“You want justice because you haven’t figured out there is no such thing yet.”
Overview: Not long after Marine veteran Frank Castle believes he has hunted down those responsible for the death of his family, he finds himself caught in a government conspiracy with secrets that threaten to unravel American security, our policies on violence, and Frank’s very sense of self. 2017; Netflix; TV-MA; 13 episodes.
Welcome Back, Frank: There’s no way that the Punisher, a character entrenched in gun violence, Reaganism, and ice-cold rage, could successfully tackle the systemic mishandling of justice, and the resulting violence from the public wars we wage on other’s soil and the private wars we fight at home. Yet here we are with a series that does just that, and more. Despite having been previously introduced to Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) in the second season of Daredevil, showrunner Steve Lightfoot still manages to surprise with his take on the Punisher. Castle makes for a great antagonist, especially when pitted against the moral high-ground of Matt Murdock’s Daredevil, but the challenge has always been making Castle a character that we can root for outside of the comic book pages. How long can the viewer follow the self-destructive path of a man without remorse, a man whose existence seemingly contradicts so much of the narrative we try to impart about glorification of violence and the meaning of heroism in our media, and not least of all, the portrayal of our American veterans. There’s a reason why none of the previous Punisher films spawned sequels. How effective is the Punisher outside of his multi-paneled comic quarantine?
The easiest road to adaptation would have been making Frank Castle into a John Wick like figure, but The Punisher doesn’t go for easy. The series and Bernthal fully commit to presenting us with a complicated figure caught in a complicated world. While Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX comic series serves as a primary inspiration for the series, this iteration of Frank is far more human and far more likeable. Even when compared to his appearance in Daredevil, The Punisher finds Castle a little more collected, a little more able to interact with others and form relationships. Castle will always be a wild dog, but at least this time around he’s gotten his rabies shot, learned a few tricks, and is able to go inside without shitting the carpet. Like in Ennis’ run, The Punisher takes PTSD and trauma seriously, though updating its source from Vietnam to Afghanistan. While I can’t and don’t have the right to speak on the accuracy of its depiction, I will say that it’s clear that Bernthal puts everything he has into the role, adding little nuances that allow us to catch a glimpse of the private battle he’s fighting inside his own skull. There’s no slickness to the action in The Punisher, and the series eschews most of the action movie conventions we expect from the character, and instead provides a frightening brutality to the violence that’s always rough edged and never elegant. There’s a fair portion of Stallone’s Marion Cobretti (Cobra) and DeNiro’s Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) blended together and mixed with Bernthal’s own charisma and gift for insightful character tics that make for the best depiction of the Punisher in any medium. Yes, Frank’s back, but it feels like he was never really here until Bernthal got his hands on him.
Cornered: In the first episode we see Frank visiting with his friend, Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), who runs self-help meetings for veterans. Frank is positioned in the corner of the room, his back against a yellow brick wall that stretches out to fill up the majority of the screen. Frank is framed as a small figure at the bottom of this corner. This sense of being cornered, trapped, runs throughout The Punisher as the rest of the supporting players find themselves dealing with their own isolation, seemingly cut off from any outlet of escape that could lead to self-help. Frank’s quest to uncover those responsible for the deaths of his family lead him into a collision with the DHS, and the ambitious Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) who believes Castle is connected to video evidence that ties the CIA to an illegal smuggling and assassination operation that left her former partner dead. While early episodes paint Madani as a slightly standard government agent caught in a cat and mouse game she doesn’t fully understand, later episodes flesh her out and the show explores how both her Iranian-American heritage and her strong sense of justice of shaped her into a defensive and combative individual who feels that although she has earned her status must keep fighting to prove it. Like Frank, she’s a soldier looking for a war to fight, and trying to prove herself in the eyes of an American society that ignores her at best, and that sees her as a potential threat to domestic security at worst.
