How do you make The Punisher work in 2017?

The Punisher is a complicated character. Not necessarily in design or conception, but in context.

It’s hard to argue that what he does is right. He’s a zealous killer, executing criminals without jury or trial. In many ways Marvel’s iconic vigilante is like 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd, only stripped of parody and self-awareness.

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If you squint at him just right though, it’s generally been possible to enjoy the hyperviolence he doles out with the same sense of irony that’s baked into Dredd by design.

He’s a difficult character to make work in 2017 and Marvel knows it. With its other Netflix experiments trying ever so hard to be sympathetic despite their often-questionable morals, how do you do the same for murderous Frank Castle?

When this version of the character first appeared in Daredevil, they smartly did so by framing the former marine as someone who never came back from the war, not really. Castle brought war back with him, and the trauma of losing his family was the trigger that set him off.

With admirable success, they made you feel for the guy by lasering in on how broken he was. That worked when revenge was supposed to fix him, but for Frank Castle to remain The Punisher, he can’t be fixed. He has to be a dog of war, biting back at the people who kicked him, or else he’s just an irredeemable killer.

So, who do you let him loose on? Marvel’s answer is the institution that made him a killer to begin with: the US military.

Villains in the new series aren’t drug dealers and mobsters, but generals and CIA agents, the very people that weaponised him.

The big bad himself for the season is even named Agent Orange, after the horrendous chemical agent callously used by the American military during the Vietnam War.

The Punisher doesn’t quite have the courage to take aim at the military-industrial complex directly.

Always careful to avoid making too strong a statement, the bad guys are invariably rogue elements, corrupt outliers, and unfortunate exceptions. It’s a shame to see it toeing the line so carefully, rather than having the conviction to make the relatively innocuous statement that exporting war is bad, period.

While it’s admirably pro-veteran, forever driving home how former soldiers are discarded and forgotten by the people that turned them into weapons, it stops short of really condemning the conflicts they fight in.

Iraq and Afghanistan come up constantly, but for a show so concerned with them it seems oddly hesitant to show much sympathy for their inhabitants.

Any atrocities Castle and his fellow marines were ordered to commit, they were ordered to commit by bad superior officers, awkwardly shifting blame from the larger systems to rogue operators within them.

As morally problematic as Joe Bernthal’s iteration of the character is, it’s a far smarter take on Castle than it has any right to be, and the stylish ultraviolence is undeniably fun.

There’s a lot of John Wick in the action scenes and if you turn your brain off it’s easy to get sucked in. It’s a show that gets a lot right even if it gets so much else wrong. It works, but a little more bravery might have made it work better.

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