THE PUNISHER Season 1 Review: One of Marvel's Stronger Shows on Netflix

To my mind the best Marvel / Netflix episodes to date are DAREDEVIL Season 2 episodes 1-4; a mini- arc I like to call “Daredevil vs. The Punisher”. When Jon Bernthal swept onto our screens as The Punisher he didn’t so much as reinvent or even revive the character, he became the character. Even before he set foot on screen the show built him up as a force of nature and by God did Bernthal back it up. Those four episodes play out like a movie, something akin to The Dark Knight meets Death Wish, with explorations of conflicting ideologies, incredible suspense, amazing action and an unfurling mystery that make it one of the most satisfying works of television ever made. And though the subsequent segue into the “People vs. Frank Castle” angle could never be as good, it was still gratifying to delve into the psychology of a character that has essentially been defined by his one-dimensional code of “do bad, get shot” for so many years. It felt inevitable that even before I had finished all 13 episodes, Netflix and Marvel would have come to terms on giving The Punisher his own show and sure enough, based on the overwhelming acclaim Bernthal received for his portrayal of Frank Castle, the original 5-series Defenders deal was amended to give The Punisher his own Netflix series and we all waited with bated breath to see if it would be worth it. 

And thank God, it is. Not as knock-out as those first few episodes of DAREDEVIL, but THE PUNISHER is certainly one of the stronger shows Marvel and Netflix have produced. As I know everyone will inevitably wonder where it ranks amongst the others, it’s not as good as JESSICA JONES or DAREDEVIL, but better than LUKE CAGE (due to its poor second half) and of course, IRON FIST. Remember, this is my personal opinion, except that Iron Fist bit which by now is objective fact. 

Marred somewhat in controversy, the show’s presence was pulled at this year’s New York Comic Con in the wake of a horrific mass shooting, the release date was kept from the public amid rumours of its delay, until the obvious and horrible observation that it would never be a good time to release a show centred around gun violence in America made it all the clear that Netflix needed to shit or get off the pot. The show was released to a mixed response inevitably due to its handling of the exact the subject matter it was trying to avoid conflating its release with. 

You see a major sub-plot of Marvel’s THE PUNISHER revolves around a young yet disturbed veteran named Lewis, adeptly played by Daniel Webber, who ends up over the course of the show morphing into that sort of “prepper,” government distrusting, 2nd amendment espousing case that acts as a sort of dark side to the coin that is The Punisher. The fact that so many people were unsure as to where his story was leading speaks greater to America’s relationship with gun violence than anything I could ever say in a review about a Netflix show, but suffice it to say he’s not painted in a great light and things don’t turn out all rosy. However, a back-handed kudos has to go to the show runners for pulling a “both-sides” on the debate over gun control, albeit in a slightly weak and predictably way. 

Ben Barnes is great as Billy Russo, another vet who once served with Castle, whose storyline progresses in sort of predictable fashion, especially if you know the comics with one clumsy misstep of a reveal still sticking in my craw, but the man has real screen presence and carries his part of the story with aplomb. He’s come a long way from playing Prince Caspian. Amber Rose Revah plays Agent Dinah Madani, the Department of Homeland Security agent embroiled in her own arc to trying and catch the shady ne’er-do- wells with a connection to Castle’s time in Afghanistan. MVP of the show is Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Micro aka David Leiberman, the “man in the chair” behind Castle’s exploits as it’s their reluctant emerging brotherhood and how it ties into Micro’s family — they think he’s dead, Castle family is dead, see if you can guess where that goes — that is the heart of the show. Seeing them go from distrusting each other over some downright shady old-school spook tactics, to outright hating each other, to begrudgingly bonding and finally having each other’s back, ultimately to both men’s redemption is what truly makes this show about something other than just shooting people. Shout out goes to the actors playing Micro’s wife and kids, if they hadn’t held up their end, it all could’ve gone sour but thankfully Marvel’s casting director got this one just right. 

When all these character’s threads start to come together, with a bonus appearance or three from Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page, you get a real sense of completion to Frank Castle’s story. I just hope they’ve put a lid on this for now for as much as I enjoyed the deep dive into the conspiracy over the death of Frank Castle’s family, it did feel a little sacrilegious to the character. Not as precious as say the deaths of Uncle Ben or the Wayne’s but in the same ball park. Hopefully next time we see Punisher, he’ll be keeping it simple like gunning down scum for trying to peddle smack to the kids. 

Some sloppy gunplay aside — isn’t it statistically more likely to just score a headshot than constantly graze skulls with a bullet? — The action is exactly what I had hoped from this show. I’m pretty The Punisher is the most violent piece of media Marvel has ever produced, an act of violence in its penultimate episode causing me and my viewing partner to pause astounded over what we had just seen. Still, thematically it was sure as hell satisfying to see. He is called The Punisher after all. 

My one big gripe with THE PUNISHER? Zero reference to a wider Marvel world. Considering only this summer THE DEFENDERS established how these characters are all within a post code of each other, you’d think there would be some allusion to the other Netflix Marvel heroes that inhabit this corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or that with all the agencies and conspiracies floating around, that there’d be a SHIELD reference here or there. But no. There are even references to 9/11 and how it affected New York, but no mention to the alien invasion that happened in the intervening years. Someone in charge obviously wanted THE PUNISHER to be as grounded as possible for a show about a gun toting vigilante, which is a shame because it with those connections and it’s comic book roots that a show like this could have really elevated itself, like those aforementioned four episodes of DAREDEVIL. The Punisher’s ending leaves us a little in the dark as to exactly where Frank Castle’s path could lead him next, but I personally hope it’s straight into some 4-colour punishment action.

Written by Nick Whitney, MCU Correspondent

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