Starring: Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/The Punisher, Ebon Moss-Bachrach as David Lieberman/Micro, Ben Barnes as Billy Russo, Amber Rose Revah as Dinah Madani, and Michael Nathanson as Sam Stein
Set some time after his debut in season 2 of Daredevil, the beginning of season one of Frank Castle’s own solo series finds the titular vigilante (presumed dead after the events of the aforementioned Daredevil season) working construction under the assumed identity of Pete Castiglione. A series of events one day at work pulls Frank back into the world of armed vigilantism, and also leads to one of the best kills in the series. Frank is assisted in his efforts by former NSA analyst turned whistleblower David Lieberman and New York Bulletin reporter (and perennial Marvel Netflix crossover character) Karen Page. While working to get to the center of a government conspiracy that involves several of his former platoon mates and high ranking intelligence figures, Frank is also being tracked by DHS agent Dinah Madani and her bumbling idiot cliche partner Sam Stein.
The recent Marvel offerings from Netflix have been somewhat lacking. I had meant to review Iron Fist, but avoided it because it was, to put it bluntly, just awful. It suffers from bad pacing, bad writing, bad acting, bad direction, and frankly I just didn’t feel like drafting yet another negative review. The Defenders was decent, but suffered from some pacing issues, feeling a bit too slow during the first half of the series, and then too rushed during the second half. At least from my point of view. It also suffered from some rather cringe inducing moments, such as Matt Murdock yet again lapsing into abused spouse territory with regard to Elektra, and a general feeling of cheapness. This coming off the back of two good seasons of Daredevil, one of Jessica Jones, and a cheesy albeit incredibly entertaining season of Luke Cage. So, with two down and bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, Marvel has sent up its ringer. How did old Frank fare? Well, to put it bluntly: eh.
Bernthal is a decent enough Frank Castle. In fact, most of the actors work pretty well in their respective roles. The problems with The Punisher stem more from the writing. Sam Stein, for instance, is written as an insufferable buffoon. He is stupid and brushes up against being unlikeable to the point that it is something of a relief when the character is killed off. The loss of the corrupt, but still somehow likable Detective Scarfe in Luke Cage carried more impact. Madani, who is supposed to be an agent that is talented and skilled beyond her years, often comes across as a bumbling, gullible rookie herself. There also seems to be some effort being made here to make the character of Frank Castle more complex, and I have to ask why. There is no need. Frank is a vigilante, pure and simple. He watched his family die at the hands of mobsters, and he systematically hunts them down and kills them. The Death Wish style revenge fantasy is what makes him appealing. You don’t have to be familiar with a complex mythology to get into a character like the Punisher. It’s something that is easily understood and speaks to people on an almost primal level. The show could have done without the ridiculous military conspiracy layer. Also somewhat concerning was the lack of an interesting villain. After Fisk, Black Mariah, Cottonmouth, and The Hand, we get what? A standard issue shady government bureaucrat, a scrawny kid with PTSD, and an uninteresting pre disfigurement version of Billy Russo (Jigsaw) who has been recast as some sort of private security contractor.
Then there are things like set designs and the action. It seems like with each successive series they do, Marvel cuts the budgets more and more. It started to crop up as an issue in season 2 of Daredevil, but really became glaringly obvious with Iron Fist. Unfortunately, it’s still on display here. The entire season suffers from a general feeling of cheapness. That cheapness really shows in the rather spare set designs that are often disguised with low lighting. It’s also evident in the series distinct lack of action. Yes, lack of action in a series about a character who is essentially the offspring of Paul Kersey and Harry Callahan on a steroid supplement. When the Jon Bernthal version of Frank Castle was first introduced in Daredevil, we were treated to scene after scene of very visceral violence. From the hospital massacre, to the torture at the hands of the Irish mafia, to the incredibly graphic prison fight. In the character’s own solo series, however, we seem to get none of that. Perhaps it’s my own affinity for splatter horror, but I was greatly looking forward to a season filled with incredibly graphic scenes of over the top gangsters meeting their end at the hands of the titular vigilante. What I was instead treated to was a slow paced police procedural/conspiracy thriller hybrid. Yes, there were certainly a few graphic sequences, a robber taking a sledgehammer to the head, a mentally disturbed 20 years past the point of relevance Tim McVeigh reference who blows himself up in a hotel freezer, and a scene where Frank slides Billy Russo’s face slowly and roughly across broken glass, but there was just too much dull exposition and meandering dialogue between these scenes. I guess that’s just what happens though, when you decide to make a series on a shoestring budget about a character whose stock in trade is over the top violence.
I know it sounds like I am just dumping on this show, but I honestly didn’t hate it. It was passable for what it was, and what it was was a slow paced and somewhat clumsy procedural/conspiracy thriller hybrid that occasionally showed Frank Castle plying his trade. It’s certainly not binge worthy, but if you’ve got an hour or two to kill, you could find worse things to watch than a couple of episodes of The Punisher (Iron Fist is still on Netflix).