A relevant and stunning debut for Frank Castle's solo series.
** FULL SPOILERS BELOW **
By Robert Marrujo:: Marvel and Netflix only scratched the surface of what makes Frank Castle tick when the character debuted in Season 2 of Daredevil. While what preceded was an emotional and highly engaging introduction, with this first season of The Punisher actor Joe Bernthal, who plays the nominal antihero, is able to inject even more pathos and depth to the role and delivers, along with a mostly stellar cast, one of the best shows of the year. The series also refreshingly holds no punches when tackling issues like gun control, PTSD, veterans, violence, and more across its eight episodes. While brutal and hard to watch at times, The Punisher is an absolute must for comic book fans and television aficionados alike.
The show picks up right where Daredevil left off, with Frank mercilessly running through the various underworld lowlifes who were involved with the murder of his family. Once Castle dispatches the final enemy, he's shown burning his familiar skull-emblazoned ballistic vest and, seemingly, walking away from his life as the Punisher. Frank takes on the alias of Pete Castiglione (a name comic fans will have appreciation for) and begins a new chapter as an unassuming construction worker.
Well, as unassuming as can be for Frank. He spends his days and nights whaling on a concrete wall, venting his still burning rage at the loss of his family with each swing of his hammer. While Castle tries his best to leave behind the world of violence that he'd been embroiled in, he's ultimately pulled back into his old ways when some coworkers try to kill another due to a heist gone awry. From there, Frank is approached by David Lieberman, aka Micro, who acts as his righthand man in his efforts to bring down the elusive "Agent Orange" and uncover the truth about a conspiracy revolving around the killing of an undercover agent by Castle's old military unit.
From a plot perspective, I was immediately sucked into The Punisher. The mystery at the heart of the narrative isn't the deepest, but watching Frank and Micro strive to unravel it that made the whole thing worth watching. Corruption in our government and military aren't the mind-blowing revelations that they once were in the chaotic days of the Vietnam War and Watergate, but they remain powerful topics to broach, particularly in a world still heavily impacted by the military-industrial complex. The show also adds to the tragedy of Frank's loss by including new, heretofore unseen details regarding those who played a role in their slaughter.
Bernthal's turn as Castle is so resonant and feels so genuine that it's hard to believe he's even acting. Which is key because if Bernthal wasn't so convincing it would be hard to invest in the character and harder still to try to come to terms with the things that Frank does. Make no mistake: the Punisher is a killer. He isn't here to knock out the bad guys and string them up for the police. He's here instead to turn them into so much pulp and blood. Which, unfortunately, is triggering a lot of pundits as they try to watch and understand what The Punisher is about.
The Punisher isn't meant to be a straight-up allegory for real life and the various mass shootings that have taken place in recent months. There's this perception that it's inappropriate for Frank Castle to take a gun to his foes when so many people have died at the hands of crazed shooters in recent times. It's not a position that I agree with. People consume carnage in droves through the various TV shows and movies they watch on a given day. Game of Thrones, It, The Walking Dead, the list is virtually endless, the buckets of blood spilled even more so. Yet, the second the setting looks a little too much like the scene outside of our windows people want to take objection.
It's not a stance I have the patience for. I think it's integral to debate all angles of a topic, not just offer a perspective that sounds nice. That The Punisher has the guts to talk about these topics honestly rather than simply pander to the "feel good" crowd that flocks to social media is an absolute positive. The show masterfully tackles the issue of gun control, for instance, through the lens of Senator Ori, a man who doesn't practice what he preaches. Facing the possibility of assassination at the hands of a disgruntled vet, the senator is compelled to hire a private security team for protection, a team that uses firearms. Ori is clearly uncomfortable with the notion of fighting guns while being defended by them.
It speaks very directly to the notion that there is likely no definitive right or wrong about gun ownership in this country. Ori's inability to reconcile his need to stay safe with his desire to be the beacon of anti-gun legislature is perfectly symbolic of just how gray the issue is. The Punisher is also commendable in how it doesn't attempt to paint Frank as a traditional "hero." His actions are often so brutal and harsh that viewers are supposed to take a step back and ask if, at the end of the day, Castle's ends justify his means. Anyone who walked in thinking that they were owed a black and white depiction of morality, of good guys and bad guys, is clearly suffering from a sense of entitlement and limited expectations.
The cast, beyond Bernthal, is a wonderful ensemble, with Ebon Moss-Bachrach a true standout in his portrayal of Micro. As David Leiberman, Moss-Bachrach injects a more grounded, reasonable character into the action to help balance Frank's nearly constant intensity. When the pair shares the screen together their friendship feels genuine and makes their bond all the more powerful. Perhaps even more crucial is how organically and realistically Micro comes to understand Frank's perspective and embrace it, at least in part. Again, The Punisher doesn't shy away from showing the dark places that people can go. It's very believable that a desk jockey like Micro could see the muck of humanity and feel that, sometimes, the only response is to meet it with violence. That doesn't mean anyone has to agree with him or Frank, but it also doesn't mean that it's wrong to portray characters who have this opinion.
The weakest link in this show is the inclusion of Amber Rose Revah's Dinah Madani and Michael Nathanson's Sam Stein. The pair feel like they're bolted on and utterly perfunctory. It also doesn't help that neither actor was all that convincing in their roles. Madani, who chomps up the vast majority of the screen time between herself and Stein, is a major letdown. She plays the now woefully typical clueless Marvel/Netflix "cop" who bounces around all season only to, in the eleventh hour, side with whichever hero whose name is on the opening credits scene. I also had a really difficult time rooting for Revah's dry portrayal of the character. There were moments I could barely understand what she was saying, which also didn't help.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ben Barnes' wildly arresting take on Billy Russo. For fans of the comics, that name represents the identity of Jigsaw, one of the Punisher's greatest enemies. Russo takes a very, very different path in this interpretation of the character, transformed from a mob assassin to a former soldier and basically brother of Frank Castle. Seeing Russo turn from friend to foe was a sight to behold and, although he's clearly not justified in the horrific things he does, somehow Barnes is able to make him someone that's hard to entirely hate. As a result, the climactic battle between he and Castle in the season finale is one of the most gut wrenching sights the series has to offer. It's somehow both tragic and gratifying at the same time, which really speaks to the nature of The Punisher as a whole.
Overall, regardless of a couple weak performances and plot lines, this is an amazingly solid debut for Frank Castle's solo adventures. The Punisher is a riveting piece of television. The action is brutal yet mesmerizing, with some exceptionally well done sequences. Don't let the reviews fool you, though, as this isn't a series devoted to endless headshots and gore. There's plenty of it, but there are also a multitude of quiet and thoughtful moments, as well. The Punisher is cerebral and poignant without being preachy or pandering, and rewards an audience that's there not for the sake of hearing and seeing what it wants to, but instead to learn hard truths about a world that isn't always the nicest of places.
SCORE: 9.0/10 (Excellent)
Positives: Joe Bernthal's Frank Castle/Punisher is magnetic; Ebon Moss-Bachrach's turn as Micro injects some much-needed levity and gives Frank a solid anchor on his humanity; the show is brutal in its violence as well as its honest tackling of serious, timely issues in the US.
Negatives: Madani and Stein bring the pacing to a screeching halt; Revah and Nathanson deliver cringe-worthy performances.