Netflix’s ‘The Punisher’ Is the Vetsploitation Story America Needs
One man’s simple morality cuts through war in Afghanistan
This story contains spoilers for The Punisher
Wetwork like this always happens in a basement. There’s the sound of flesh on flesh and a splash of blood on the concrete. There are blackouts, ghosts of the dead and the street noise of Kandahar.
There’s a man business casual covered in blood. His left eye is a glassy ruin. His fists curl in black gloves. He’s doing his own dirty work, for once. There’s a soldier tied to a chair, his body a ruin. Business Casual has seen to that.
Another soldier tries to stop it, but Business Casual won’t. “You serve me,” he says. “You’re a tool, you understand? Don’t get confused. Men like me make the plans, men like you shed the blood … when it’s all said and done, you’re just a stupid grunt.”
This scene, which comes at the tail end of Netflix’s The Punisher, is the show’s thesis. It’s a story about America’s war in Afghanistan, the people who fight it and what they do when they come home. It’s about veterans and violence, black ops and bad operators, gun violence and vigilantes. It’s about America.
It’s also the best comic book show Netflix has yet produced and the kind of story we should be telling about a war few Americans fought and even fewer pay attention to.
Hollywood loves The Punisher, but has never gotten him quite right. Dolph Lundgren terrorized mobsters in 1980s New York City, Thomas Jane tortured John Travolta in 2004 and Ray Stevenson turned the anti-hero into a murderous Batman. They have their charms but no one ever got the character right.
The set up, with variations, is always the same. Frank Castle is a loving husband and father whose life goes to shit when criminals murder his entire family. Castle survives and goes on a killing spree that avenges his family and leaves a trail of dead criminals behind him.
For the Netflix show, Marvel decided to explore part of Castle’s backstory that’s often left on the cutting room floor–his veteran status. I won’t delve into the confusing and chaotic mix of backstories that is the Marvel comics cannon. It’s enough to know that there are versions of The Punisher with roots in a variety of conflicts. Usually Vietnam.
The Netflix show makes Castle a Marine who served in Afghanistan. This isn’t just a small detail of his character but the driving force behind the show’s story. The CIA handpicked Castle and other assorted elite soldiers to serve as part of a black op in Afghanistan. They ran assassinations for the U.S. government and, to pay for it, shipped heroin home in the bodies of dead service members.
Castle balked, came home and his connection to the op led to his family’s slaughter. Now he’s on a mission to kill every last bastard that had a hand in it. That’s it. That’s the show. Over the course of its 13 episodes, Castle pursues vengeance and every plot and subplot feeds back into that narrative. It’s refreshing.
This laser focus on the theme makes The Punisher the best comic book show on Netflix. Jessica Jones has a strong core with terrible side plots and a tone that sometimes borders on wacky. Daredevil’s villains and minor characters are stronger than the lead is. Luke Cage is fun but doesn’t need 14 episodes. Iron First just flat-out sucks.
The Punisher avoids all those pitfalls and does something more — it tells a great story about veterans and the War in Afghanistan. This is still a violence-filled fantasy. It’s still a vetsploitation story, but it’s a good one. The big picture conflict is the one that pits monied interests against everyday folks. It’s grunts versus the CIA.
It’s about the men and women who risked their lives in a country they don’t understand to fight a war that makes less sense with every passing day. There’s a magnificent scene at the end of episode three where Castle’s memories take him back to Kandahar and the audience watches as he tears through dozens of faceless Taliban soldier while White Buffalo’s Wish it Was True plays in the background. The sad lyrics about a soldier who no longer believes in his cause subverts a pulse pounding action scene.
There’s more. Castle’s partner in revenge is a former CIA analyst who grew a consciousness. A dogged Homeland Security Officer pursues the conspiracy at home after the CIA assassinated her Afghan partner in Kandahar. Castle reckons with another wounded veteran vigilante who uses bombs and terror to find purpose after war. Hell, the show even debates the Second Amendment, but resolves the issue on its own terms.
The Punisher’s world isn’t ours. His is a world of costumed vigilantes and super-powered gods. But even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s still a war in Afghanistan. Castle reminds us of that and The Punisher makes us face it.
We need constant reminding.