Netflix Original Series
Reviewed by Brandon Bishop, November 22, 2017
“One batch, two batch, penny and dime.”
The Punisher has frequently been adapted to the screen, having had three previous feature film adaptations, each with a different actor playing the title character, as well as several minor appearances in small screen cartoon adaptations of other Marvel Characters. This most recent iteration of the character saw his debut in Marvel’s Daredevil Season 2, portrayed by Jon Bernthal. He returns to the role here in The Punisher Season 1, a Netflix Original Series.
As a character, The Punisher, real name Frank Castle, has always struggled on the screen, despite the many adaptations and interpretations. None of the feature film adaptations have really given us a Frank Castle that can be sympathized with. He’s always damaged and vengeful, but if the audience cannot connect with him or find some common ground, it’s difficult to view him as different than those that he has devoted his life to stopping. Netflix’s The Punisher changes all that.
The first few episodes are plodding and exposition heavy. In a previous life, Frank was a member of a covert operations team that committed unspeakable acts in the Middle East. The series takes its time explaining that to us in detail. Those scenes are ultimately important for the long haul, but they make the first few episodes feel much longer than necessary. A lot of the “current” timeline scenes work really well here and introduce us to our supporting cast, including Amber Rose Revah as a DHS agent and Ebon Moss-Bachrach of HBO’s Girls as Micro, a major supporting character from the comics who often helps Frank complete his missions. Each one gives a great performance, starting early on and maintaining throughout, but Revah’s character seems to make a lot of major mistakes and is repeatedly forgiven for them throughout the series. After a several botched operations and decisions defying her superiors, she shouldn’t just get a snap on the wrist.
Bernthal gives an incredible performance that just improves in each episode all the way to the finale. In Daredevil, he is cold, calculated, and intimidating. He begins that way in his own series, but learns something about himself in nearly every episode. We get inside Frank’s head and learn that there’s a little more to him than stone-cold killer. He’s damaged, but he’s not beyond saving. Some of the other Marvel Netflix Series such as Luke Cage and Iron Fist have suffered from the 13-episode length of these seasons and could be better as shorter series, but The Punisher takes its time, gives you the details, and when it twists the knife, it hurts. This is a slow-burn character-driven drama, and it is a ride for Frank and the audience.
Technically related to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, as well as the other Netflix series that began with Daredevil Season 1 and lead up to this year’s The Defenders, The Punisher largely frees itself of those ties and feels like its own entity. The only tethers to those series are the minor presence of Deborah Ann Woll from Daredevil, who is as likeable as ever and a scene that returns to the carousel where Frank’s family was murdered, as seen in Daredevil Season 2. Even Karen’s appearance serves Frank’s story and not the larger universe. The fact that it is not competing for its place in a larger continuity really lets it feel like a singular creative vision.
The Punisher Season 1 brings us more great comic book action and extremely well written characters. Frank’s story deserved to be told well, and this series pulls it off. He’s still the violent, grumpy curmudgeon that we know, but there’s a lot more going on with Frank this time around. The series has its flaws and may move too slowly for some, but its the best on-screen version of the character we’ve ever gotten. That’s a feat, considering he’s been adapted more than most comic book characters, but none of them really got him right until now. We feel your pain, Frank.