the plot to take away their guns, everyone else is rolling their eyes and not taking him seriously. Of course, it still feels like a forced plot point to prove to the potential critics that the show wants to have a more nuanced conversation about guns.
  • The support group also introduces two characters of importance. The first is Daniel Webber's Lewis who is a young veteran who has newly returned home and is still learning how to cope with the transition. The second is Jason R. Moore's Curtis Hoyle, who knows that Frank Castle is still alive and mentions that he would have joined Frank on this crusade if he let him.
  • There is power in seeing how Frank's family still haunts him. The premiere opens with the memories of him teaching his kids how to play guitar only to transition into the montage of killing those who hurt them. But the memory he has of his wife that wakes him up every day feels a little too bland and romanticized. Surely, he remembers more than just that lovely kiss in the morning, right?

As noted in previous reviews from shows that release their seasons all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.