I like superhero movies as much as the next person, but I’m not some wildly committed fan. I’ve seen the vast majority of MCU films, including the good ones (Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War) and the absolutely rubbish ones (The Incredible Hulk, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2). I completely respect anybody who loves this cinematic universe, but for me, most of these films are highly enjoyable popcorn flicks – stuff to watch on the big screen while wolfing down loads of salt.
These films are perfect for that exact scenario. They’ve got A-list actors to burn, tons of extravagant set pieces, and the kind of pacing that makes you feel as if you’ve had your appetite pleasantly sated after standing up to leave the theater – or maybe that’s just the popcorn.
Despite all of this, I reckon the MCU doesn’t even hold a candle to the best material Marvel has put out over the last 13 years. When I’m watching comic book adaptations, I’m far more fascinated by compelling, three-dimensional anti-heroes than any poster vigilantes with burly arms and a not-so-vogue cape. This is why I love Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen collaboration with Netflix so much. Sure, people weren’t too hot on Luke Cage or Iron Fist, but Jessica Jones? Daredevil? The Punisher?
That last one is why I’m writing this. I adore The Punisher because it has no shame in wearing what it is on its sleeve: a gritty, over-the-top action revenge series with a decent story backed up by elaborately inelegant set pieces in spades. The camerawork and soundscape are stylish and refined, but the material they focus on is belligerent and brutish. Voguishly dark cinematography underscores Frank Castle’s raucous rampages, to the extent that The Punisher as a vision is omnipresent in this series – it never forgets what it is for a single second. Conversely, there are some MCU movies I could watch for ten minutes and legitimately believe they’re one of three possible options. I can’t tell the difference between the first two Thor movies even though one of them takes place in a completely different world… I think.
Lots of people were less hot on The Punisher season two than they were on Frank Castle’s Netflix debut, but I can honestly say I saw no such decline in quality. Sure, the first season’s revenge story with Castle and his best bud realizing they’re actually mortal enemies was excellent – and incredibly damn cool, which is this show’s true selling point – but I’ll never forget watching an arrested Castle’s shootout from a police station in season two, where he collaborates with his captors to overcome a mutual foe. When he eventually skulks out into the dark forest outside, filled with an invisibly encroaching enemy force, the sequence moves on with such a juxtaposition of tension and balls to the wall mayhem that my heart had no idea whether to explode or shut up. It’s everything that good action should be – a compelling but straightforward story focused on one single protagonist, preferably an anti-hero, that is far more interested in stylistic nuance than anything else. It’s a thrill to watch, both in terms of literally witnessing it with your own eyes and parsing the quick-paced, bullet hell progression with your brain. It’s immensely satisfying, and it’s a type of action the MCU – even in its better fights – never comes close to capturing.
For what it’s worth, I like the way the MCU ended up going. I’m more of a Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy guy than a Captain America: The First Avenger stan, purely because I enjoy seeing the funnier and more human sides of these famous-faced superheroes. Ultimately, though, this is a concession I’ve needed to make in order to compensate for the quality of these films as action movies – case and point, even the portals scene in Endgame is a million times better than the battle that follows. People say, “On your left” for a reason – I have no clue who punches who in the big Thanos fight.
In Hell’s Kitchen, though – and in The Punisher in particular – Marvel does right by action. It’s got kicking bullet ballets, a kickass protagonist, and a double kick drum pedal-propelled soundtrack that’s almost as metal as The Punisher’s spray-painted skull vest. Marvel hasn’t managed to come anywhere near it since, in my eyes, and it’s a real shame that Netflix cancelled it alongside Jessica Jones and Daredevil. I recognize that WandaVision is great and that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could recapture some of the magic that made The Punisher special, but let’s be real – nobody does it quite like Frank Castle.
Jon Bernthal deserves better, as did the character he so faithfully played. If I had one wish for future Marvel IP, it would be the announcement of ten more seasons of The Punisher on Disney+. That’s a lot of narrative space, so I know it probably sounds as if I’m being stupidly hyperbolic – but The Punisher isn’t really about the story. The Punisher is about the sheer artistic freedom to create a great audiovisual piece of magical mayhem that commands your attention from start to finish. When Frank Castle is on screen, the world watches with bated breath, hearts beating to the rhythm of cymbal clashes and shotgun shells.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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