Frank Castle is not a good man. He may be nice to his friends, good with dogs, and charming to people who serve him coffee, but he is not a hero. If you get in his way, or had anything to do with the death of his family, he will kill you and it will be bloody.
The Punisher has always been a complicated addition to the Marvel pantheon. Created as a villain for Spiderman in the 70s he quickly became one of the company’s most popular characters. His kill-everyone brand of vigilante justice can be cathartic but also deeply uncomfortable, and his gun-toting style is especially problematic in the current political climate in America. Season one of The Punisher tries to engage with this issue but mostly falls flat. Try as it might, a comic book show about the original Marvel gun nut isn’t the most nuanced arena for this kind of debate. What the season does offer is a sensitive and arresting portrayal of the soldier’s experience.
Making his MCU debut in season two of Daredevil, Jon Bernthal’s Punisher was a man who lived and breathed violence. In a season when the idea of vigilantism was put under the microscope, Frank Castle was the symbol of where Matt Murdock would be heading if he crossed that final line. Bernthal’s blistering intensity was the highlight of a muddled season so it was no surprise that Marvel and Netflix gave this solo outing the green light.
Surprisingly, the show begins with the end of Frank’s quest for revenge. After the events of Daredevil, he has killed everyone involved with his family’s death, and presumed dead by the authorities. That is until the Snowden-like hacker Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) uncovers evidence that Frank’s family may have been killed because of Frank’s own actions in a secret operation in Kandahar. What follows is the standard Marvel/Netflix template of a conspiracy that leads to the top of the government ladder, a conspiracy that slowly comes into focus in the first half of the season through the investigation of Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah). Unlike Marvel’s other Netflix shows, except for the flawless Jessica Jones, The Punisher gains momentum in the second half, with all of the violence and gunplay that fans of the character love focused mostly into the back half of the show.
While the show may be too brutal for some, showrunner Steve Lightfoot (a driving force behind the masterful Hannibal) and his writing team leave enough of a moral grey area around Frank’s actions, never fully taking Frank’s side. His actions are often horrific, and the show investigates how soldiers, men and women who are trained for this violence, are adversely affected by these experiences in a surprisingly compassionate fashion. Frank himself is lost to this violence, with Bernthal layering the character with a pain and hopelessness but also an iron will to keep going. He is a walking nightmare, and the people around him, including Micro and Daredevil’s Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll, doing her best work yet, even if she should really stay away from these guys), keep trying to pull him out of the void, often to their own detriment.
Apart from Bernthal, the highlight of the season is Daniel Webber’s spiralling young veteran Lewis. Through this sub-plot, we see the horrible effects of war without Frank’s comic book affectations. Webber is sensational is a man on the edge of sanity, and while the obvious Taxi Driver comparisons can’t be helped, his pain is utterly compelling.
With a strong cast and a story that steadily gains momentum, The Punisher may not answer any real world questions, but it is easily the best Marvel/Netflix show of the year.