This The Punisher review contains lights spoilers for the show’s first season
The date was October 9th, the year 2016. A wide-eyed Gaby (yes, I’m speaking in the third person again) stood in line with her friends at New York Comic Con, ready to meet one Jon Bernthal.
For days, we had been trying to circumvent the issue of non-existent female The Punisher attire. Running up and down Marvel clothing booths the night before, we had settled on an oversized hooded t-shirt. We debated for even longer how to pose for the photo op we had split a ticket for. Puckered lips and a badass stare was our first option, but we eventually desisted figuring one of us would inevitably laugh, thus ruining the whole “badass” thing.
I should’ve listened, but instead, I was too overcome by the excitement of meeting Jon and forgot all about our plan to just “smile and wave” a la Madagascar. The result is this picture (where I’ve blocked out one of my friends as per her request):
I mention this because I never get to tell a story like this before reviewing a show. October 9th had been a magical day even before stepping into that photo booth. Netflix had just announced The Punisher solo show, and I was probably among the first fans to congratulate Jon on the news. He seemed thrilled, but perhaps even more so about our coordinated Punisher outfits. The exchange was brief, but Jon was warm and welcoming.
I already loved Frank Castle before meeting the actor himself, but our fleeting Rendez-Vous had left me certain that we had the right man behind the wheel to pull off something as fantastic and as fragile as The Punisher.
Meeting Jon Bernthal raised my already high expectations, but did the show deliver?
There are two big debates surrounding The Punisher right now. The first involves gun control and terrorism and how the show handles or doesn’t handle them. The second is whether the show we got is the show the fandom was expecting. Both discourses need to end in positive conclusions for somebody to hand over a solid A mark.
For me, the show was immensely tactful with presenting debates on gun control laws as it was to frame the show around PTSD and setting it as a parallel to Frank’s rage rampages. As for whether this show was what the fandom was expecting or not, I guess we’ll have to agree that the fandom as a conglomeration does not have the same perception of who Frank Castle is or what a show like The Punisher could entail.
I hear a lot that people wanted more unadulterated moments of violence, but I’m certain we would’ve heard the opposite complaint had the show spent any more time indulging in kicks and punches (or bullets and bombs).
Frank Castle is a complex character. We don’t love him because he’s a psychopath that shoots up people. We love him because, while we can’t always agree on his methods, we feel for the guy and understand his need for justice. Had the show not involved topics that affect our present, the idea of a “Punisher” would’ve fallen flat. And a higher dependence on “action” scenes to excite the viewer would’ve had the secondary effect of dissolving the plot. But then again, that’s just me.
Frank Castle’s story is alienated from Defenders. Is The Punisher universe enticing in its own right?
I’m personally not a big fan of The Defenders. In all honesty, I haven’t been able to get through anything beyond Daredevil and Jessica Jones. That being said, I don’t think Frank Castle’s story would’ve benefitted from mingling with Matt Murdock and the rest of his entourage. What I think makes The Punisher great is that it abandons the superhero storyline (which must be second-nature given Frank Castle is an antihero) and delivers an honest take on a superhuman man, much like Logan. The Defenders universe is fun, but it is also formulaic. Frank Castle is already a systematic character. Boxing that into hero framework would’ve left us with the most predictable of TV shows.
Now, Frank Castle was first introduced within the Daredevil universe, which presents an even greater challenge for the writers. Castle already exists within an accepted framework, formulaic or not. So how do you get the character out of that environment and into one of his own? The Punisher approach was to first isolate Frank.
We’re given the bruised and battered Punisher we last saw in Daredevil. He’s surrounded by construction workers we know won’t be sticking around for too long. The backdrop provides for three things: showing how Frank Castle functions as alter ego Pete Castiglione, triggering a dormant Punisher, and giving us our first loose cannon, Donny Chavez.
From there, the show masterfully introduces old friends of Frank’s like Curtis, a former marine with a missing leg and an unbreakable moral compass. We see Frank reunite with Karen (more on #Kastle later), and we’re presented with a more in-depth family portrait through a series of dreams and flashbacks. Parallely, the murder case of Ahmad Zubair, an Afghan cop tortured and killed by the U.S. army, sets up the actual plot of The Punisher‘s first season.
Are Micro and Madani worthy co-stars?
Villains and antagonists aside, Frank Castle is forced to share screen time with David “Micro” Lieberman and Special Agent Dinah Madani. A Homeland Security official, Madani has just returned home from Afghanistan after having failed in her mission to protect Afghan confidant Ahmad Zubair. She believes the U.S. government is behind his assassination and is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Is cheating the own system she venerates the only way to vindicate it?
Micro, on the other hand, used to work for Intel. He’s our certified techie and tactical genius (sorry, Madani) and brings us the best, most unexpected bromance since Steve and Dustin. Micro’s family are also key players in this show. His wife Sarah and his kids Leo and Zach all believe Micro to be dead. His wife witnessed him be shot right before falling off a ledge and into the Hudson River. To protect them, Micro keeps his survival a secret, watching over his family through an exhaustive nanny-cam system he put in place in their living room.
Dinah Madani is the daughter of now wealthy Pakistani immigrants. She is a firm believer in the attainability of the “American Dream” and works for the government to ensure justice and fairness continue to rule the system she so admires. Yet, working in the field has only proved to her that not system itself exists to blindside the general population in exchange for money (i.e. unscrupulous corruption). Madani takes it upon herself to right the wrongs of the government, relying solely on the help of Homeland partner Sam Stein and Billy Russo, the CEO of Anvil Security, a private military company, whom she develops a romantic relationship with.
