The Punisher Season 1 Review:
Be warned of spoilers ahead …
The Punisher wasn’t one of the original Marvel Netflix series announced back in 2013. After Frank Castle’s introduction in Daredevil Season 2, like many fans I wanted to see him in his own solo show. The Marvel Netflix series have both strengths and weaknesses. A common critique I have with some of the weaker Marvel Netflix series is that the main character (eg. Iron First) isn’t fully realized and/or there isn’t enough story to sustain a full 13 episode season. Despite some flaws, The Punisher hits the mark on the central character and to a lesser extent stretches out the story a bit better until the finale.
To see Frank Castle in another angle, he not only lost his family but his nation, military and brothers-in-arms he was willing to die for betrayed him. In Inferno, Dante believed the lowest level of hell are for those who betray, even lower than the level for those who commit violence. The tragedy is captured in Jon Bernthal’s excellent portrayal as Frank Castle. He’s completely committed to the role both physically and mentally. In an interview Bernthal reveals some insight about combat veterans with PTSD: “But it’s when the mission ends, it’s the quiet afterwards. It’s going to sleep. It’s returning home. That’s when the war inside begins.”
The above mentioned ideas are explored in the two main adversarial story lines. Lewis Wilson started out as a harrowing depiction of a former soldier with PTSD. This story line went off track when it didn’t fully explain the psychological underpinnings of how Lewis went from directing his trauma inward to externalizing it against the world as a terrorist. When the writing stopped trying to connect with Lewis as a potentially complex, messed-up character, I stopped connecting too. Instead, he became an obstacle for The Punisher to overcome. The power of that story line didn’t reach its full potential. However, it did show a dark path of what could happen to Frank Castle if he crossed that line between killing bad guys and innocent people indiscriminately.
The other baddies aren’t the greatest either. William Rawlins is a one-dimensional bad guy. I wasn’t big on the twist that Billy Russo turned out to be evil, although I realize the show is setting up a super villain from the comics. Out of all the villains in the Marvel Netflix series so far Billy Russo has the most personal history with the lead character. In order to be betrayed, there needs to be trust in the first place. And Frank trusted Billy like a brother. These two former marines/expert assassins have a common background but some serious character flaws brings Russo down a different, twisted path. Billy’s downfall lies in his vanity, greed, and arrogance. He always has something to prove, that desire to be better, to be best. This is not an uncommon trait in boys who were abandoned as a young child. It comes from a place of insecurity and low self-esteem.
There is a stretch of episodes where The Punisher needs to be doing more punishing. In every episode bodies should drop. But I guess in a 13 episode season there’s needs to be other dynamics at play so the show has built a supporting cast of characters around him. As much as I like that Curtis is an upstanding veteran who will always have Frank’s back, the best non-punishing scenes revolve around “Pete Castiglione”, Micro and his family. Frank knows his increasingly personal interactions with Sarah Lieberman is affecting a homesick Micro. Frank and Micro play off of each other really well. On closer inspection, there’s a subtle comedic subtext in some scenes where Frank and Micro are like a married couple. It’s fitting that both Frank and Micro lost their family, but only Frank can help Micro gets his family back.
How many blunders will it take for Dinah Madani to get fired? I don’t know how someone can get her whole team killed and still keep her job in Homeland Security. Another problem with Dinah is that the writing is trying hard to make her the second lead but it will always be The Punisher’s show. It’s kind of laughable Dinah’s involvement in the climatic fight between Frank and Billy. She shows up and gets shot. The show needs to get her in the thick of the story, driving the action instead of reacting to it. But that role is already filled by Frank. Actress Amber Rose Revah is doing decent work with the inadequate material she’s getting. Perhaps next season the writers can figure out how to better write for Dinah. You know, other than sleeping with the enemy.
The Punisher stars a great lead actor in a role that is receiving the justice it deserves. Season 1 does a respectable job at setting up the series to explore what keeps Frank Castle dangerously on the line between anti-hero and villain: His code. Him honoring his family and wrestling his inner demons. He’s not in search of redemption, he’s out for vengeance. There is certainly room for improvement in other areas. Some of the secondary characters need improvement and some story lines need to be fleshed out better to reach maximum impact. Overall The Punisher is a series that has a good enough foundation so that the follow up seasons can really take off. The punishing is just getting started.