What is The Punisher?
Frank Castle — aka The Punisher — set about avenging the murder of his family in Season 2 of Daredevil. In his first solo small-screen adventure, Frank is trying to live a quiet life, but gets pulled into a conspiracy involving drug trafficking and the cover-up of war-time atrocities. With inevitably violent consequences.
What’s Going on With Frank Castle?
The Punisher kicks off with the title character doing what he does best. Namely killing people. The opening montage finds Frank Castle embarking on a killing spree, bumping off bad guys in Mexico, El Paso, Alabama and New York. But then he’s done. He hangs up his semi-automatics, and the show cuts to six months later, with the world thinking him dead, and Frank endeavouring to live a life of peace and solitude.
It’s all a bit Man of Steel, with Frank growing a beard, doing manual labour, and keeping himself to himself. But Castle is still angry, as we know from the way in which hammers a brick wall really hard, broods while reading Moby Dick, and glares. Because no one glares quite like actor Jon Bernthal.
Frank gets an opportunity to channel that anger when things he’s done in the past catch up with him in the present. The show’s central storyline concerns an unspeakable act that Frank’s battalion committed in Afghanistan. Something that Castle has been trying to forget. And his former employers have been desperately covering. But it isn’t easy to bury the truth. Especially when all manner of people are trying to dig it up.
Who is Trying to Expose the Conspiracy?
There’s Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), working at Homeland Security, connected to someone at the heart of the conspiracy, and convinced that Frank is still alive and somehow involved. Dinah is tenacious, strong-willed, and slowly fitting the pieces of the puzzle together.
On the other side, there’s Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), an NSA analyst who stumbled on a video featuring said atrocity, and was forced on the run. Much like Frank, the authorities think Micro is dead, so he’s living in hiding. But unlike Frank, he’s somehow created an underground lair filled with futuristic tech, so he can work on bringing those who destroyed his life to justice. And rather more weirdly, so he can spy on his family, 24/7.
Dinah’s storyline is easily the most boring in The Punisher. Which is a shame as it takes up a large chunk of the run-time. We watch her battle bureaucracy within her agency, which is yawn-inducing. Embark on a relationship with a bloke that we all know she shouldn’t be going anywhere near, which is frustrating. And generally being a pretty bad investigator, which is infuriating.
Dinah is barking up the right tree from the off. But nearly every decision she makes is the wrong one, which only serves to drag out the narrative, with her scenes some of the show’s most repetitive and boring.
Much better is the interaction between Micro and Frank, the pair playing a game of cat-and-mouse over the show’s early scenes. The balance of power frequently shifts in gripping fashion, with Micro first manipulating and messing with Frank using said tech, and Frank then turning the tables by visiting his family and befriending his wife. While it’s fun — and a little weird — to see Frank flirt, again this storyline is dragged out a little too long.
But the pair eventually connect, and much like their relationship in the comics, start to work together to bring down the evil forces that have ruined both their lives. And the scenes they spend together are some of the show’s best, with the bond that Frank and Micro form convincing and surprisingly affecting.
Exploring Big, Important Themes
The Punisher is about much more than that central storyline, however. The show explores big, important themes about the state of the world today. Making it much more serious than your average superhero adventure, as the show endeavours to be a very grown-up take on the genre.
Much of the narrative revolves around the experience of soldiers returning from war, and more specifically the effects of PTSD. That’s most obviously represented by Frank’s propensity for violence, with the army turning Castle into a weapon then having no clue how to control him.
But there’s another character for whom fighting in the war had a devastating effect on his psyche, and the fallout from that is both shocking and heartbreaking.
The show also tackles homegrown terror head-on, asking tough questions about how America treats its war veterans, and also how they can be exploited, either by private security firms, or those with more sinister intentions.
But at times it’s odd watching those subjects being explored in what’s essentially a comic-book adaptation, featuring larger-than-life characters — most notably the villains — and violence so extreme that it borders on the ridiculous.
How Violent Does it Get?
The Punisher is the most violent Marvel show yet; a grounded, gritty and very bloody alternative to stories about heroes with super-strength and magic fists. No surprise when you consider the often uncompromising source material. But the opening credits feature a collection of weapons coming together to form the Punisher logo, which itself is problematic in the current climate.
Each episode then features Frank taking down bad guys in increasingly unpleasant and creative ways, using all manner of weapons, from knives to guns to pretty much any object is in his vicinity.
The violence becomes more extreme as the series progresses, with the penultimate episode edging into torture-porn territory, and a grotesque scene in the final showdown going full-on horror.
It makes those sequences tough to watch, which is doubtless what showrunner Steve Lightfoot was trying to achieve when painting the screen red. But in holding a mirror up to the horrors of war, and the consequences of bringing said horrors back home, it feels like he wants to have his cake and eat it, preaching that violence is bad, while at the same time splashing it all over the screen in graphic fashion for entertainment’s sake.
Either way, if broken bones, smashed teeth, and gouged eyes — yes, gouged eyes — aren’t your thing, you’d be advised to give The Punisher a wide berth.
Is The Punisher Good?
First and foremost, The Punisher suffers from the same problem that nearly all the Marvel Netflix shows are guilty of; being too long. But where some of those series’ have felt like eight episodes stretched over 13, this one feels more like six. Or even four.
Sub-plots and storylines get dragged out for hours, with much of the strand involving Dinah tiresome, the scenes with Micro’s kids a bore, and even Karen Page’s appearance feeling extraneous, connecting The Punisher to the previous shows but doing little more.
The biggest problem, however, is that the central conspiracy isn’t a particularly exciting one. When we last met Frank he was avenging the death of his family; a straightforward mission that it’s easy to understand and even support.
Here it’s often unclear exactly what Frank Castle is trying to achieve, with that central conspiracy convoluted and confused. And when the villains are revealed, they are kind of uninspired, so much so that it’s hard to care when they get their comeuppance.
Indeed, the show The Punisher most resembles is Jessica Jones, revolving as it does around an anti-hero trying to come to terms with a past trauma. But where baddie Kilgrave was a monster who cast a shadow over that entire series in memorable fashion, here the villains are dull, flat, and instantly forgettable.
So while The Punisher might be a grown-up alternative to the majority of superhero stories onscreen, it also isn’t a particularly good one, the narrative taking far too long to get where it’s going; the climax underwhelming when it does finally arrive.
It isn’t quite Iron Fist bad, and Jon Bernthal’s powerful, muscular, surprisingly sympathetic central performance should keep audiences watching, but if you do make it to the end of The Punisher, you’ll likely wonder why you bothered.
The Punisher launches on Netflix November 17.