Caution: Spoilers follow
In one of the (sure to be) final Marvel/Netflix collaborations, The Punisher is finally here. I for one was really looking forward to this one, as Jon Bernthal proved in DareDevil season 2 he was capable of bringing nuance and pathos to the potentially one note role of Frank Castle. I was really looking forward to seeing what they could do over 13 episodes to bring some well choreographed, intense action to the small screen, coupled with some hopefully powerful dramatic moments to break up the action.
What I ended up with is actually (and surprisingly), more the other way around. Where I expected The Punisher to lean heavily towards connecting mayhem infused set pieces with short dramatic bursts of non extensive character development, Netflix and Marvel have actually delivered something a lot more complex. Instead this season really plays out more as a dramatic series of character arcs with plotlines exploring some complex material such as post traumatic stress disorder and the real consequences of violence on the human condition. The violent and intricate set pieces are actually the connective tissue here, giving us a much more developed and cohesive narrative than I was expecting.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Punisher, the basic premise is a simple one. Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) is a ex-marine who, after coming back from serving with an elite off the books, CIA run hit squad in Afghanistan, comes back home to promptly have his family murdered in front of him. Escaping with his life and presumed dead (after the events shown in Daredevil season 2), Frank wages his own private war to uncover the conspiracy of his family’s murders and bring them to justice (well if your definition of justice is murdering them that is).
The key players here are Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), Frank’s old bestie from his army days, David Lieberman aka Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), Frank’s ‘partner’ who has his own reasons for wanting to uncover the conspiracy and finally Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), a Homeland Security Agent hot on Frank’s tail.
What was unexpected for me was the heart at the centre of this story as the writers use Micro’s family (Who he is estranged from in an attempt to keep them safe) as a means to explore Frank’s need to reconnect with life through having a purpose i.e. looking after Micro’s family in his absence. Ebon Moss-Bachrach is superb in conveying the desperation and pain of a man who will do anything to get back to the people he cares most about and through this desperation the bond he builds with Frank is great to watch and forms the emotional core of the show. Having this duo form the heart of the story is really the key element for me in setting this show above the simple, revenge based action thriller that I was expecting.
Unfortunately the weak link in all this is the Homeland stuff. The show for me never really gives enough meaningful things to do for Madani to do (beyond some cliched, grey morality soul searching that plays out just as you would expect) and for me Amber Rose Revah never really convinces in the role. I think a lot of this comes down to how young she seems to be in such an authoritative role, and as such she seems to lack the necessary gravitas to really ground her key dramatic moments with emotional weight and nuance. The writers don’t really help her here either, as every time the focus switches to Homeland (until the last couple of episodes) I got a palpable feeling of disconnection and just wanted to get back to Frank and Micro, as that material was just far more compelling.
I liked Ben Barnes as Billy Russo. He seemed to protray just the right amount of charm and swagger to compliment being a proper physical threat for Frank, and although I saw the ‘frenemy’ twist coming a long way off, Barnes played it well enough to still make it compelling to watch. Paul Schulze was also a decent foil for Frank as run of the mill dastardly CIA bad guy William Rawlins – although I would have liked him to have a few more scenes with Bernthal to flesh him out a bit more.
So overall I’m not surprised to find this is a show I’d definitely recommend, but its maybe for different reasons than I expected to. Now don’t get me wrong – there is plenty of bone crunching violence and gore on this show, so if thats not your thing then I’d steer clear. However what I really didn’t expect was for the show to deliver such a compelling heartfelt core to the story and (for the most part) such great character beats. This is a show you’ll watch for the action (and you wont be disappointed) but you’ll stay for the dramatic stakes. Roll on Season 2…