In this current political climate, The Punisher could have been either the best or worst thing to hit television. A white middle-aged man privy to sporadic gun violence may not be the smartest thing to have on television (especially since Netflix canceled their New York Comic Con panel after the La Vegas shootings). But thankfully, The Punisher is more than that. Instead of glamorizing the brutal violence, creator/writer Steve Lightfoot and his team focus on other hot-topic issues such as gun control and post-traumatic stress disorder.
As you may infer, subtlety isn’t the show’s strong suit, and it, at times, can beat you over the head with its political undertones. But, after a disappointing first season for The Defenders, The Punisher helps bring back some faith into the Marvel-Netflix universe. It’s disturbing yet poignant, focusing more on the characters rather than the action itself. Most of the time it works; other times, it makes the 13-hour series feel like double the time.
The Punisher takes place months after the events in Daredevil Season 2. Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) fakes his death to hide from authorities after escaping from prison. The only person who knows he’s alive is his old squad mate, Curtis (Jason R. Moore). Curtis is the wise sage of the show, giving not only Castle advice, but also veterans haunted by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Castle’s life in hiding is disturbed when he gets a mysterious phone call by by a presumed-dead NSA analyst, David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), as known as Micro. They become an unlikely team to take down the system that has let them down so much.
The Punisher would have made for a great seven or eight episode series. Its simple plot could have been easily wrapped up and feel satisfying. Instead, it drags out every story to fill the necessary runtime. That being said, the writers keep the interest afloat through Frank’s character development. Bernthal can showcase a wide range of emotions through the slightest twitch of his mouth. In one scene, he’s a ruthless killer with cold eyes, and then in the next scene, those same eyes are full of sadness and regret.
It’s not hard to sympathize with Frank’s struggle, but the writers make sure not to romanticize his killing spree. By making his character toe the line between good and evil, they make it clear that what he’s doing is bad and there will be consequences for his actions. “Am I supposed to kill a U.S. soldier for doing his job?” Frank asks David before embarking on a dangerous mission. It’s those kinds of questions that make watching Frank’s evolution so damn good.
Bernthal and Moss-Bachrach bounce off each other and are terrific everytime they’re on screen. Their relationship is the glue that holds the show together, and they may be the best superhero-sidekick pairing that the Netflix-Marvel universe has seen so far.
On the other side of the spectrum is Dinah Madani, an Iranian-American Homeland Security agent who has been involuntarily placed in New York so she won’t snoop around the mysterious murder of an American ally in Kandahar. When she learns that Frank was somehow involved, she spends her time trying to seek him out.
On her own, Dinah is a captivating character but just doesn’t have the material to wield her full potential. Similar to Luke Cage’s Misty Knight, she’s a woman of color struggling to keep afloat in a man’s world but is continuously taken down by her male authorities. The writers try to flesh out her character by focusing on her career and Iranian heritage, but she never gets her time to shine.
The Punisher is a good show, but it could have been great. It is one of the most grounded series in the Marvel-Netflix universe, but its excessive run time drags the show’s momentum to an excruciating crawl. Thankfully, it’s better than Iron Fist, but that’s not saying too much.