The Punisher - Season 1 - Review

Netflix and Marvel have had a long and fruitful relationship. That relationship is coming to an end in 2019 when Disney pulls all of their properties off of other services and starts their own streaming service. The relationship has had some bumpy moments but a highlight was the introduction of Jon Bernthal's take on Frank Castle from Daredevil Season 2. His own solo spinoff just aired on Netflix. Continue reading to see how it stacked up against its colleagues. 

There will be spoilers throughout. 

The character of Frank Castle has no gray areas, things are very black and white for him. Real life imitates art sometimes, as the early reactions were of the two extremes. It seemed like it was either the best Marvel Netflix show yet, or the worst. There was no in between.

Of course there's an between. That is where 99.8% of all entertainment falls, between best and worst. The show wasn't perfect, but it was certainly on the better side than not.  

The supporting cast was key, and they nailed it. These shows work best with personal stories - if they don't succeed the world still spins. Their world might be in disarray but it effects only a few people. That was a big mistake for Iron Fist - the stakes were too high. Danny Rand had a personal story but his journey was greater than that, and it fell flat. So to have characters that reflected this, and needed nuanced and personal connections, and not a mustache twirling villain where "only one man can stop them" is key to success.

The series itself tackled a lot of things. PTSD, white male rage, gun control, the definition of "justice", grief and what loss can do to someone. Pick just one of those, and you can have a rich series if done well. The Punisher managed to deal with all of these things pretty effectively. 

The biggest thing it did, was give Frank Castle redemption and showed a bit of humanity that was touched upon in Daredevil but not explored much. His appearance in Daredevil played more with the "justice" aspect. Seeing Frank with Micro's (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) family gave him the humanity he needed. It was the life he could have had. It was why he finally came around to helping Micro. He could give him something Frank could never have again.

To Frank, death is justice. Prison isn't. So he kills everyone, and it earned him the name The Punisher. In this series he spared a few lives. He just disabled a soldier in his way, because he realized the kid was just following orders and was hesitant to shoot Frank. But the biggest thing was at the end when he kept Billy Russo alive; his friend, who stabbed in the back, and was working for Agent Orange, the man who killed his family. When he gained the upper hand and could finally killed Billy, he realized being alive and mangled would be worse than death. He realized that there was maybe some justice in being kept alive to live with the grief and pain that Frank felt every second of every minute of every day. That is huge evolution for a character who would kill without an ounce of remorse. After a slow-burning thirteen episodes, it felt earned too.

One of he sub-plots involved a Homeland Security agent, Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) going after the same people that Frank wants. That is when the character works best - when law enforcement and Frank are going after the same purpose both with two different ideas of what justice is. Revah does masterful work, playing that fine line between foil and "bad guy" without falling over into "bad guy" territory. The other sub-plot was about soldiers with PTSD, and what the tragic outcome of that could be. Lewis Walcott (Daniel Webber) snapped. He murdered people, bombed buildings and thought he was being righteous. His story also brought Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) from Daredevil and The Defenders to relevancy and she served a story purpose other than an information-getter for Frank and connective tissue to the Netflix corner of the Marvel Universe, a job usually reserved for Rosario Dawson.

With all that going for it, the series still stumbled by being extremely formulaic. If you have seen any of the other Netflix Marvel shows, they all shake out about the same. You start down one direction at first, veer towards a different direction, get a red herring concerning the villain, run out of steam around episode 8, gain momentum back around episode 11, get a huge action-packed penultimate episode, then have a quieter more personal finale. The formula works for the most part, which is why they have used it six times before this. For the most part, it works here too. Netflix just didn't sell the show that way. It was sold like it was going to a be John Wick-esque series with huge gun battles every episode. It's not a bad thing that the show wasn't that, but they should have put it on front street.

The aesthetic was dark too, similar to Daredevil. There were some cool shots, like the first person point of view ones that distinguished itself from its counterparts. They did something new to move the camera around, and it worked. It wasn't a distraction. Themes like family, justice, and morality were prevalent of course, but it was the food that really got me. There are many scenes focusing on food. Even scenes that don't focus on food had food in them. For a series with so much death, food - one of the necessities of life - was nearly always at the forefront. There is something poignant about Micro and Frank preparing food in their hell-bunker. They wanted to sustain life, and planned on sustaining life later, with their food prep. Even on the way to a dangerous mission in Kentucky - the show took its time to show them eating. It showed them gaining life in between all the death. Whether intentional or not, it was a powerful statement to me, and brought a layer to the show that differentiated it from its counterparts.

The Punisher is the Marvel show that non-comic book fans can get into. You don't need to know some weird sci-fi or fantasy to suspend your disbelief about super powers. You don't need to know anything other than this guy was soldier, his family was killed, and he wants to kill everyone responsible for that. It is an unrelenting, unforgiving, punishing, violent, harsh look at loss. That is an easier sell to general audiences in some ways than a dude who can shoot webs out of his hands and wears blue spandex or a god with a magic hammer.

If Iron Fist - which was a tone deaf mess of a show - can get a second season, surely The Punisher can too. Frank's story is pretty much done. He can breathe, relax and maybe even be happy. So something will have to happen to bring him back into action again. Perhaps leaving Billy alive - a choice that I wasn't sure I was okay with at first, given the nature of the show - will be Frank's ticket back into darkness. After all, if Frank doesn't return to darkness, we don't get another season, and not seeing Jon Bernthal as The Punisher again would be an unspeakable crime worthy of his wrath.

Season 1 of The Punisher is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.


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