Marvel’s The Punisher review: A solid watch well worth a lock-and-load
Or: Why you've got to be Frank with criminals
Ah, The Punisher. You're like the Marvel antithesis of Bruce Wayne. You don't have a trust fund, nor any interest in playing furry dress ups, and your modus operandi involves killing criminals as sadistically as possible with large calibre weapons. Basically, you're the morally grey anti-hero that New York City deserves and needs right now.
Anybody who binged through Marvel's Daredevil series knows the score with Frank “The Punisher” Castle. He's an ex-military vigilante who aims to clean up Hell's Kitchen by any means necessary, no matter how many heads he has to turn into canoes. Castle's driven by vengeance, looking to eradicate, with extreme prejudice, the thugs responsible for murdering his wife and kids. Using just a hint of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver as an influence, Jon Bernthal of The Walking Dead fame delivered a strong performance of this dark and gritty character in Marvel's Daredevil series. Fans should no doubt be well psyched to see what he can do with his own show.
And then, unfortunately, you'll click in and hit a slow-burn. When we catch up with Castle again he's winding down. Tying off loose ends – literally, by choking the last living gang member with his own necktie. Worse, he's laying low under a new identity (after faking his death) and is unwilling to beat the living snot out of people who really deserve it. Heck, he won't even ventilate workplace bullies who are begging for an attitude adjustment.
What we do get is flashbacks upon flashbacks. Castle has earned himself little peace from his recent clean house. He is still a tortured, angry father and husband who’s living in an unbelievable world of darkness, loss and torment. The series also dips back into his mysterious history as a marine when he crosses paths with Dinah Madani, a Homeland Security agent investigating the death of a former partner who she believes died at the hands of drug-running American soldiers.
After three to four episodes of intense brooding, The Punisher finally gets to weaving something decent with the story threads that are Dinah's investigation, Frank's PTSD veterans support sessions and the often comical interference from Micro, a CCTV-spying handler who, like Castle, has also faked his death, though his family is very much alive. Slowly but pleasingly, more information begins to trickle in about the dishonourable soldiers and corrupt officials pulling all the strings, not to mention the real reason behind the not-so-senseless slaughter of the Castle family.
Speaking of getting red on you, The Punisher revels in stylistically shot violence. When it comes to up-close-and-personal kills, this series delivers the best choreographed fisticuffs scenes in all of the Marvel Netflix Universe. There are moments here that eclipse even “those” one-shot fight scenes in Daredevil (which were the hooking in point for many a viewer). And, as skilled as he is, it's refreshing to see Frank receive nearly as much abuse as he dishes out.
Fair warning, though: as the stakes rise in this 13-hour watch so too does the gore-factor and gun violence, which is a dicey prospect, given the current political climate. That said, if you've been desensitised to such things by decades of video gaming, you're in for a real treat with some sequences. Case in point: in a midseason episode, an entire setpiece is filmed as if it is a first-person shooter. Really well shot.
Thankfully, all of the violence is justified, and, more importantly, everything comes with a consequence. The stark realities of what regular combat does to a person are well depicted in the attendees of Frank's PTSD group. The additional trauma Frank inflicts upon his own psyche, by ignoring treatment and going down the darkest path imaginable, is a savage journey to go on, but it's one worth exploring nonetheless.
The Punisher isn't all good, however. Frank and Karen Page connected in the second season of Daredevil, but her cameo drop-ins feel a little redundant. They seem to be less about showing Frank's softer side and more about anchoring him to the Netflix universe so the viewer doesn't forget that, yes, this brooding mass-murderer really is a part of a wider clique of upbeat, unseen super pals. Also on the topic of things which feel hastily tethered, Agent Dinah's investigation at times doesn't dovetail with the flow of the first half of the season. Her thread winds in well by the end, but it's a boring slog to begin with that feels more punishing than Castle himself.