Six episodes were provided for review.
The Defenders may not have been the high-performer that Netflix hoped it would be (our review here), but nevertheless, its premiere essentially concludes “Phase One” of this branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, setting the stage for new stories with established characters like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist (all of whom have secured another season). Before any of the Defenders return to the small screen, however, it’s Jon Bernthal’s turn in the spotlight. The Walking Dead alum debuted as Frank Castle in Daredevil season 2 and immediately emerged as a fan favorite. Thus, The Punisher was born.
As a character, The Punisher – created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru in 1974 – has traditionally been depicted as a sheer force of vengeance. But Castle’s quest for revenge against the criminals who killed his family is all but complete in the opening moments of his own series, leaving The Punisher with the unenviable task of finding a new mission for its central antihero. Without delving into spoilers, the answer for that is steeped in Castle’s military background, and the subsequent direction is actually more resonant than expected, with its heavy focus on political questions currently part of our everyday discourse.
Much of The Punisher hinges on Castle’s post-traumatic stress from his time in the Marines as well as the overwhelming grief for the loss of his wife and children. While the Marvel/Netflix shows have always touched on relevant themes – Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in particular – The Punisher leans into this harder than all of its predecessors combined. The fact that superpowers don’t play a role (unless you count Castle’s ability to overcome impossible odds) only heightens the real-life weight of the character’s journey and the violence therein. After all, Marvel already delayed the release of The Punisher in response to the Las Vegas shooting on October 1.
The path of an antihero is often paved with the bodies of his enemies and a chronic need to brood about it all, and accordingly, The Punisher takes itself just as seriously as its main character does. The series doesn’t offer much in the way of fun or thrills, entrenching itself in conspiracy and shadowy government intrigue instead. Whether that works for viewers will likely depend on what they’re hoping to get out of their Marvel/Netflix shows, but with no Matt Murdock to balance the moral stakes (Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page does make an appearance), The Punisher has an air of gloomy apathy to it that might not be everyone’s taste.
Thankfully, Bernthal knows how to make this work. His Castle is tortured by his past and left indifferent to much of what’s left in his present. The actor’s stone-faced stare and intense eyes truly capture the essence of a broken man who only sees purpose in the extraordinary – and extreme – violence he can create with even the most utilitarian of weapons. Part of The Punisher‘s focus is on helping Castle develop a sense of closure with his family’s death and finding him a new role going forward, presumably opening the doors to further seasons. To that end, the series introduces a supporting cast of new faces to flesh out his world.
Most integral among them perhaps is Ebon Moss-Bachrach as David Lieberman/Micro. The character’s name – teased at the end of Daredevil season 2 – is bound to ring a bell for fans of The Punisher’s Marvel Comics run, as he so often serves as an ally to Castle there. Moss-Bachrach finds both the humor and the pathos in his role, serving as a more overtly emotional counterpoint to Bernthal’s stoic vigilante.
Ben Barnes and Jason R. Moore also play key roles as former military buddies of Castle’s, the latter of whom has kept in touch even after Castle’s presumed death. Less successful so far is the subplot following Department of Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) as an investigation leads her on a collision course with Castle.
Deeply melancholic, The Punisher is more of a procedural than fans might expect, though one colored by sporadic bursts of the kind of over-the-top violence not likely to spill onto an episode of Law & Order. That being said, it does feel like a tone befitting someone as inherently bleak as Frank Castle.
At the end of the day, for hardcore fans of the character, The Punisher is bound to offer a better experience than the three failed big screen adaptations. But those looking for more escapism in their superhero storytelling might be better off revisiting the other equally dark but less dour Marvel/Netflix shows.
Not as much fun or as engaging as most other Marvel/Netflix shows, The Punisher still prevails, thanks in large part to Jon Bernthal's performance as the damaged antihero.