After three movies, The Punisher has now come to (streaming) television in his latest portrayal. Hot off his critically acclaimed performance on fellow Marvel Netflix show Daredevil Season 2, Jon Bernthal (Justice League Vs Teen Titans, Wind River) brings the Punisher to life in his own spin-off series taking place a few months after Daredevil Season 2 and presumably after The Defenders. We all knew Bernthal could bring it as a major supporting character, thanks to his intense performance in DD Season 2 (if anyone tells me they were not reduced to emotional wreckage during his speech in the cemetery talking about reuniting with his baby girl, I am convinced that person has no soul). But can he hold his own as the main star? Specifically, what will this show do differently from the divisive movies that came before? The answer is to hold off from too much action and gunfights to allow time to explore more of Frank Castle’s fractured psyche and how damaged the mind of a killer can become. Specifically that of a war hero betrayed by his own.
Castle starts off having killed all remaining survivors of those who murdered his family before subsequently going into hiding as a construction worker, the world thinking he is dead. Castle just wants to be left alone, but events seem determined to bring out the killer in him. You know the drill, some of the construction workers are jerks and criminals, and eventually some contrived convenience happens so Castle’s killing machine can come back, and then the proper series can begin.
The show has received criticism for pacing issues, but I think people seem to forget that, like other Marvel/Netflix shows, The Punisher was filmed all at once, like a movie. More still, people seem to forget that the first episodes of almost any tv show aren’t usually good. Even though this show was filmed all at once, the first episode functions in much the same manner as a pilot episode, which, in rare exceptions are usually average at best. A pilot’s job is to establish all the characters, the universe, and the overall theme, and it can become a sloppy mess. Even Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the two most critically acclaimed, and the best up to now, of the Marvel/Netflix shows were like this. It’s usually in the later episodes where the show truly hits its stride. The Punisher is no different, and it joins the two aforementioned shows as the newest of the top-tier Marvel/Netflix shows.
The real story is, once Castle is back on his killing spree, he is contacted by Micro/David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and informed about a deeper conspiracy within the US Military and Intelligence apparatuses. There may be more to the death of Castle’s family than was initially revealed in DDS2. A conspiracy that Lieberman himself was close to cracking until the same people behind Castle’s family’s murders set out to murder Lieberman. A reluctant Castle begrudgingly joins Lieberman in his hunt for the truth.
Along the way, we encounter a host of interesting characters. Moss-Bachrach plays a more noble version of Micro than from the comics and sells a great performance of the confident, yet frightened hacker who knows all yet can do so little about it. A Marine from Castle’s time in Iraq, Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) maintains contact with Castle, using a prosthetic leg after a mission in Iraq, and is thus one of the only two human contacts to the outside world that Castle has, the other being Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). Page uses her contacts in the media and the government to help Castle with solving this case while providing the framing for a debate on Castle’s morality and if his killing ever ends. Page is not in the series long, but what time she does have is used perfectly.
The other standout character, aside from Frank Castle himself of course, is Billy Russo (Ben Barnes). Russo is another former Marine and comrade of Castle, but from Afghanistan. Russo was with Castle in the covert unit utilized by Ray Schoonover (Clancy Brown) and new antagonist, William Rawlins (Paul Schulze) otherwise known as “Agent Orange” to the unit, to smuggle heroin. Anyone who knows Russo from the comics knows what ultimately happens to him, and while his basic origin is changed for the show, the overall personality traits remain. I prefer his origin her honestly as there’s more meat to this Russo’s bones than from the comics. I won’t spoil it here, but I can say Russo is a fascinating character and provides a great counter to Castle that does not cease to entertain!
Now on to everyone’s favorite character, Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah)! Madani has not had the warmest reception from the fanbase, seeing her as a needless addition with a needless subplot to fill the near-hour-long runtime for each episode. Madani’s trying to figure out who killed her contact in Afghanistan, an Afghan local police officer named Ahmad Zubair (She Sardar), and of course he was killed by Agent Orange’s unit after Zubair found out about the drug smuggling. For the record, I didn’t hate Madani, I have very mixed feelings towards her. I can see what the showrunner and the writers were going for, and I commend them for trying something different and unexpected for this show, but it was a very hard sell that only made its impact towards the end of the show. It doesn’t help that Revah’s performance didn’t exactly win me over. She was fine, but for someone who’s here to constantly spout proud “I’m an American” slogans and the virtues and greatness of the American ideal and hunting those who corrupt its sanctity, the BRITISH Revah does not give a convincing American accent. Memo to production companies: find Britons who can actually sound American without phoning it in or better yet, cast an actual American! Or even Canadian! Just so long as it’s someone who doesn’t obviously sound like they’re from the continent on the other side of the ocean.
If anything, I think this show wasted an opportunity by not focusing Dinah’s screentime instead on her mother, Farah (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Whereas Dinah is a first-generation Iranian-American, Farah is an Iranian immigrant to America and a successful psychiatrist with some friends in high places regarding US Intelligence. Farah’s background in psychiatry I think is a good idea to utilize. Farah could have been asked by her government friends to help with catching Frank Castle and/or the other conspirators and along the way, help interrogate associates of Castle and/or captured enemies, creating psychological profiles on them and using the to eventually create one for Castle that helps the government catch him. We all know he would escape of course because he’s the Punisher, but the point is Farah’s skills helped catch Castle in the first place and uncovered unsavory details. It would’ve gone well in this show that spends so much time exploring Frank Castle’s mind, especially in the year when Netflix decided to portray the exploits of former FBI criminal profiler/psychologist John E Douglas on Mindhunter.
How fares the action? Beautifully intense and brutal of course. Especially because it doesn’t come non-stop. This has been a criticism of the show, but I for one appreciate that it takes time to breathe and is not just an endless action buffet. The fact that the show takes time to slow down and have human moments is brilliant, and it makes the action all the more rewarding when it finally does arrive!
The Punisher is a slow-burn, rewarding series for those who can appreciate its surprising patience. The show offers a chance for Jon Bernthal to show the underappreciated acting power and intensity that Bernthal can bring to a role, offering a beautifully emotional, soul-shattering presence on-screen that mixes surprisingly well with killing machine we all know and love in a show mixing Jason Bourne conspiracy with John Wick action. If the show can deliver on the ending of this season, we’re in for more greatness later in season 2.