Samuel Brace on Marvel’s The Punisher…
Marvel’s The Punisher has at last made its debut on Netflix, and what’s waiting for viewers – at least concerning its first handful of episodes — is truly wonderful.
The Marvel shows on offer over in Netflix’s little corner of the MCU have been a little uneven to say the least. Daredevil has been tremendous (better than that in parts), Jessica Jones brilliant, but the more we keep quiet about Iron Fist, The Defenders, and to a lesser extent Luke Cage, the better.
Of late, one has started to sense the presence of a permanent diminution in quality.
So, it was hard to know what to expect with regards to the latest entry, the debut solo outing in this universe for The Punisher, first played so adeptly in season 2 of Daredevil by the force that is Jon Bernthal. Was The Punisher going to be a Daredevil type scenario or was it going to be another Iron Fist? That is, a show plagued by indolence and other undesirable characteristics. The odds were leaning towards the former, not only because of Bernthal’s presence (meaning he was actually well cast unlike certain other actors that need not be named) and because of the skill of its showrunner – Steve Lightfoot.
Well, all fears may be put to rest and your weekend’s filled with felicity, as, so far at least, The Punisher is a huge return to form and is in progress of delivering on all its significant promise.
So, what’s so good about it? Well, the obvious place to start is with Frank Castle himself. As touched on already, Jon Bernthal as the show’s titular character is in a league of his own, dominating every scene that he’s in via overwhelming screen presence, physicality, and just damn good acting. None of this is a surprise of course to fans of the actor from his days on The Walking Dead, Mob City, or those that enjoyed his scene stealing work during Daredevil’s second season.
This was perfect casting on Marvel’s behalf; Bernthal exudes all the qualities one could ask for in Frank, and displays that rare ability of combining tough guy savagery with tender fragility. Bernthal’s Punisher is equally horrifying as he is tragic. It’s a mesmerising combination and a rare talent to find in an actor – Tom Hardy is the only other performer that comes to mind when thinking of similar attributes in today’s acting pool.
But luckily for Bernthal, the show that he is leading is so far more than a match for his considerable skills, with Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal) and his team crafting a dark, grounded, and surprising story for this debut season.
It was unclear just how the show would deal with Frank’s back-story in The Punisher, as his family’s murder was already delved into during Daredevil season 2. The good news is that The Punisher doesn’t feel like it’s treading on well-worn territory, with new revelations about Frank’s past and his inability to put what happened behind him, the series is telling a tale that is as engrossing as it is essential to the character. This feels like a story that needs to be told and that is something numerous other Marvel shows have certainly failed to achieve.
Frank isn’t the only character in the series of course; Lightfoot’s team has done a tremendous job of populating this world with interesting and dynamic individuals that more than warrant the viewer’s time and energy.
From NSA analyst turned vengeful ghost Daniel Lieberman (Micro), played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, to Amber Rose Revah’s Dinah Madani, an agent intent on getting to the bottom of a more than shady situation involving Frank’s past. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, and that’s without even mentioning the show’s presumed villain Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), who, if things turn out the way they are expected to, could become one of the more layered villains in the MCU to date. He’s certainly no cackling, scene chewing caricature (not yet anyway), just a soldier who misses his presumed dead best friend, Frank Castle.
One of the most surprising aspects of The Punisher, however, are the themes so far explored, and this without even being halfway through the season. Post-traumatic stress disorder and the horrific impact that war can have on a person’s mind is one that I didn’t think the show would touch on so forcefully, let alone with such skill, with it being a theme not just found in Frank’s make-up but within a number of other characters the show is deciding to highlight.
The Punisher also does a sublime job of painting a complex world with numerous different viewpoints – characters that see the world very differently from each other but aren’t judged by the show for doing so. It’s refreshing and helps to make The Punisher as grounded and real as it needs to be. After all, this is no bombastic world saving superhero affair, this is about a man mentally scarred from war and forever crippled by the murder of his family.
The Punisher, also refreshingly, finds Frank not guns blazing, taking down any degenerate that crosses his path, he’s trying to move on, he’s trying to lock away his rage, his hatred, and live a life alone with the only thing he has left – his memories. It’s only after his hand is forced, that danger finds him, that he is brought back into the fray, thusly learning that the tragedy at the crux of his being isn’t a book that can be closed just yet.
The Punisher isn’t perfect of course, even at this early stage. But the issue taken with what’s on offer isn’t one that’s specific to this particular show. The grievance here is with the uniformity of visuals and cinematography that shackles these Netflix MCU shows together in one orderly, often bland, little package.
Why do these series all need to look the same? Why can’t The Punisher have a different visual aesthetic to Daredevil? Why can’t Daredevil differ visually from Jessica Jones? Of course they are meant to be a part of the same world but at this point, does anyone really care?
Wouldn’t it be nice to see Steve Lightfoot and team have full scope to present The Punisher in its own unique way, with its own colour scheme and shots able to be selected? The Marvel movies are allowed to do so these days: Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t look like Captain America: The Winter Solider and Iron Man doesn’t look like Thor: Ragnarok. So why should the Netflix shows be chained to different rules. It’s strange, and keeps The Punisher from ticking another box that could so easily be marked off.
However, this is a small concern and doesn’t impact ones enjoyment of the show in any real way. This is a tremendous start to a series that already possessed incredible promise, and while there’s little chance that Lightfoot meant The Punisher as a didactic endeavour, it should be seen none the less as instructional by both Marvel and Netflix, teaching them how shows such as this should be executed.