We ask so much of the men and women we send to war. We ask them to risk their lives in countless morally grey situations, to follow orders without question, assuming that the people giving those orders are doing so for the right reasons. But the people we send to combat under our flag come back changed. How could you not? That’s what this incarnation of the Punisher is all about – veteran soldiers in America. It’s about the way different people are affected by war, how they cope with it, and how others exploit those people.
At the center of all those issues is Frank Castle, a soldier who has been beaten and knocked down perhaps more than any other veteran in mainstream media, a man consumed by rage and a need for vengeance and equipped to mete out punishment as he sees fit. For decades, both fans and creators alike have struggled with the character, trying to figure out where he sits in both comics and culture at large, and trying to make him work in various stories. The character had perhaps his best live-action outing yet in Daredevil‘s second season thanks to the show’s comparatively grounded take on the character, and the decision to use him as a foil for Daredevil’s worldview.
Now, Frank has his own show to spread out and get comfortable in. How does he work on his own? The Punisher’s solo outing is a flawed show that doesn’t quite reach the heights of the likes of Jessica Jones, but it’s still a huge breath of fresh air after the tragedy that was Iron Fist and the disappointment of the Defenders. If nothing else it’s evidence Marvel’s Netflix universe still has some life left in it.
Get ready for potential spoilers.
The show picks up some time after the end of Daredevil season 2. When we left Frank, Karen Page was watching him disappear into the night to end his quest for vengeance. The opening moments of this series show Castle finishing the job, dropping his armor into a bonfire and putting his guns away to become Pete Castiglione, sullen construction man. That lasts all of half an episode, at which point some random hoodlums help remind him that there are indeed still terrible people in the world that are better off dead than alive. One act of violence later, he’s on the radar of a man going by the nickname Micro, a hacker discarded by the government and taken away from his family in ways that parallel Frank’s own suffering.
At first Frank doesn’t want to work with anyone else — not that he ever does — but then Micro brings him some new information that throws gasoline on the smoldering embers of Frank’s rage.
Frank Castle may have a one-track mind, but the Punisher series unspools two major stories side-by-side, each bringing different things to the table.
The main track follows Castle’s continuing quest for vengeance, as he learns there is more to the death of his family than he previously understood. A conspiracy within the CIA, enacted on unknowing soldiers and being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security, brings all these agencies together around Castle. At the same time, it reunites him with some of his fellow soldiers, returning them into each others’ orbits.
This story track exposes the worst parts of the Punisher, the stuff I hoped the series would avoid. On his own, Frank Castle is a pretty boring dude. He’s just anger and guns. And revenge, when you stretch it out, gets dull pretty quickly. Putting him back on the track of revenge has him treading the same water he did in Daredevil and in the (unconnected) movies that preceded the series. How many times can you want to take revenge for the same grievance?
What makes the whole thing even more of an eye-roller is the way it centers around a grand conspiracy. At some point, one of the characters is searching for a bug in their office, and they even say that the conspiracy “goes deep,” which is the most hackneyed sort of chatter you can end up with in this kind of material. So many characters are brought in and manipulated and carted off, it’s hard to keep them all straight without a scorecard. I couldn’t even tell you the name of the CIA spook Castle is after by the time the show gets up to full speed. You have the tough investigator who does things by the book until they find out there’s a corrupt book everyone else is using, the jaded underling who lost their ideals after speaking up got them in trouble, the boss telling them to rein it in. It’s all too familiar.
What’s even worse about this by-the-numbers conspiracy stuff is how it short-changes some characters that are truly enjoyable to watch despite it all. Amber Rose Revah, for example, plays DHS Special Agent Dinah Madani, an Iranian-American veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan. Revah brings confidence and intensity to the character. The show takes the time to flesh out her life, giving her a mother in actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (The Expanse, Grimm) and by giving her some moments that aren’t about her doggedly pursuing her case at all costs. She’s free as a character to make mistakes and develop relationships, instead of just being solely leashed up and led around by the plot.
The meat of the story, for me, was in the moments where we watched how the events in Kandahar affected each of the show’s characters, and how war changed them.
Consider Frank’s war buddy Curtis, who runs a veterans’ support group. A former medic retired after losing a leg in an explosion, he spends his evenings trying to help those scarred even worse than he is deal with life after the military. The moments that stem from this remind me of some of the best moments from movies like 1982’s First Blood, the original Rambo movie.
Seeing Frank through Curtis’ eyes is to see a man stuck in a hole, unwilling to do anything other than keep digging even when helping hands are being offered to pull him out. It gives a different and much-needed view of Frank that helps paint him as something other than a soldier with anger-fueled superpowers.
That also reunites Frank with Billy Russo (Ben Barnes, Westworld). Old-school Punisher fans will recognize him as the mob hitman “Billy the Beaut” who later becomes one of the Punisher’s recurring villains. In the series, though, he’s one of Frank’s war buddies. Where we see other vets struggling, Billy is wildly successful as the owner of a private military company. Family money and natural good looks (he’s still a Beaut) helped him land on his feet after the horrors of war. His good looks and winning smile make him easy to like, but also hard to trust. And he’s scarred by war, too — just on the inside, not the outside. He’s left his humanity behind in ways that Frank and Curtis have to find out about the hard way.
