Watching a character get their rightful vengeance is one of the most satisfying story tropes in all of movies and television, but sometimes watching the wrongs that spur on that revenge is so difficult that it taints the eventual catharsis. Such is the case with Marvel’s The Punisher, the newest television series in the comic book giant’s ever expanding television universe. The Punisher is a brutal and bloody experience that strips away most of the fun and goofiness that normally accompany super hero tales, leaving only the violence and the people affected. But then again, a fun and goofy Punisher wouldn’t be a very loyal adaptation.
The series follows Frank Castle aka The Punisher – the character first introduced in the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil who, after hunting down and “punishing” the people responsible for the murder of his family and faking his own death in the process, expands his kill list. The murder of Frank’s family was tied to his involvement in a secret CIA operation in Afghanistan called Cerberus, the surviving members of which are back on US soil – some in better condition than others. Cerberus involved some shady dealings, dealings those in charge would like to remain secret, but while most of the members are laying low, that ain’t Frank Castle’s style. Teaming up with ousted NSA agent David Lieberman aka Micro, Castle works to uncover the larger conspiracy behind Cerberus, and perhaps get a second chance at life.
Jon Bernthal is a force in the lead role, delivering a fierce and surprisingly well-rounded performance in a character that could have been a two-dimensional killing machine. This performance is complimented by an intriguing cast of secondary characters including Ebon Moss-Bachrach as the nervous and desperate Lieberman, Ben Barnes as Frank’s old war buddy Billy Russo, and an underused Deborah Ann Woll as New York Bulletin reporter Karen Page. Most notable though is Amber Rose Revah as DHS agent Dinah Madani, whose investigation into the death of a journalist in Kandahar causes her to enter Castle’s orbit. In fact the entire cast is strong and their performances build a universe of characters that are grounded and sympathetic.
This universe also plays home to some difficult themes. The emotional trauma brought back by veterans of war is a central concern of the show, and though it serves to motivate one of the show’s less interesting subplots, it’s handled with a deft touch that doesn’t feel exploitive. The dream sequences and hallucinations haunting a number of the characters (Castle especially) are a horrifying vision of PTSD and give the cinematographers some room to experiment. The repetition and increasing violence of these visions however starts to get hard to stomach by the end.
Then of course there is the violence. This is a very violent television show and – unlike Marvel’s film universe – does not shrink from showing blood…there’s lots of blood. As interesting and well-built as the characters are, let’s be honest, fans of the Punisher comic books will be watching this show to see Frank Castle dole out his violent justice, and the show offers up at least half a dozen fantastic action set pieces. The fighting ranges from wide open gun battles, to hand to hand combat, to car chases, and though the show may stage a few too many in dimly lit locations that make the action hard to follow, they’re choreographed well. Even if the “former soldier going it alone against the corrupt men in charge” might feel like some very well-trod ground, the show still manages to make it feel relevant. It could, however, benefit from some more nuanced villains.
Though it won’t be revolutionizing television, Marvel’s The Punisher offers a refreshingly gritty approach to the superhero genre and should satisfy fans looking for some action storytelling that isn’t afraid to delve into the emotional consequences of the violence it portrays. It’s a great binge-able option for a cold weekend at home.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.