Netflix’s first season of The Punisher picks up where Season 2 of Daredevil left off, in a world where everyone thinks Frank Castle is dead and that’s just fine with him.
For those entering Netflix’s Marvel universe for the first time, here’s what you need to know: Frank Castle, an ex-Marine who fought in Afghanistan, transformed into The Punisher after his family was gunned down as part of a drug deal sting operation gone bad. Frank then goes after those responsible, becoming a vicious vigilante who lives by by the code of “an eye for an eye.”
As the latest series in Netflix’s ongoing Marvel saga, The Punisher is unbelievably visceral, particularly after the overly chatty misfire of The Defenders. Jon Bernthal continues to impress as Frank Castle, his brute physicality serving as a mask for a deeply wounded and surprisingly sensitive soul. On his solo series foray, he is both pitted against and paired with two people: an NSA analyst known as “Micro” (David Lieberman, portrayed by Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), an Iranian-American agent with the Department of Homeland Security.
The Punisher utilizes a good mix of practical and digital effects to gruesome, almost unbearable effect. People are shot, stabbed, beaten, bludgeoned and eviscerated by bombs. Precisely because the series looks so incredible—filmed like a well-crafted blockbuster, rather than a run-of-the-mill police procedural—the audience cowers at each wound and cringes at every casualty. This is not a show for the squeamish. Lieberman’s reaction to one scene where Frank’s life-threatening injuries are tended to reveals that while violence may be ubiquitous in this world, it’s not meant to be dismissed as normal.
Yet The Punisher is not violence porn. It addresses a wide array of issues that are relevant to current times. At the top of that list is the concept of faith in institutions, such as the police, government, and military. The overarching significance for the series’ particular questioning of that faith is the importance of the truth. In an era of “fake news” and propaganda, the parallels to real life are obvious.
On the one hand, there is the whistleblower angle of Micro’s dangerous quest to reveal the truth; on the other is the idea that the truth is whatever the people in charge say it is. The ongoing question of who are the “real” villains in the story is a large part of The Punisher’s continuum.
The Punisher also tackles PTSD among military veterans in a way that is horrifying and heartbreaking. Castle is compared, through narratives and themes, to a young vet named Lewis Wilson (portrayed with eerie clarity by Daniel Webber). Lewis belongs to a support group for recent vets trying to acclimatize themselves to civilian life, and the various interactions of the group and its leader Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) show the devastating impact war has on the male psyche.
The politics of racism are an integral, though far more subtle, part of the series. Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), a paralegal turned journalist, is one of the few people who believe that Frank Castle is not a terrorist. By depicting Castle’s crusade and Wilson’s breakdown as two sides of the same coin, the show raises difficult questions about what truly defines a terrorist. White men on US soil, not people of color, are depicted as the biggest threats in this series
One of the members of the support group is O’Connor (Delaney Williams), a man who epitomizes the stereotypical Trump supporter: he’s an NSA fanatic who hates liberals and thinks that the government is a group of “tyrants.” His rhetoric becomes a cancer which spreads amongst those whose fragile masculinity and misplaced faith make them dangerous.
Toxic masculinity is also examined on The Punisher. Karen expresses disdain for “guys who don’t like the way the world works and do whatever they like.” Women are continually being silenced, disbelieved, gaslighted, and victim-blamed. As Dinah remarks to her boss at DHS, “the truth is what brought us here, but no one wants to hear it.” However, the women in the world of The Punisher serve as a moral compass, often saving the male characters while still retaining their integrity, but never being portrayed as infallible.
Moral codes are a fundamental aspect of the series. As Frank’s ex-Marine friend Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) states early on: “Stay in any war long enough and you get dirty.” The morality of war is questioned continually throughout the series. People are shown to lose parts of themselves as a result of war, whether physically (Curtis Hoyle’s leg) or emotionally (Lewis Wilson, Frank Castle, and others). The show is painted in shades of grey, a world in which there are no true heroes or true villains.
While The Punisher boasts excellent acting, compelling action, and plausible storylines, it does feel stretched out. The slowly developed and frequently complex relationships between characters are well-handled but they could also have been significantly tightened. Thirteen episodes fare far better than the standard network length of 22, but this length is not necessarily appropriate for every show.
The use of Metallica’s “One” in the trailer feels the most germane to the trajectory of the show, even though it does not appear in any of the episodes. The video for Metallica’s single was originally released in 1989, and featured clips from the 1971 film adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. The soldier transformed into a mindless killing machine who exists only to serve, and to suffer, is the unpleasant reality at the core of this show.
When you have nothing but a war inside of you, where does the killing end? While The Punisher asks this question, it does not definitively answer it, despite the resolution of many of the main storylines of the series. In that way it is, ironically, one of the more satisfying of Netflix’s Marvel shows thus far.