The Punisher, Season One

8 Overall Score
Peformances: 9/10
Production: 8/10
Writing: 7/10

Excellent performances, especially by Bernthal as Castle.

The writing suffers from unoriginality.

 

The Punisher
Stars: Jon Bernthal, Amber Rose Revah, Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Disney/Marvel/Netflix
2017

May Jon Bernthal live forever and ever with his finger on that punishing trigger. He glowers and towers above every other screen interpretation of Frank Castle, and I really like Thomas Jane. Mr. Bernthal turns in a Castle who is thoroughly sympathetic and sinister, an aggrieved man with plenty of ammo and no safety. Every second of his performance, one expects to say, “That’s it. That’s where I’m out. This guy needs to be kept in a box.” But the mangling seconds fly by in sprays of bullets and cringing violence, and Bernthal keeps you on his squad. Get ‘em, Frank. You get all those sons of bitches.

The Punisher, Season One, is a metaphor for masculinity; the warrior in a fight he lost before he started, trying to defend everyone including the dead, struggling to keep his grip on his corner of the world and earning only enmity for it. That’s Frank Castle, and that’s every other man in the show. Also at least two of the women, including Amber Rose Revah’s Dinah Madani.

This bloody porridge is very different from the bland car-thrown-through-the-wall spectacle that Marvel usually ladles up. And Castle’s shortcomings are harrowing, not adorable. This is not, “Haha, Tony’s drinking again!” Frank isn’t the good guy doing the right thing; he’s just the guy, dragging us into the madness with him.

Also, no one has any superpowers—unless you count Frank’s amazing ability to get stabbed and shot and beaten just about to death, then go out and kill a bunch more guys. Except for a supporting role by Deborah Ann Woll as Daredevil’s investigative reporter Karen Page, you’d hardly know that this was a Marvel project at all. This is a creative decision to be admired.

The Punisher’s gun-fu is high-grade and realistic. Comparisons to John Wick are inevitable—the relentless gunslinger seeks revenge on the most-numerous criminal conspiracy ever to murder a loved one. Mr. Wick is a dancer in a music video where the percussion is by Heckler & Koch. By comparison, Mr. Castle is swinging a hammer. Mr. Wick has cheekbones. Mr. Castle has a ball peen of a nose. And there are certainly moments that are too incredible to be believed, but what the hell. It all looks so awesome!

Also, John Wick is much crazier than Frank Castle. Jesus, John…it was just a dog.

The Punisher’s relationship with Micro, an intelligence analyst in a similar on-the-lam situation, is the heart of this show. It would be too easy to let Castle be a one-dimensional operator of death machines. The series does not go that route, and is much the better for it.

Now here are the problems with The Punisher. It absolutely rolls around in some terrible clichés. Castle, and many other characters, have served in Afghanistan. And without exception, each one of them came back maimed and mangled, in the body or in the head. In reality, the majority of Americans who have gone to the deserts came back just fine with a nice resume item and eligible for the GI Bill. Yes, war destroys. But only a small percentage of those who participate.

The Punisher makes virtually no mention of the reason for American involvement in Afghanistan in the first place; there are terrible armies of fanatics who torture and kill and torture and kill in the name of their mad god. In fact, the vast majority of the victims of the Islamists are brown-skinned Muslims from the Muslim world. That is who we are defending. But The Punisher ignores that and just treats all violence as an insanity that only cannibalizes itself.

Another groaning cliché, and a departure from the usual Punisher mythology, is that Castle’s military superiors are the villains. Someday, someday, I hold out hope, there will be an espionage thriller or action picture where the enemy isn’t the US government.

It’s also puzzling that the showrunners decided to fill this season with Punisher’s “They killed my family!” origin story. They spent his subplot in Daredevil, Season Two, doing that.

Finally, like most video fictions, The Punisher is profoundly anti-sex. Frank Castle never talks about sex, never thinks about sex, not even in his endless hallucinations of his dead wife. There is only one exception—he dreams of sex with her while he’s being tortured to death. Even in that sequence, her ghost has become his Grim Reaper, and sex is entwined with torture.

In The Punisher, virtually everyone who wants sex is a villain, everyone who has sex will be betrayed. Marvel wants you to keep it zipped up, kids! Do you want to see that in the mirror?

But nothing is perfect, after all. The Punisher, Season One, is a stand-out in their series line-up, and absolutely worth the time.

 

 

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Brian Downes
Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through Amazon.com. He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

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