“One batch, two batch, penny and dime.” Not entirely sure what that phrase means, but I know it’s time to talk about The Punisher since I just finished the first season and…what an amazing season it was. Ever since Jon Bernthal first introduced himself as the gun-wielding antihero in Daredevil season 2, I knew immediately I needed more of him. He wasn’t just a big hulking killing machine who grunted a lot; Bernthal brought actual depth and emotion to the character. His best scenes weren’t action-heavy; they just consisted of dialogue with another character. I had the utmost faith in the standalone series because the Netflix/Marvel collaboration has typically yielded solid returns (when the producers behind Iron Fist aren’t involved). It certainly takes its time, but The Punisher delivers on the violence and the important character moments that were promised in Daredevil and adds another excellent notch to the Marvel TV belt.
Bernthal as Frank Castle is perfect casting; I’ve never seen any of the film adaptations (thankfully), so my impression of the Punisher wasn’t ruined by Dolph Lundgren or…the other two. We shouldn’t throw the phrase around lightly, but like Hugh Jackman and Wolverine or Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man, Bernthal looks born to play the role. He has that trademark gravelly voice, but he can also deliver the lines with precision and range. He reminds me of a poor man’s Gary Oldman: usually in the background, but always solid in any role you give him. Obviously, The Walking Dead is his most recognizable, but he’s done great supporting work in Fury, Baby Driver, and a bunch more. It was probably a significant risk for Marvel to go with someone who had never played the lead in anything, but Bernthal passed with flying colors in my eyes. He successfully portrayed a tortured individual who’s haunted by the death of his family and the struggle to avenge them using any possible method.
Surrounding Castle is a decent cast, but I was most impressed by Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian throwback!) as Billy Russo, Frank’s best friend who served with him in the military. His character could’ve easily been the well-dressed mustache-twirling villain that has been done a million times, but there was a darkness to him that felt organic and distinct. You could see the internal conflict that plagued him throughout the series; one minute, you assume he would never betray Frank. But then, when (spoiler) you see him switch sides, your mind begins to rationalize why on earth he would make that choice. Barnes is clearly a better actor now than when he lived in Narnia and his layered performance adds to the recent list of surprisingly good Marvel villains (joining Michael Keaton’s Vulture and Cate Blanchett’s Hela).
With a show like The Punisher, you can expect the action to be top-notch. There are three sequences in particular (found in episodes 1, 11, and 13) that make you “feel” the violence. In most action movies, the fight choreography looks cool and all, but you can approach it from a distance without feeling viscerally affected. The Punisher films the violence in such a gruesome manner that you can sense every punch and every bullet. There were legitimate moments where I covered my face because of how horrific certain scenes played out. Just see for yourself (unless you have a weak stomach).
But the most important aspect that makes The Punisher worth watching is its handling of sensitive topics. It would be easy to just have thirteen episodes of Frank Castle taking on the criminal world in glorious fashion, but the showrunners take the time to explore not only his dark past but also the backstories of other characters. You learn about Frank’s reluctant partner Micro who’s desperately trying to see his family again after the government forced him into hiding. You sympathize with Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani who seeks justice for her former partner, but soon finds herself in the middle of a corrupt system, unsure who to trust. Even characters you think aren’t going to be important at first like former veterans Lewis and Curtis find themselves longing for respect from a seemingly indifferent society. Through it all, the show never shies away from confronting serious issues like PTSD, terrorism, and gun violence. When Frank is deciding whether he can go through with the plan of killing everyone associated with his former life, you can see the pain and internal conflict he’s going through. You understand that he would rather not have to murder anyone (evidenced by a key scene where he’s confronted by a young soldier), but he knows that if he doesn’t act, it will only lead to more people getting hurt. It’s no secret that mass shootings have become alarmingly common in the US and a show like The Punisher coming out now would seem to be a dicey move. But given the context, the execution is respectful while managing to engage you on a deeper level than most TV shows.
The only flaw (aside from the occasional nitpicky stuff) might be the pacing. After the premiere, not much happens in the next five or six episodes. There are minor revelations that keep you watching, but it’s a slow burn compared to what you were probably expecting from a show with the Punisher in it. That might not be a bad thing since the extra time allows for needed character development, but it can drag sometimes. I’m not the first to suggest this, but perhaps Netflix should look into shortening their Marvel shows to ten episodes each instead of the arbitrary thirteen. Overall, The Punisher is an excellent show that doesn’t require you to be a fan of the comics or even the superhero genre to enjoy it. There are elements of a police procedural, a gritty spy thriller, and a deeply emotional family drama. One online reviewer described it as “John Wick meets This Is Us” and strangely enough, I agree with that sentiment.