Spinning off from his wildly popular debut in the second season of Daredevil, one-man-army Frank Castle heads up a series of his own as he continues to unravel the vast conspiracy that led to the deaths of his family. Though it mostly passes on the opportunity to make any serious stand on the gun control debate, Season One of THE PUNISHER tackles plenty of other meaty themes in a complex, mature story that delivers a host of interesting side characters, and a compelling, well developed antagonist, culminating in one of the best seasons of the Netflix MCU to date.
When first introduced in Daredevil Season 2, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) began a war against the Kitchen Irish, The Mexican Cartel and the Dogs of Hell Biker Gang – the three gangs whose Central Park shootout caught Frank’s family in its crossfire. His solo series picks up the tail end of that crusade, with the first episode seeing Frank putting down the last remnants of all three groups in appropriately brutal fashion, before dumping his skull emblazoned bullet-proof vest in a fire, seemingly satisfied that his family have finally been avenged, and done with his “Punisher” moniker for good.
The closure doesn’t last too long, however, as Frank’s retirement is interrupted when a talented hacker going by the name Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) contacts him, claiming that Frank had only begun to pick apart the tangled machinations that got his family killed. The crux of the conspiracy dates back to the Punisher’s time as a US Marine, specifically, a black ops mission in Kandahar that saw Frank and his best buddy Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) capturing, interrogating and assassinating high value targets, under the orders of an illusive officer using the pseudonym “Agent Orange” (Paul Shulze). Back on US soil, Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) is also looking into the covert operation, placing her on a collision course with the vengeful vigilante.
Bernthal once again delivers a Punisher that is equal parts relatable and reprehensible.
For a plot that starts out complicated and only gets further muddied from there, the series does a good job of keeping everything straight. The main narrative unfolds at a reasonable pace, weaving together elements of political thrillers and espionage action flicks as Frank is slowly and inevitably drawn back into the punishing business, and ties it all together with introspective expeditions into the psyche of the man himself. Ranging from frequent nightmare’s about the deaths of his family, to flashbacks of his time at war before he lost everything, these explorations into the madness behind the murderous methods continue the deeper, “one bad day” depiction of the Punisher seen in Daredevil, and elevate the character far beyond a one-note killing machine.
Having already owned the role so much that he went from a bit player in another’s story to headlining his own franchise entry, it comes as little surprise that Bernthal once again delivers a Punisher that is equal parts relatable and reprehensible, balancing his brutal, animalistic rage with a tortured, inconsolable loneliness. With a vast array of deadly weaponry in hand, Bernthal’s Frank stalks through the action scenes with the precision and finesse of a dancer, manipulating his firearm like he was born with it in his hands. Outside the battlefield, particularly in flashbacks, Frank is unburdened by the weight of his loss, and Bernthal’s performance reflects this with a lighter, more jovial presence – albeit one that still portrays subtle hints of struggle as he tries to return to normal after his time at war.
As much as the Punisher is a one man army, waging all that war doesn’t leave much time for him to carry an entire show by himself. Luckily, the story introduces two other leads to help pick up the slack, each with their own plot threads to add to the already tangled web. Micro, AKA David Lieberman was an NSA analyst who leaked some footage that he shouldn’t have, forcing him to abandon his family and fake his own death in order to keep everybody he cares about safe from retribution. Moss-Bachrach plays off this self imposed isolation, bringing out the intense loneliness David faced from having to leave his family behind, developing a nice comparison to the Punisher’s own journey. Acting on the other side of the law, Dinah Madani is a resolute and relentless force of justice, intent on catching the people responsible for the murder of her partner, and Revah imbues her with plenty of wit, strength and fortitude over the course of her arc.
For every conspiracy that must be unravelled, there are conspirators who will stop at nothing to keep the truth from coming to the light. Here, the show falters a little, with most of the names on Frank’s hit list being one dimensional and quickly dispatched. Even Agent Orange fails to develops into either an interesting character, or a credible threat, with Shulze’s performance being contained to repetitive political scenes for the most part, only really being allowed to show all that the actor can do during his final showdown. A much more complex and well developed antagonist, Billy Russo is an old friend of Frank’s who served with him in Afghanistan – shown through the series of flashbacks, this friendship allows for a much deeper rift when the pair inevitably butt heads over their clashing ideals. Barnes brings every ounce of his slick charm to Russo as he crosses paths with both Frank and Madani, and the range he shows easily takes the character from seductive sophistication, to murderous rages within the blink on an eye, making him an excitingly unpredictable presence.
It feels like a missed opportunity that THE PUNISHER doesn’t make any kind of meaningful statement about America’s gun violence issues.
While superhero films are far from the ideal place to discuss inflammatory issues that affect society, and nobody would expect the next Avengers flick to make a thoughtful argument for or against accepting Asgardian refugees a central aspect of its narrative, the Netflix MCU have shown themselves to be of a more grounded calibre, and as such, reflective of real world issues. After Jessica Jones’ excellent portrayal of controlling relationships and sexual assault, and Luke Cage’s powerful image of a black man in a hoodie shrugging off bullets, it seemed like a natural progression that the gun toting vigilante getting his own solo series would see America’s gun law issues taken to task next, especially given the fact that numerous shootings took place during production, and the release date was even pushed back due to the Las Vegas massacre.
To its credit, the series does attempt to broach the topic with a side plot involving an ex-soldier with mental health issues, intended to be a twisted reflection of Frank himself, and even includes a radio debate between a gun enthusiast and an advocate for stricter gun laws. While it feels a little forced into the episode, the discourse would have been a great opportunity to set forth compelling arguments for both sides, and leave it to the viewer to decide with whom they agree, but unfortunately the little that is said on the topic is reductive hyperbole, and not at all representative of the actual issues being debated across the country. Given its unique credentials to talk on the subject, and the Netflix MCU’s history of success with translating real world issues into compelling drama, it feels like a missed opportunity that THE PUNISHER doesn’t make any kind of meaningful statement about America’s gun violence issues.
Even though it fails to fully explore the real-world ramifications of the actions and ethos of its hero, THE PUNISHER succeeds in presenting a flawed yet relatable protagonist brought to life with intense ferocity by a vastly talented actor. The web of conspiracy that the story follows is complex enough to ensure that no stop of the tour of violence drops the pace too much, yet never drifts into overly convoluted territory, and the cast of side characters that Frank crosses paths with are, for the most part, as compelling and well-written as the man himself. It may not be the most politically relevant of Marvel’s Netflix series’, but when it comes to blistering action and dark, enthralling drama, it’s easily one of the best the studio has to offer.
Verdict: 4/5 Paddles