Netflix’s latest Marvel series, The Punisher, is definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s a bloody, gory tale of reawakening and vengeance – in which Frank Castle (Marvel’s answer to Don Pendleton’s Mac Bolan novels) learns that he may have killed off the personnel who murdered his family, but they were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
In fact, their deaths came about as a direct result of unsanctioned CIA black ops in Afghanistan – in which Castle played an unwitting part.
The Punisher opens six months after Castle finished punishing his family’s killers. Castle daydreams of teaching his daughter guitar as he plunks a guitar in a rented room – ultimately flashing back to his running over a couple guys on motorcycles in Alabama before taking out ‘the last of the cartel’ in El Paso and a guy named Mickey O’Hare in a men’s room in JFK International.
The he burns his Punisher body armor.
Six months later Castle (Jon Bernthal), under the alias of Pete Castiglione, is working on the demolition of a multi-story building – and ticking off his fellow workers by starting early and working late, costing them overtime.
A group of them supplement their income with heists, but Frank doesn’t become involved until the guy on the job stupidly takes part and botches a heist. When they try to kill the kid, Frank takes exception.
Elsewhere, a veteran named Curtis (Jason R. Moore, A Lonely Place for Dying) is setting up for his veteran’s weekly support group) and Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah – Borgia, Emerald City) is settling into her new post by meeting her new partner, Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson, The Knick) and preparing an investigation into the murder of Ahmed Zubair (Shez Sardar, How to Be a Startup in 21 Days) an Afghan cop who was targeted by a CIA black ops team called Cerberus (to prevent him from talking about a heroin smuggling operation).
She’s shut down by her superior, Carson Wolfe (C. Thomas Howell), but tries to find ways to work around him.
And who is that bearded man who seems to know Frank?
The Punisher was created for television by Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal, Transporter: The Series), who wrote scripts for episodes 1, 2 and 13.
He weaves together multiple plot arcs involving Frank, a fellow ‘ghost’ known as Micro, Madani and Frank’s brother-in-arms, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes, Westworld) – and throws in an arc involving Curtis and one of support group, Lewis Walcott (Daniel Webber, 11.22.63) that has an unexpected tie-in to everything else.
It’s a big, bold season of thirteen episodes that touches on everything from family to gun control to what constitutes justice and betrayal.
Lightfoot has put together a team of writers and directors that have worked on previous Marvel shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones Luke Cage, The Defenders) as well as prestige series like Black Sails, Person of Interest, Hannibal and Masters of Sex.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of fighting – hand-to-hand, gunfights, one-on-one to small army on small army (or, more to the point, small army on Frank Castle) – and a lot of it could probably be dispensed with if we were dealing with any other Marvel character. Here, though, thanks to timing and placement, almost none of it feels gratuitous.
Rather, there are several scenes that deal with Frank’s mental health. Under his constant rage, there’s a sweet melancholy combined with PTSD that has him suffering nightmares that focus on his wife – each time, they progress a little farther until they become a source of unimaginable pain. That pain reinforces and builds on the pain he’s already suffered.
The PTSD theme is also reinforced with the arc that builds around Curtis and Lewis – with literally explosive results – as Lewis succumbs to a politically radical enticement that makes it clear how easy fragile minds can be suborned by subversives.
What is equally remarkable is the way that the series doesn’t feel padded – like Iron Fist, or the second season of Daredevil.
Instead, stretches of quiet pretty much equal stretches of violence and provide us with a host of pretty rounded characters – Madani, for instance, has a romantic entanglement that is crucial to the plot (and has parents played by Oscar®-nominee Shoreh Agdashloo and Madame Secretary’s Houshang Touzie) and Micro turns out to be a ‘ghost’ for a very good reason.
Sure, Frank rebounds from serious injuries way too quickly (as do other characters), but in that way, the show is very faithful to the comics on which they’re based – and the results are way too much dark fun to quibble about overmuch.
The series rests on the shoulders of the extremely talented Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, The Accountant) and he brings a deeper life to Frank than we’ve seen before. His way is brutal, but we can understand why thanks to solid writing and Bernthal’s epic performance.
Although not quite the force of nature that Bernthal is as Frank Castle, Revah is no slouch, either. Madani’s determination, intelligence and brass ones could intimidate anyone – except, maybe, Frank.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach is a standout in a role I won’t spoil here. He’s smart, careful and totally unprepared for Frank’s entry into his life (even though he thinks he is – and initiates it).
Barnes is suave and persuasive as Frank’s brother-in-arms who has returned home to form Anvil – an international security company (think Blackwater) that holds a number of government contracts.
Tony Plana plays Madani’s mentor, Raffi, with a subtle steel that makes one wonder where his allegiance lies.
On the whole, The Punisher ranks with the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones as one of the best Marvel/Netflix shows.
Final Grade: A-