Marvel’s latest Netflix series follows Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle on his quest for ultra-violent vengeance in The Punisher…
Perhaps the biggest highlight of Daredevil season two was Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle – a tough but humanizing portrayal of Marvel’s the Punisher. Fans quickly called for the character to get his own spin-off show and at last it has arrived on Netflix. Unfortunately, it has arrived amidst a lot of controversy due to its ultra-violence and arguable glorification of a crazed, gun-toting vigilante.
Once you actually watch the show, however, it becomes clear that this is a very measured take on a difficult issue. It’s intelligent enough to explore the problems troubling America right now – issues of gun control, violence on the streets ETC – but without coming over too heavy-handed. What is does instead is get on with telling a compelling revenge story about a very damaged man, someone who we can empathize with but not someone we’re left wanting to emulate. Crucially, the violence is depicted as gruesomely and plainly as the show can, meaning you wince rather than cheer when Frank takes out his enemies.
What brings The Punisher to life is the superb acting throughout. Jon Bernthal is truly born to play this role, as he absolutely nails both the terrifying ‘grim reaper’ side of Castle and the wounded, grieving man inside. As Frank isn’t the most eloquent of men, much of his performance is physical and Bernthal is able to imbue the character with a lot of nuance just through a facial tic or pause. He is ably supported by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who is excellent as David Lieberman AKA Micro, an ordinary, family man who has been forced to hide underground for a year due to his part in the Kandahar conspiracy. Deborah Ann Woll is a favourite already from Daredevil so it’s a delight to see her turn up in a recurring role here. Her undefined relationship with Frank is fascinating to see unfurl. Oh, and I was impressed with Jaime Ray Newman as Sarah, Micro’s wife, who becomes close with Frank over the season.
Unfortunately, there are a few flaws on display, as well. Despite a strong performance from Amber Rose Revah, the storyline following Dinah Madani, the Homeland Security agent on Castle’s tale, doesn’t grip the viewer as much as the other elements of the series and her character arc resembles Luke Cage‘s Misty Knight a little too closely to really engage. The subplot involving the disenchanted vet Lewis Wilson becoming a terrorist was also fascinating but suffered from a premature conclusion. Likewise, Paul Schulze’s Agent Orange is far too one note to stand alongside the likes of Fisk and Kilgrave.
At least, Orange’s underling made for a far more interesting adversary. Comics fans knew from the beginning that Frank’s best bud Billy Russo was destined to become Jigsaw, the Punisher’s nemesis, and the show plays a clever game as it toys with your expectations. Getting us to side with the character for the first six episodes… before revealing he is a bad’un was a great touch. In the second half of the season, in particular, Ben Barnes gives the part his all and Billy’s final confrontation with Frank in the finale is a highlight of the season.
A well-acted strong story with a unifying theme of grief and loss, The Punisher season one was absolutely one of the strongest Marvel-Netflix series we’ve had yet. it thankfully nixed the worrying trend for these shows to get less good as they go along and, hallelujah, it also managed not to trip up in its last quarter as with the likes of Luke Cage and Daredevil season two. Here’s hoping Netflix renew it for a sophomore run sharpish so we can have a full-on Punisher vs Jigsaw battle. If not *Frank Castle voice* there will be punishment.