Early reviews are in, and the consensus seems to be that The Punisher, Marvel’s latest Netflix series, is doing more things right than not. Another way to put that would be, “Oh, phew, this is nothing like Iron Fist.” (Sorry, Danny—you were better in The Defenders, but your solo series is still the low-tide mark of the comic giant’s streaming programs.) Jon Bernthal is superb, the storytelling is solid, and it’s mostly avoiding that feeling of narrative stretch that infects so many contemporary serialized shows.
But it’s time to talk about the guitar-wielding elephant in the room. The first five minutes of the premiere are a great montage of Frank Castle finishing off the final players in his revenge plan from Daredevil’s second season. He’s tying up loose ends, so that this new narrative can begin fresh with a “six months later” time jump—or so he thinks anyway. (One of Marvel’s most common go-to themes is how the past is never done with us.) But before that montage starts, in the very first seconds of the show, what do we get? Bernthal, laying down some old-school finger-picking licks for his daughter. These, of course, segue into the wailing blues riffs that soundtrack his subsequent vengeance, sounding for all the world like a dude in a leather vest and a ponytail making an O-face as he absolutely shreds some beyond-generic Delta blues riffs. By the time the opening credits begin, that solo guitar has transitioned smoothly into the theme song, an unabashed throwback to cheesy Southern blues of old, like the guitarist from Blueshammer stole a beat from Tom Waits’ pile of castoffs and decided to see if he could whammy-bar the track into oblivion.
You know the kind of riffs I’m talking about. These are the outdated guitar licks that, for several decades now, have announced to the world, “Hey, check out the tortured tough guy, y’all! He’s world-weary and sensitive, but man, is he capable of whipping some ass when need be!” It may work in glorious cinematic offerings like Road House, but that was a long time ago, and in a different medium, no less. It’s a musical trope that was already hoary when it was being used to score the bad-boy actions of Dylan McKay, resident poetic bruiser of Beverly Hills, 90210.
But this is somehow still the music of TV’s brooding beefcakes, the guys of whom we’re meant to be in awe, despite the fact that this sound is only tuned down half a key from the mid-’80s Simon & Simon theme. Not only that, but to anyone growing up in the ’90s, that spare blues-solo wailing has now been forever appropriated by the opening credits to Law & Order. It’s a painfully behind-the-times sound, and every time it pops up on The Punisher, my brain is half-convinced one of L&O’s familiar “chung-chung”s is mere moments behind it. That slide-guitar wankery no longer sounds like the score to someone with the pathos of The Punisher; it sounds like The Punisher’s uncle is going through a midlife crisis and just bought a convertible, and this is the music he’s playing to try and impress ladies on the strip in his hometown.
It’s especially unfortunate given how the trailers for the series seemed to promise a more aggressive soundtrack, one that better fit the roiling tempest of Castle’s troubled mind. Metallica’s “One” plays over the clip, a song about a war vet desperate to be released from the anguish caused by the toll taken on him from a life of brutality. As the slow and soulful first half moves to the explosive riffing on the conclusion, it mirrors the journey of Castle himself, suggesting a fiercer and more abrasive sound than the rote feel-bad noodlings of some guy with a soul patch and a Stratocaster. (Although it’s still not exactly all that current—the band’s …And Justice For All came out in 1988—at least it feels fresher than a bad knockoff of Stevie Ray Vaughan.)
It’s past time to say farewell to the “tortured tough guy with blues guitar theme” trope. There are so many better ways to convey that some dude has a pained and sensitive soul hiding beneath a macho veneer—They Might Be Giants, say, or “Sex And Candy.” Honestly, just about anything would be preferable to another bluesy guitar wank-off. It doesn’t have to be pure heavy metal, but maybe something that doesn’t make you think of the Lorenzo Lamas vehicle Renegade would be a good start.