Where The Punisher really shines though is in the relationship between Frank and David Lieberman aka Mirco (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Lieberman, a former NSA analyst who was forced to fake his own death to protect his family after uncovering the very evidence that Medani and Castle find themselves a part of, joins Castle in the hopes of being reunited with his family and taking down the CIA agent who took everything from him. Moss-Bachrach is a bright spot in the series, adding humor and pathos to a formally conventional “guy in the chair” character. Bernthal and Moss-Bachrach have great chemistry, and their bickering and eventual bond is one of the series’ emotional highlights. Lieberman provides Frank with a chance to give to another man what was taken from him, and the struggle to reunite Lieberman with his family becomes a story arc that provides a necessary reprieve from the government focused, and clandestine operations of the main plot.
Shrapnel: Almost every central character in the series is a broken reflection of Frank, a fragmented sliver of glass that when put together form a completed puzzle that present a source of America’s failure. For fans of the comics, the biggest fragment is Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) who as Jigsaw has served as Castle’s primary antagonist over the decades. Here, we meet Russo as a good-looking private military contractor and former friend of Frank. In making Russo a veteran, the series adds another layer to his characterization and one that fits thematically in with the question of what a soldier does when there’s no war left to fight. Barnes brings a charm to the role that smacks of false sincerity. Behind his suave attire, and reputation as a ladies’ man, Russo is barely masking the street kid he once was. His partnership with corrupt CIA director of covert operations William Rawlins (Paul Schulze) is a means to end, a means to move up and away from who he once was and have the satisfaction of knowing he won at least one war. While the comics have positioned Russo as a Mafioso, the series has a more complex view on organized crime. La Cosa Nostra no longer holds the answers or the power, and has been replaced by the U.S. government. As a government lackey, Russo becomes the embodiment of America’s sinful miscarriage of justice and war profiteering. When Frank and Russo inevitably do come to blows, The Punisher becomes its most comic book like, but because its backed by characterizations built on broken dreams and culpable violence the series delivers a impactful finale with payoffs that feel earned.
War Journal: Throughout the series we follow the arc of Louis Wilson (Daniel Webber), a young veteran struggling to find his place at home in a country that doesn’t understand what he did, and doesn’t care. His path doesn’t cross with Castle until the latter half of the season, but over the course of the series we play witness to how someone who loves America comes to hate it, and how a soldier becomes a domestic terrorist. Webber portrays Louis with a hair-trigger instability and a lingering sadness possess his entire body. He takes up the cause of gun rights as a means to make a statement, a means to matter and still be a soldier in an unpopular war he can’t win. The series manages to present Louis in such a way that sympathy and condemnation can exist side by side, and in which the blame for what he becomes is two-fold. The Punisher holds the government and our civillian society responsible for its passive attitude towards veterans, while also making clear that violence is not an answer, a never-ending cycle that only leaves more questions in its wake, not an end, but a start to something that can’t be finished. The Punisher tackles gun policies directly, bringing in Daredevil’s Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) as a perspective on gun ownership that doesn’t slip into liberal acquiescence, but contains the maturity to understand that conservative gun fetishism cannot sustain a country in which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are held paramount. A mirror is held up to Louis and Frank, and while they have different ideas about innocent lives, the similarities provide a striking commentary on violent methods and violent results. While the Punisher may pump bullets into bad guys, the show never portends that he’s an answer, only the result of a system that places violence ahead of justice and it’s a result that should frighten us.
Overall: The Punisher is a mediation on war and what comes after, and as a result it’s far more ambitious than any live-action iteration of the Punisher before. While 13 episodes stretches the story out more than is necessary, it’s one of Netflix’s better paced Marvel shows that truly delivers the high-stakes of the finale at the finale. Though binge-watching has become the norm for these shows, The Punisher actually deserves a staggered watch, and time to work through its ideas. This isn’t a series built on fan-service, and those looking for non-stop action and a gun toting movie monster with a skull on his chest may be surprised on both counts. The Punisher is one of Marvel’s smartest shows because it’s most interesting aspect isn’t a guy mowing people down with a machine gun, but a veteran looking for a way to live again when everything he knew was taken from him, and a grieving father and husband looking for a home in a place he no longer recognizes. It’s a hell of a way to deliver justice to a character in need of it, and a country that’s forgetting what it means.