It was strange to see Russo turned into an ex-military character, but in the context of 2017’s Punisher, it works. The mob isn’t the headline-making force it was in the 1970s and 1980s, and nothing about this show would let the mob make an elegant entrance. Instead, making him ex-military and an old friend of Frank’s makes his shift away from the light a more painful and meaningful one than we would have for a simple mob assassin.
Another key veteran character is Lewis Walcott, a man suffering from dangerously-bad PTSD. Where Curtis copes with his combat experience through community service, Walcott feels completely deserted by the system he helped protect. He finds himself attracted to fringe elements that see things like gun control as stripping away of personal freedoms, and such things to stoke his sense of isolation from society. Where Castle wallows, Walcott stews.
Here, Castle does what he does best as a character: he serves as a mirror for another character. Castle blames himself for everything, and Walcott blames everyone but himself. Walcott isolates himself, while Castle begrudgingly makes connections to the world through characters like recurring Marvel character Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll, Daredevil), through Curtis, and even through Micro and his family, who we’ll get into in a bit.
Frank is still an unhealthy character, but the contrasts created with him show how our connections humanize us.
One commonality the show has with other Marvel shows is the way it uses secondary characters in concert with the main protagonist, building sidekicks that are at least as interesting as the hero him or herself. In the Punisher, that’s David “Micro” Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). As hinted at before, Micro is like Castle in that he is, as far as the government is concerned, a dead man as a result of the same conspiracy that took Frank’s family from him. The difference is that Micro is in hiding and his family is still alive, unaware that he still lives and breathes.
These two characters act as sharp contrasts to each other. As Micro reaches out, Frank recoils. Frank wades into violence while Micro retches. Micro can get his family back, Castle can’t. Despite Castle’s fear of connections, he’s pushed to work with Micro. In time he finds a connection of sorts with the hacker’s family, showing us that, despite Frank’s desire to stay steeped in darkness, he can act the family man convincingly and seems to enjoy it.
Moss Bachrach is fun to watch as Micro, a man who misses his family and knows he has to cross lines to get back to them and continue living. He has great chemistry with Jon Bernthal – almost as good as Woll does as Karen Page.
What powers the show more than anything, though, is Jon Bernthal. As a fan of Thomas Jane’s take on the Punisher, I was initially reticent to take on a new version of the character. Daredevil made me look like a fool pretty quickly, though; Bernthal is utterly charismatic as Castle.
Bernthal is an imposing, frightening man, sort of a machine unified in a single purpose. In the show’s fight scenes – both in modern day and during flashes back to Kandahar – he’s totally believable as Castle. His guttural battlecry is hypnotic. Even as he spatters blood on the walls, snaps bones, and empties clips into nameless gunmen, it’s hard not to get swept up in it. It feels bestial and instinctual. If it weren’t for Bernthal’s intensity and, yes, likeability even as such a cruel anti-hero, the show would fall apart.
The Punisher does stumble at times. The title sequence is something out of a gun-nut’s dream, with automatic weapons floating dreamlike through the air to form the Punisher’s iconic skull. Said logo is one real-world soldiers, law enforcement, and would-be militia love to emblazon their gear with. It’s a neat visual, but it feels tone deaf considering the way the logo has been appropriated by people who only appreciate the character as an avatar of personal justice and not as a walking contradiction.
Similarly, the show tries to say something about gun control at one point, but it never takes a stance or even asks any meaningful questions of its characters or the audience. It seems merely to say, “it’s complicated, you guys.”
The show ends up being worth talking about both specifically as a Marvel show and as its own beast, because it matters in both contexts.
As a Marvel show, Punisher is a strange beast. On the one hand, it quickly exposes a big factor in what made Iron Fist such a painful show to watch. It’s simple: Punisher is about something. Daredevil was about guilt, and Jessica Jones about abusive relationships. Luke Cage started out being about race and community. All three shows were strong for it. On the other hand, Iron Fist was about Iron Fist, and that’s it. And it turns out that Danny Rand (The Immortal Iron Fist, Protector of Kun Lun, Sworn Enemy of The Hand) was a boring dude. The show wasn’t about anything other than how tough it is to be a secret kung fu man. Defenders leaned heavily on Danny Rand (The Immortal Iron Fist, Protector of Kun Lun, Sworn Enemy of The Hand), and wasn’t about much of anything other than a simple conspiracy and some fight scenes. Some great characters saved it from being unwatchable, but there’s a reason people hold their noses whenever it comes up in conversation.
That Punisher is about something at all gives it enough fuel to work for a whole arc.
But its lack of connection to the greater Marvel universe feels like a miss at times. The military is just our real-world military. The military that uses a Stark-built metal suit, that has measures meant to defend against the Hulk, doesn’t exist. The existence of other heroes in New York has barely been mentioned. Maybe that stuff isn’t a good fit for the material being explored here, but there’s no real attempt to reconcile this Punisher-verse with the larger Marvel-verse that it takes place in by default.
The show feels less like a Marvel show and more like a straight military show about a preternaturally-skilled spec-ops soldier. Karen Page is really the only thing that tethers it back to the other Marvel Netflix shows.
That Marvel is so determined to keep its Netflix shows separate from its movies only serves to hurt it here.
Despite my issues with the show, I really enjoyed watching the Punisher, and I’m looking forward to seeing the inevitable second season. But it’s time for the Punisher to be done with his revenge story. There’s more to him than that – he’s called the Punisher, not the Revenger, after all. That would be a dumb name for a superhero.