This Review Contains Spoilers
One Batch, Two Batch, Back on Track
After the release of The Defenders earlier this year, the state of Marvel properties on Netflix was at a bit of a crossroads. Back in 2015, Jessica Jones and the first two seasons of Daredevil were met with almost universal praise while Luke Cage was enjoyed by most, myself included, it didn’t quite meet the heights of the two shows before it. Iron Fist and The Defenders were considered average at best, and while both shows had their fair share of fun moments, the bad largely outweighed the good. The Marvel-Netflix properties seemed to be in the first stages of a downward spiral.
The first season of The Punisher raises the bar back to its previous heights. Netflix and the creative team behind the show recapture what made Daredevil and Jessica Jones so captivating: that dark, gritty atmosphere with an equally dark anti-hero to match.
Taking place post the events of The Defenders, and after his supposed death at the end of the second season of Daredevil, protagonist Frank Castle has slowly but surely worked his way back into the world under the pseudonym of Pete Castiglione. After settling his scores and hiding in plain sight as a construction worker, Castle is sucked back into the hunt as his past from abroad catches up with him, and the details of his family’s death become more complex and muddled.
There are scenes in Punisher that are the unquestionably the most graphic content in the MCU thus far. Violence is regularly pushed to and past the limit, and the sexual scenes are the longest and most graphic we’ve ever seen in this connected universe. The violence is only rarely gratuitous and the sex is never pornographic, but the creators of the show have doubled down on showing us the dirty, ugly side of this universe and its characters.
The action is choreographed and performed to perfection. Some unforgettably graphic and intense fights are put on display, often paired with an interesting musical choice. There are one or two fight sequences from every Marvel-Netflix show that I remember to this day. The Punisher provided me with at least a half-dozen of these.
Having The Punisher as your source material certainly helps in this regard. It’s much easier to portray Frank Castle shooting down gangsters with realistic weight than it is to make Danny Rand fighting a dragon even remotely set in reality. But the writers have taken the darker sides (which, truthfully, may be the only sides) of Castle’s character and run with them, making it clear from the very beginning that the show is not going to apologize for or justify Castle’s actions. He’s not a hero, his body count by the end of the first episode is nearly two dozen, and the show doesn’t blink or slow down from there.
Besides being darker than what we’ve seen in the past, the show also looks unlike anything else in the MCU. The cinematography is dramatic and different, opting for the style of something like The Wire rather than the almost cheeky camera work we’re used to in superhero stories. Characters are often framed in close-ups from below or in wide shots with the city behind them. It underscores the flawed nature of the characters, showing them in a way that we rarely see. It’s a nuanced but noticeable difference, and it helps provide a stark, gritty tone throughout the series.
Jon Bernthal is absolutely brilliant as Frank Castle. Perhaps the best casting choice in the Marvel-Netflix Universe since Matthew Murdock, Bernthal plays the brooding, determined Frank Castle nearly perfectly. Everything that was great about him in Daredevil is accentuated, and the details of his acting are tremendous. The small differences in his personality in flashbacks compared to the current day are subtle yet noticeable. The few tender and compassionate moments are delicate and sweet, and the brutal, unyielding ones are played even better. Bernthal is excellent in every way, anyone else who may play this role in the years to come has little hope in matching his performance.
Bernthal gets a lot of help from the supporting cast. Deborah Anne Wolf reprises her role as Karen Page and, unsurprisingly, is fantastic. Her and Castle’s relationship is as sweet and interesting as it is messy and complex, and the times the two share on screen (of which there are more than I would’ve guessed) are some of the high points of the series. Amber Rose Revah gives a solid performance as the young and determined Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani, as does Michal Nathanson as her partner Sam Stein. Ben Barnes also gives a standout performance as Billy Russo, Castle’s old marine friend turned eventual enemy.
By the end of the series Russo is in the role of the villain, with his fate leaving the possibility for his eventual transformation into Jigsaw in future series. Not so lucky as to have been spared by Castle is Williams Rawlins or Agent Orange, the leader of Castle and Russo’s illegal assassination squad in Afghanistan. Played by actor Paul Schulze, Agent Orange is an interesting antagonist for Castle; composed, scheming and meticulous until he becomes unhinged in the penultimate episode, he’s a fascinating and well-developed target for Frank. Compared to the likes of Wilson Fisk and The Purple Man, Rawlins, however, comes up short. Though after spending the entirety of Iron Fist and The Defenders fighting the ambiguous enemy of The Hand, Agent Orange, like most of the things in this series, are steps in the right direction.
One other performance to note is Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s portrayal of former NSA hacker David Lieberman. Lieberman, also thought to be dead by the world, seeks out Castle to enlist his help in taking down the men who wronged them both. Acting under the alias of Micro, Lieberman’s goal is to take out the men who want him dead in order to return to his family. As Castle himself meets and grows closer to Lieberman’s family, the dynamic between the two shifts and changes constantly. It evolves from a conflict to a begrudged partnership to the closest thing Castle could have to a friendship. Micro grounds both the show and Castle, bringing some much-needed comedy, intelligence and humanity to the table.
There’s an interesting cinematic element to Micro as well. After he’s introduced and it’s revealed that he’s watching Frank through security cameras, many of the shots appear as if they could be from that vantage point. It makes you question if Micro is seeing what we’re seeing, or if we’re perhaps seeing it through Lieberman’s eyes. It’s less frequent after the first few episodes, but it’s another interesting and dynamic element to the show’s unique cinematography.
Perhaps the most important success of The Punisher is the way it expertly handles the social issues it raises. Frank Castle is a veteran, as are many of the characters in this series. The show doesn’t shy away from facing the issues of real veterans in the United States, even using one of the opening scenes to showcase an anonymous PTSD meeting for vets. Through various characters, the show represents the views and opinions of many real-life American veterans, exposing feelings that they’ve been forgotten or ignored. Feelings that they need to take matters into their own hands because their own government isn’t doing it for them.
These persistent issues cause some of the show’s characters to resort to domestic terrorism and other acts of violence, raising even more questions about gun control and similar issues. The masterful thing about the show however is that it doesn’t explicitly take any sides. The writers are careful not to sympathize or defend a home-grown terrorist, but treading lightly to show the very real way in which things could get to that point. The show presents an argument on gun control in the form of a radio interview and seems to lean one way, but regularly reminds us that one of our protagonists, Karen Page, carries a gun. These issues, unlike Castle’s bulletproof vest, are not black and white. They’re complex and difficult with no right answers, and the writers and actors of The Punisher have done a magnificent job in portraying that.
The Punisher is very good, not suffering from any pacing issues like previous Marvel-Netflix shows have, and each episode has something to enjoy. The actors are talented and well-cast, and the story is self-contained and engaging. It’s dark and gritty and sometimes hard to watch, but a show about The Punisher shouldn’t be any other way. There’s plenty of places for Frank Castle to go from here, and there’s reason to be excited about that.