Here I admit Netflix had me concerned. The Defenders had been skiing very much downhill in my opinion, with a rapid decline beginning in the second half of Luke Cage ending in a blander than bland Defenders with only a handful of redeemable features. Now the Punisher had been a little underutilised in Daredevil Season 2, but we were still presented with a version of Frank Castle that we fell utterly in love with in Jon Bernthal, a series of his own was inevitable with the fan support.
Creating a series to appeal to the fans, outside of the initial plot, little to no pre-planning to work him into the larger, very successful Marvel Mediaverse… Yeah, I think I was entitled to my doubts, but we have rather proved that cutting yourself loose of a shared universe can make life a hell of a lot easier.
Here’s what I thought of The Punisher.
In The Dark And Gritty Corner – The Punisher
A first episode should give you a very clear idea of how the rest of the series is going to go, and episode one is a perfect microcosm of the rest of The Punisher. We glaze over the rest of Frank’s revenge rampage, mopping up some loose ends, before leaving behind the identity and the hurt feelings and plunging into a life of solitude in which he keeps everyone at arms length and tries to focus on his own problems. Someone tries to reach him, bringing his own problems, and Frank ends up reluctantly digging him out of a hole and finding out that dealing with the problems of another helps him too.
That first hour is a long slow build up to a huge tension break featuring a sledgehammer and Tom Waits’ Hell Broke Luce which is a guaranteed way to sell me on the series with next to no effort. If they knew me personally it’d feel like a cheap shot.
And that’s the short version of the series. Frank Castle tries to live a normal life when he transparently is still suffering, keeping those who would help him at a distance, trying to deal with his obsession (I think reading Moby Dick might have been a little obvious) and he ends up finding something like peace in picking up someone else’s war because it’s just as much his as anyone else’s. The series is less in an action packed comic-book style as it is in a noir/thriller, with long arcs of tension resolving in huge bloody and explosive moments that are all the more satisfying for the build to that moment.
Maybe if you come in expecting The Punisher you’re wanting something bloody and brutal from minute one to the bitter end, but there’s no room in there for a good story, or for a good character, and all you’d be left with is The Expendables with Jon Bernthal roaring incoherently.
In The Pretty-Boy Corner – Bad Military Dudes
Frank Castle gives Marvel a window into something that very few of their other characters can explore, the ugly and traumatic truths of war, and the effects on the people who see it. We know from the events of Civil War (comic, not film) that he harbours a special place for Captain America as a true hero of war, someone he respects enough to never so much as raise a fist against him. But war rarely creates a hero, honest and true…
This part may contain some spoilers, and that’s partially because the villains may not be entirely obvious to begin with… but they really are if you watch enough cheesy action films. If you said “he’s a bad guy, he’s only got one eye” or “obviously it’s him, he’s way to slick and pretty” then well done, go get yourself a cookie because you got it exactly right. Although you may still find yourself wondering what the hell they’re up to that makes them villains in this story.
Well that’s the real advantage of having Frank Castle as our protagonist, because our villains don’t actually have to be doing anything particularly bad right now. There’s not threat felt from the villains because they’re no longer doing anything obviously wrong, but trying to cover up crimes that are being dragged into the light by Frank and new best buddy Micro (who I’ll get to in a few minutes, promise) and are driven to greater degrees of desperation as more and more pressure is put on them. This is a revenge story, no lives to save, no imminent disaster or some grand crime underway, it’s the past coming back to haunt our villains by former friend and anti-hero.
I loved the character of former war-buddy Billy Russo, alter-ego to the Marvel villain Jigsaw who has been pulled apart and stitched together into a hideous flesh-golem. Russo is quite a good-looking dude in the Netflix series, you’d never guess who he is without a quick google (and watching to the end of the series) but he makes for such a terrifyingly creepy character, so charismatic and influential that you can’t help but hate him.
But turning the lens upon the horrors of war, look no further than young and damaged veteran Lewis Wilson. Suffering PTSD, trying to get help, radicalised by a fraudulent gun-nut and turned away from Russo’s mercenary team for being a loose cannon, Wilson turns to violence and acts of domestic terrorism to fight for what he now sees as the enemy. He’s held up as a mirror to Castle, a polar opposite and yet almost exactly the same, taking the fight into his own hands and flying in the face of the law. His story arc features a scene that I found very telling, where he attempts to free a couple of pet birds by pushing them against a window with the cage open, and they simply stay put while he looks on, confused. Wilson gives them freedom, and doesn’t understand when they refuse it.
I Don’t Know But I’ve Been Told…
Some more observations:
Micro: Lieberman, the former intelligence agent who has been faking his own death from a year is fantastic. He lends some levity to the series without compromising how heart breaking his character’s story is, watching over his family but unable to reach them for fear that his presence will kill them, his desperation to reach out to Frank as the one man who could actually accomplish what he can’t in his cold and damp nerve-centre. I feel like his story is too easily resolved when he fakes his death in front of his family a second time, and I feel like an opportunity was missed. Spoilers for the last episode I think Russo could have kidnapped Micro’s kids rather than a couple of randoms, and honestly I thought that was what was going to happen during the dorky and awkward sex scene. The idea that Frank could have lost another family at the merry-go-round would have raised the stakes massively, instead we get a couple of civilians. Bad choice guys. Spoilers over.
Dinah Madani: Interesting character, fairly generic rogue-agent character archetype but I found her interactions with her psychologist mother to be interesting enough to lend depth to the character, where her endearingly corny partner failed. She’s predominantly used to more deeply explore Russo, to emphasise how deeply creepy he could be, to slowly strip away the facade of humanity he’s carefully built up. She could easily been replaced by Misty Night who had more character development but occupied the same niche in the story, but she’s not so bad all told, and offers up some quality narrative moments, most notably the bath scene with Russo…
Karen Page: I love the character of Karen, especially since Deborah Ann Woll has been playing in Force Grey, the D&D group on YouTube headed up by Matt Mercer. My issue with her this time around is that she takes a very pro-gun stance, as does the whole series. We try and keep it non-political around here, suffice is to say that I disagree and that no other civilised country is that pro-gun as America. However, Karen is brilliantly developed along one of the most interesting character arcs across all of The Defenders. Bringing me to another major point:
Claire Temple: Wasn’t in The Punisher. I loved this series and am not forced to denounce it because of the absence of Claire.
So there’s my verdict. The Punisher is terrible because there’s no Claire Temple. And it’s a shame I have to render that verdict because it’s an otherwise very cool series, an excellent slow-burning action thriller, not without flaws – like the monitors in Micro’s hidey-hole that are suddenly showing live news, how convenient – but more enjoyable than Iron Fist and Defenders put together, with maybe a bag of cookies just to make it an actual fight.
Well done Netflix and Marvel, more of this, less childish whining and villainous types who don’t really do anything.