The Punisher might seem like the latest in the line of Marvel Netflix series, but it breaks the normal norm that is offered to fans and is a deep tale of violence. It is unlike anything that the MCU has had and ranks up with the best of the Marvel Netflix brand (Daredevil season 1, Jessica Jones).
Keeping things spoiler-lite, the Punisher series picks up with Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) as he tries to find a new path as The Punisher while trying to let the world believe that Frank Castle is dead. Things go awry when a few knuckleheads at the construction site get mixed up with mob business, and it forces Frank back into his old ways.
The act of vigilantism puts Castle on the radar of an ex-spy named “Micro” (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who comes to Frank and suggests that the mystery of his family’s murder runs deeper than Castle could imagine. The possibility is enough to bring out The Punisher full-force in Castle, with a world of pain waiting for all who dare to get in his way.
There is a lot about The Punisher that works well. Jon Bernthal carries this show with his gruff and adds layers of vulnerability and empathy to the Marvel vigilante that very few actors can pull off.
The Punisher makes good on Matt Murdock’s courtroom testimony on Frank Castle in Daredevil season 2, by plunging Castle into dreams of his family being murdered. While it is a horror-style shock, it does allow Bernthal to play out the range of high-emotion moments. It is a great performance and better character-development for The Punisher than we have ever seen and up there with the surreal memory sequences of Jessica Jones.
While Bernthal is a solid centerpiece, he gets help from other characters, played by solid actors. Ebon Moss-Bachrach makes Micro a more interesting character than the comics version, with a whole lot of the early Punisher episodes revolving around his attempt to convince a skeptical Frank that they have very mutual interests. Micro is a complex character who is better than most Marvel Netflix sidekicks.
Amber Rose Revah (Emerald City), Jason R. Moore, and Ben Barnes (Westworld) round out the players as Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani, veterans counselor Curtis Hoyle, and Billy Russo.
What is surprising about The Punisher is how deep and layered the story is. More than a crime story or superhero origin story, the series touches upon timely issues of war trauma and the cost of military service. It offers a thought-provoking metaphor for what the post-war life is for soldiers.
The action in The Punisher is satisfyingly dark and violent. It is also refreshingly restrained and cinematic than the oft cartoonish levels of violence seen in Daredevil season 2. A whole lot of Frank’s kills are shot in artful style and use setups and executions while often holding back from showing full gore, opting instead for off-camera violence reverse perspectives.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
Keeping the connective threading between series, we have Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page crossing over from Daredevil to The Punisher. Karen had an ill-fit presence in the MCU thus far, and The Punisher compounds this problem.
Not all the blame can be put on Karen. The Punisher lags in many places with half-cooked “will they, won’t they” romantic interests. Karen and Frank’s deep and sensitive personal talks do not feel earned, while scenes of Frank growing close to Sarah (Jaime Ray Newman) and the kids often veers into some awkward territory that feels out of place.
The Punisher is formulaic in structure with the staples like a hallway battle, an episode where this hero is injured in some way and an episode built on flashbacks. In the same vein, the first arc ends with some obligatory twists, which can send the second half of The Punisher into a very Luke Cage-ish territory.
The Punisher is a successful adaptation of the character by far and gives fans hope that there is potential for a few great Marvel Netflix series to explore.
Marvel’s The Punisher season 1 is now streaming on Netflix. Check back soon for our review and/or recap of the final half.