Over the course of the past ten days, watching Marvel’s The Punisher has been an enjoyable experience. Whether or not it is the strongest effort from Marvel’s journey into TV can be debated, but the case can be made that it should be in the conversation. There are easily more pros than cons, however, there was still a slight feeling that it could’ve been better in certain aspects of the overall story. No show is completely perfect, but the thought still remains for me; Something was missing. What was it?
Fans familiar with the second season of Daredevil are well aware of the existence of Frank Castle/The Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and the backstory that fuels his quest for revenge and murder. Many gravitate towards his character because he serves as an anti-hero that breaks from the norm, allowing viewers and fans to momentarily put away the Capt. America-esque gallantry and exist in the mind of someone who has known true loss and pain and wants to make the cause of that pain suffer. In that way, Castle is our hall pass, our get-out-of-jail-free card that serves as a window into this mindset without any moral penalty.
For many, this stance on the need for violence was bothersome and argued as a distraction from the story, but it was a necessary evil over the progression of the season that helped show that Frank’s outlook was evolving for the better with the small glimmer of hope somewhere off in the distance for him by season’s end. Unlike some of the other superheroes’ stories that we’ve sojourned through Frank’s reaction to his pain is somewhat relatable and therefore as viewers, we can rationalize his barbaric responses as well as partly empathize with his approach towards bad guys. Simply put, the show didn’t get slowed down by wasting multiple episodes talking about hurting the bad guys, Castle just went out and did it. To the show’s credit, they handled this perfectly and achieved a well-balanced drama mixed with occasional violence and action that helped create an interesting tale of betrayal and redemption.
Where The Punisher truly excelled was its use of supporting characters and their accompanying storylines. Most notably among them was with former NSA analyst, Micro aka David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who like Frank was wrongfully singled out, hunted down because of information that he knew and resorted to faking his death in order to protect himself and his family. Lieberman’s journey involved working with Frank to help bring down the people within the government who wronged both of them, but the true beauty was in Moss-Bachrach’s performance. He had this beautiful nuanced way of showing restraint and patience that was a perfect marriage to Castle’s rage-fueled smashmouth approach. Their relationship was authentic and raw in a way that was immediately noticeable on screen and were engaging throughout the entirety of the season. Another strong asset was David’s wife Sarah (Jaime Ray Newman), who was the embodiment of someone living through loss and pain but not having the luxury of retreating from society while having to be a parent working through her grief. She was a character that became better over the course of the season and was a nice change of pace from Micro and Castle, helping to keep the story grounded in what the protagonists were actually fighting towards. The other main supporting actor who stood out was that of the antagonist, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes).
At first, Russo’s main motivations are unclear, however, throughout the course of the season, his true nature became somewhat predictable for a Marvel villain yet Barnes is still able to bring a gravitas to the character that elevates it above becoming stereotypical. He is wonderful in almost every scene sans any with Homeland Security Director Dinah (Amber Rose Revah) but most notably the scenes he shares with Frank. As he assumes the role of the show’s villain, you can tell that Barnes’ fully embraces the turn of character and seems to enjoy playing the role. He is put on a path to becoming a superior antagonist among all of Frank’s other foes as the villain, Jigsaw, but that is only hinted for his future. Where Barnes falters and where the supporting character takes a dip is in any scenes involving Director Dinah Madani. She serves as the weakest part of the series because her story is mostly irrelevant and is used only to bring Castle back into the focus of the government as well as foil most of the major action set pieces towards the back half of the season. Her story was predictable and not of a forgiving nature. Her actions were mostly predictable and it was easy to tune out anytime she was onscreen until the later episodes where her resolution actually affected the outcome of Frank’s storyline.
Overall, The Punisher demands patience on the viewer’s part but does so in a way where not only are aspects of the story revealed meticulously and purposefully, but patience is rewarded with a solid ending involving the aforementioned supporting characters and quasi-resolution for Frank. The action pieces are well produced and exciting to behold and while yes, can be at times over the top, they do little to step outside of Frank’s true character and his brutal approach to exacting justice.
Berenthal is Frank Castle and does such an amazing job of bringing the character from the page to the screen in a very vivid and real way. The acting is great and the storylines, while cumbersome at times, find resolution in very satisfactory ways. There are some twists and turns along the way, but over the course of thirteen episodes, the series manages to shed and miss some of the plot holes and stereotypical tropes that could otherwise hold it back from being a great watch and ultimately settles into being entertaining.
As mentioned in the beginning of this review, The Punisher should easily be in the conversation for one of the best Marvel TV properties to date and while some might not like the departure from Marvel focusing on someone with superpowers, I found it extremely refreshing and look forward to more stories involving Frank Castle.