The Punisher Review (Spoiler Free)

Marvel's The Punisher Netflix series is a surprisingly subdued, ambitious affair. And oh yeah, it has plenty of violence.

I have to confess, the first episode of Marvel’s The Punisher had me a little worried. After opening on Frank Castle in all his skull-clad glory, tying up loose ends in a sequence that fully embraces the bonkers, over-the-top, Ennis-esque violence that came to define the character in the 21st century, the next hour is a dour, obvious, overwritten affair, and for a moment I feared that the series would be a chore.

I love it when I’m wrong about stuff like this.

The Punisher is a pleasant surprise. Not in terms of quality (I think we all expect these Marvel Netflix shows to rise to at least a certain level these days), but in its tone and approach. Frank Castle has never been the most nuanced of characters, and it would have been easy (and for some, even appealing) to drop the character into a series of situations where he just brutally murders deserving scumbags in increasingly inventive ways. Instead the show takes a more thoughtful approach.

In this vein, the first hour considers what happens to Frank Castle when he thinks his war is over. What does he do when he believes he has exacted all the revenge that is necessary on the criminals who murdered his wife and kids? We’re left with is a man who is merely existing, whose rage isn’t spent despite the lack of a target. So he takes it out by wielding a sledgehammer, day-in and day-out, on a construction site. Granted this is roughly as subtle as Frank’s tool of choice (I told you I didn’t love that first episode), but it does help illustrate that Castle probably never intended to survive his personal war. Without it, he’s adrift, tormented both by his personal demons and the horrors he saw while serving his country.

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Frank Castle has a longer onscreen legacy than some of his peers, but there’s little question that this is the definitive screen version of the character. Castle is virtually catatonic in the earliest episodes, and we see him come alive as he gets a new purpose and another reason to fight. As a result, Jon Bernthal is allowed to bring more range to the character than we saw in Daredevil, tempering Frank’s traumatized intensity with surprising warmth and humor as the show progresses, without ever losing sight of the character’s explosive temper or the demons that haunt him. It’s a remarkable performance, and Bernthal ranks with some of Marvel’s very best casting decisions.

While Daredevil Season 2 saw Castle primarily defined via his philosophical opposition to Daredevil, and much of his characterization came via his sometimes excessive dialogue with Matt Murdock, here he gets some more non-costumed folks to play off. Ebon Moss-Bacharach is here as the mysterious “Micro,” another man pursued by his past, and there’s a real chemistry and tension when he shares the screen with Bernthal. Their rapport might be the best buddy/partnership we’ve seen in any of these shows, and it’s not always the easiest relationship.

The Punisher is the first of the second wave of Marvel’s Netflix shows and the first to be completely removed from the constraints of building up to The Defenders. In that respect, it’s mercifully free of some of these shows’ less endearing tics (there’s not one reference to “the incident” for example). It would function as a complete standalone from the rest of the Marvel Universe if it weren’t for the fact that in its earliest episodes it doesn’t do enough to explain Frank’s recent history. If you haven’t seen Daredevil Season 2, you might not know why the world has assumed Frank Castle is dead, for one thing.

On the other hand, you’d think that by now Marvel would have figured out a way to avoid some of the other problems that have plagued all of these shows from the start. While it’s nice that not every episode needs a hefty body count, there’s one installment that may set the world record for consecutive scenes of two characters talking to each other in a room. As usual, you may start to suspect that they’re stretching 10 episodes of story into 13, particularly during an episode that resorts to multiple POV shifts to go over the same five minutes of story.

Waiting for some of the B-plot threads to come together, including a pair of Homeland Security agents (Amber Rose Reva and Michael Nathanson) on the trail of folks related to Frank’s past (including Westworld‘s Ben Barnes offering up a similar kind of hate-yourself-for-loving-him charm as he did on HBO), is a real slog early on, although it picks up considerably at around the halfway mark. There’s no obvious main villain in the show’s first half, and instead it chooses to introduce us to a range of corrupt officials and military officers, all of whom are worthy of suspicion, but none as menacing as the title character. Sometimes it makes for an appropriate sense of paranoia and other times it can be tiresome.

What’s more interesting though is how the show repositions Frank Castle and his mission. It would be easy to turn The Punisher into a glorification of vigilante justice or an orgy for gun enthusiasts. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of bonkers, righteous, and even cathartic ass-kicking to be had, but the violence is rarely for its own sake and more than once becomes downright unsettling, even (or perhaps especially) when it’s being doled out by the show’s “hero.” Instead of reveling in action, The Punisher tries to take a serious look at the meaning of war, the consequences of long term violence, and how we treat our veterans.

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I’m not sure that The Punisher always succeeds with those loftier aims, and it certainly offers up a few cartoonish oversimplifications on the left and right, but it’s refreshing to see it try to do a little more than expected. It’s on that ambition and on the strength of Bernthal’s truly remarkable and intense performance that The Punisher distinguishes itself as one of Marvel’s better recent Netflix efforts.

Welcome back, Frank.