Television review: Netflix’s The Punisher

I finished up Netflix’s The Punisher the other day, and wanted to put a few thoughts down, because I really enjoyed it. There will be SPOILERS in the following review! So stop here if you haven’t finished watching it yet. Come back later! I won’t be offended.

What is it? The Punisher Season 1 (13-episodes)
Who made it? Netflix; Steve Lightfoot, Executive producer
Who’s in it? Jon Bernthal (The Punisher); Ben Barnes (Billy Russo); Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Micro); Amber Rose Revah (Dinah Madani)
When did it come out? November 2017

Netflix’s The Punisher might be their best Marvel show yet

From top to bottom, I think this is best overall thing Marvel and Netflix have done. Every other Netflix show, with the exception of the much shorter Defenders, has really struggled to hold its story together for 13 episodes. They felt like they all should have been 8-10 episodes. But The Punisher doesn’t. The story is compelling and has enough layers to it to keep it interesting and engaging over the entire run. And it has a truly compelling hook, that of examining the challenges that veterans of combat face integrating back into “regular society” following their service. I mean, that’s not new—we’ve been seeing it since The Deer Hunter and Rambo—but we certainly haven’t seen it in a comic-book based television show, and it’s truly impressive how well thought out this backdrop of veterans dealing with PTSD is.

Now, I’m not saying it’s my favourite Marvel Netflix show—I think at the end of the day, I still found Cage the most entertaining, and Daredevil Season 2 the most thrilling from a comic book fan standpoint—but I think it’s the most well-made. And I think when you factor in the difficulty of translating a character like the Punisher to a television show (or movie), I think Steve Lightfoot and his team deserve a ton of credit—this show is really good.

… but is it really a Punisher show?

The thing is though… this interpretation of the Punisher doesn’t really have much basis in the comic book character. (At least in my view of the Punisher through the years.) Frank Castle came back from Vietnam a broken man and then his family was killed and it shattered him, never to be put back together again. He’s a remorseless, relentless killing machine who has no desire to stop putting bad guys in the ground. Yet in this show, we see him trying to escape his life of violence right in the beginning. He shows a gentle side, a family man side, with Micro’s family (and even Micro himself) and especially Karen Page that I don’t think the (comic book) Punisher really has; he doesn’t make human connections like that. Netflix Frank Castle doesn’t even reclaim the Punisher mantle until episode 11; and even in the second last episode, when it seems like he leaves his memory of his dead wife behind and accepts his life of violence… he comes back from that edge at the end of the last episode. (He even lets Billy Russo live, which I don’t think the Punisher would ever do.)

So with all of that in mind, I don’t really think of this character as the same one I see in the comics. He’s not really the Punisher. But… I’m OK with it. In fact I love the choices they made. Because I honestly wasn’t sure I wanted to watch 13 episodes of an unsympathetic character like Frank Castle. What would be the point? Comic book Frank Castle has no real character arc; there is no coming back for him, there is no growth for him. That would be difficult to do on TV. And although it doesn’t ring true to the comic book character, the final scene is truly fantastic, and it could only have been done with this version of the character.

The cast is excellent…

I would also say, expressionless killing machine Frank Castle would be a waste of Jon Bernthal’s talents. He is really great in this show. I wasn’t a big of his on The Walked Dead, but looking back, maybe that’s because his character was such a dick. Here he shows the range complete from loving and caring father figure to… well, to expressionless killing machine, when he has to. He was a great choice for the role in Daredevil and he erased any doubts anyone may have had about him carrying his own show. Meanwhile the supporting cast is also damn good. Ben Barnes almost veers into snarling villain territory a couple times, but the conflicted soldier who still holds the bonds of brotherhood is still there. Ebon Moss-Bachrach is perfect as the frantic, nebbishy Micro, who’s uncomfortable with guns and killing but willing to let Frank do the dirty work. He also manages to balance the line where he’s the nerdy tech guy, but he’s also not a coward—he did a lot of brave things to protect his family, and his anguish at seeing them suffer without him is true. Daniel Webber is great as Lewis, the vet who goes off the rails, and Jason R. Moore provides a strong, steady hand as Curtis, Frank’s confidant.

And how about the recurring guest roles? You’ve got C. Thomas Howell, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio—a great range of character actors. You’ve also Deborah Ann Wall reprising her role as Karen Page, and she’s joined by Rob Morgan and Royce Johnson as Turk and Officer Mahoney, respectively.

… but Amber Rose Revah’s Dinah Madani is the weak link

All right, so part of this is on the character; Madani is often clueless and seems to make one bad decision (or non-decision) after another. (Example: why she didn’t call for backup/first aid during the raid in episode 8 until Stein was stabbed (and all the bad guys were dead or escaped)? About 10 other officers were shot before that!) She’s also a terrible cop (how the heck did she manage to get herself shot in the last episode after sneaking up on two guys hell-bent on beating the shit out of each other?) Meanwhile, there were just a few too many scenes that Amber Rose Revah drifted through with a blank stare. Maybe that was the character, maybe that was the actor, I don’t know. But I thought the character left a lot to be desired.

The show seems to have an odd relationship with the violence it portrays

The show’s only real misstep was in the gun debate that spanned episodes 9-10. It seemed out of place in a show where the main character’s claim to fame is his proficiency with guns, and how many people he’s killed with them. It was also presented so lightly, that it did the entire debate disservice; this isn’t something that can or should be debated in three scenes of a television show. It was also, frankly, one-sided; pro-gun Karen is a character we know and love, whereas pro-gun-control Senator Ori exists only to (weakly) present the other side. What was the point? And the thing is, the debate seemed out of place in the context of the show; the character who sparked it, Lewis, was using bombs, not guns, in his attacks. That was a potentially interesting debate—at one point, Frank says he hates bombs and prefers guns—but it wasn’t really followed up on.

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All of that said I highly recommend Netflix’s The Punisher to comic book fans and action fans. It’s violent—gruesomely so, at times—so it’s not for everyone. But I think it’s got a compelling narrative, a great cast, and some fantastic action pieces.

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