We get to see quite a lot of both Madani and Micro’s ecosystems, which I thought worked well with the Frank Castle narrative. Some find these storylines boring in comparison to Frank’s, but to be fair, Frank’s story wouldn’t have been able to reach the fictional heights it did if it weren’t for the legwork made to set up these two new characters. I think in the end it’s not about whether or not we preferred Frank’s scenes to Madani’s or Micro’s, but if it was all worth it when they came together in the end. To me, that’s what made the finale so tight, especially taking into consideration that Karen Page, our only other known face, is clearly being reserved for later seasons.
And since we’re on the topic of Karen Page, did The Punisher do right by the many #Kastle fans?
I loved that Karen existed as a character in her own right. I think it’s fair to say very few of us liked Karen when Daredevil started. None of us were too sure if she’d be more than a slightly psychotic damsel in distress or if her original edginess was just a front to hide an irredeemable flatness of character. Yet, by mid-season, Karen Page had won over most of the fandom both through a charismatic performance by Deborah Ann Woll and by some top-notch writing. All of a sudden, Karen went from being the girl who pestered a lovable Matt Murdock to a badass that was just too damn good for the man behind the Daredevil mask.
In comes Frank Castle, a broken man who understands the darkness in Page. While Matt’s busy rekindling his relationship with a toxic Elektra, Karen’s out in the field doing all the legwork for Nelson & Murdock’s eventual “win” in The People vs. Frank Castle. After the dissolving of Matt and Foggy’s law firm (and friendship), Karen pursues a career in journalism, one that lands her front and center in the gun control debates and as an unwilling correspondent of a terrorist by the name of Lewis Walcott (more on him below).
Karen’s involvement with one of the main threads of the plot allows us to see her in action as her own person, separate from her emotional ties to Castle. At the same time, #Kastle fans will not be disappointed by what we’re offered in this first installment of The Punisher. While not much physicality comes into play, all of their scenes are heavily charged and set up for an amazing and unavoidable romantic unfolding of the pair (whether it ends in flames or in a magical wedding that ignores all tragic things from the comics).
Who is this Lewis Walcott, and is he the only villain in The Punisher?
If we’re being honest here, the biggest problem with Marvel is their lackluster villains (remember Deadpool?). Often times, too much pressure and emphasis is put on an uncompelling individual that we don’t care a rat’s ass about. Exceptions to this (in recent times) have been Wilson Fisk, Frank Castle, and Kilgrave. Now, The Punisher pulls an amazing stunt to keep up the vitality of the antagonistic force, one that is already hard to master given that we’re dealing with a show starring an antihero.
Instead of giving us one central villain, the show delivers three separate antagonists. The least interesting and most “villain” like is William Rawlins, also known as Agent Orange. Rawlins is a high-ranking CIA officer responsible for the murder of Ahmad Zubair and architect of an illegal heroin operation in Kandahar. In him, all the weight of an “ultimate evil” is placed, leaving room for the true stars of this black parade to shine.
On the one hand, we have Lewis Walcott, the terrorist we mentioned before. Lewis used to be one of Curtis’ therapy students. Before he took to crafting bombs and terrorizing New Yorkers, Lewis was a marine suffering from a severe case of PTSD. His storyline makes the viewer both uneasy and sympathetic since we witness his mental deterioration and are incapable to do anything to help him. While nothing justifies terrorism, Lewis’ story serves as a perfect illustration of how the system we currently have in place plays directly into the perpetration of these acts.
We already have two evil forces. Is Billy Russo necessary/effective?
To juxtapose Lewis Walcott’s brand of evil, one brought about by mental illness, is Billy Russo. Billy is a handsome devil who fools us into believing he’s one of the good ones. Billy was Frank’s best friend, one who served eight years alongside him and was close to the Castle family. Many believe Billy Russo will become Jigsaw in seasons to come, which basically means Billy’s time as a front-and-center villain will come.
It’s a good thing that we’re now going to be waiting on Billy to rise to his full, evil potential. For one, it’ll allow the show to continue building up our sympathies towards the character. (After all, it’s empathy that makes for great villains). And two, we’ll get to enjoy more of Ben Barnes‘ masterful performance.
Since there was a lot on Frank Castle’s plate this season, we also haven’t seen him become fully angry at Billy yet. Well, he does release some anger (lol). But he definitely doesn’t let that betrayal sink in and sting him as it should. If the show throws in a few more hurdles, allowing Frank’s pain to fester and Billy’s frustration to grow, I think the idea of a final battle between these two would be very promising.
Yeah, that was my idea. Cautionary tales of narcissism!
— Ben Barnes (@benbarnes) November 17, 2017
How does The Punisher measure up to the rest of the Defenders universe?
Personally, I think it’s tied with the first season of Daredevil. While I loved Frank Castle in Season Two, the Elektra storyline ruined it for me. However, as a complete product (i.e. everything we’ve seen thus far under one title), The Punisher is the better franchise thus far.
Daredevil did do a good job avoiding a sophomore slump, but its connection to a Defenders universe I don’t care for sets it up at a disadvantage. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see what The Punisher‘s second season will bring. But I think I’m not alone when I say I have complete trust in this cast and where the show can go.
As a stand-alone, The Punisher is also a solid show. You don’t have to know anything about the Marvel universe to follow the story and don’t need to know anything about Matt Murdock and friends to get emotionally invested. If the show continues to tackle complex ideas and fearlessly digging deep into its own universe’s psyche, Netflix can expect a hit show for seasons to come (I’d say three to four, tops).