Marking the fifth character to gain their own solo series aboard the Netflix-Marvel vessel, a collaboration that has given comic-book fans a mostly-satisfying peek inside the darker realms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Marvel’s The Punisher” rolled in with guns blazing and its humanity to bare as it delved into the haunting affairs of ex-Marine-turned-vigilante Frank Castle. Ultimately evolving far above the no-holds-barred barrage of gunfire I was expecting from the series, Marvel’s latest found itself exploring not only the tortured character of Castle himself, but also the unforgiving world around him that molds him into what he is now. While the first season might burn its flame a bit longer than needed, ‘Marvel’s The Punisher’ delivered yet another fulfilling and emotional turn for Marvel’s small screen endeavors.
Torn from his family by the men he once worked under, brothers in arms he thought he could trust with his life, ex-Marine Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) embarks on a deadly mission to hunt down those responsible for his family’s murder. As his one-man pursuit of vengeance leads him to become the infamous vigilante of New York City known as “The Punisher,” Castle gains the audience of Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah). Quickly uncovering a conspiracy that goes beyond the deaths of his wife and children, Castle is drawn into the affairs of his old friend Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), a man who has built a life of wealth and power beyond his past in the battlefield. Joining forces with a reclusive ex-NSA hacker (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who shares a unique bond with him, Castle becomes embroiled in a desperate search for the truth as Madani and the faces of his past seek to bring him down.
After a rather impressive debut in the sophomore season of “Marvel’s Daredevil,” the Netflix series that kicked off the franchise’s reign across the streaming service, Jon Bernthal’s hard-edged hitman in Frank Castle seemed like the obvious candidate for his own solo adventure down the road. With a dark past of cruelty and unexpected consequences boiling inside him, and a fiery vengeance twinkling effortlessly in his eyes, it was Bernthal’s relentless brutality and sheltered compassion which made the second outing of “Daredevil” such a game-changer for the small screen series. With that, when it came to delving into the world of the comic-book hitman in his own series, I was of course skeptical as to how it might unfold.
While Castle’s gracious introduction into “Daredevil” might have derailed the central plot for the better in effort to craft a compelling duel of ideologies between Castle and Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock, it also clued us into the violent and volatile tendencies of the hitman. From gunning down a pub of gangsters without remorse to unleashing chaos within the confines of a state penitentiary, Castle’s bloody journey towards vengeance was teased profoundly as the backdrop to Murdock’s own journey towards the truth. While I expected Castle’s own series to further the bloodshed in thirteen episodes of pure mayhem, I was surprised to find out that the series began quite slowly, yielding its gunplay in favor of diving into not what makes Frank Castle the killing machine of “The Punisher,” but rather, the loving father-turned-disgruntled-soldier of Frank Castle.
While the show, developed by “Hannibal” writer Steve Lightfoot, might turn up the heat as the series goes on, the first half of ‘The Punisher’ ultimately worked to show the audience not only who Castle was and who he becomes, but also the people around him who will have a profound impact on his life. Led by Bernthal’s conflicted antihero, who deals with the aftermath of his family’s death by living a life of secrecy and boiling rage, we see how each of the show’s supporting characters quickly get entangled within the same conspiracy as it comes to light. From Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s disgraced NSA agent to Deborah Ann Woll’s eager reporter Karen Page from “Daredevil,” “The Punisher” established its supporting cast and their relation to Castle, before unleashing a whirlwind of lies and treachery.
At the center of the series, of course, was Jon Bernthal’s tortured soul in Frank Castle. While we got a pretty fantastic introduction to the comic-book mercenary earlier on, his own series worked to pull apart the character from within. With Bernthal enveloping the character with his own breed of methodical performance, Castle instantly emerged on-screen as the commanding force of the series. As Bernthal injected as emotional and versatile a performance as that of Charlie Cox in “Daredevil,” with every impassive silence and tilt of the head speaking volumes to his character’s battle-scarred morale, the series expanded upon Castle’s damaged demeanor to deliver a compelling and unhinged leading man.
Bernthal’s rough charisma managed to also clash seamlessly with the supporting members of the series’ cast. As Moss-Bachrach’s Micro provided a charming ally to Bernthal’s menacing antihero, and Woll’s Karen Page furthered her interest in the leading man’s troubled past, the opponents rallying against Castle delivered some of the more affecting performances of the series. As Castle’s path draws him to Ben Barnes’ Billy Russo, a figure of his past in the Marines, Barnes’ slithering persona provided a decent parallel to Bernthal’s hard-edged performance. Also on Castle’s trail, we find Amber Rose Revah’s Agent Madani, a reluctant operative whose own loss bleeds into both Castle’s and Russo’s. While Revah’s wide-eyed cop might fall victim to the snake-like allure of Russo, she also played a significant role in pulling away the layers of Castle’s own disturbed humanity.
Overall, while Marvel’s latest might not elevate beyond the sensational first seasons of “Daredevil” and “Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” “The Punisher” managed to deliver a far more fulfilling small-screen superhero chronicle than that of both “Iron Fist” and the team-up event “The Defenders.” While its focus might swing loosely between a compelling — and rather violent — chapter of vengeance and deceit through the eyes of its protagonist, and a variety of less-than-memorable subplots (including Frank’s awkward attraction to Micro’s distraught wife), “Marvel’s The Punisher” evolved from its violent comic-book origins to deliver a solemn, slow-burning thriller with an undeniably unnerving and compassionate hero-of-sorts at its core.
All 13 episodes of the first season of ‘Marvel’s The Punisher’ are now streaming on Netflix. Read my reviews of the previous Netflix-Marvel collaborations below: