Marvel and Netflix. Netflix and Marvel. A match made in Hell’s Kitchen, or so we thought. Initially we got gnarly, gritty dramas, fully deserving of their mature age rating.
The likes of Daredevil (both Seasons 1 and 2) and Jessica Jones were violent, dark, and uncompromising. Their stories dealt with unsettling concepts and having 13 episodes allowed characters like Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) depth and nuance that feature films of the genre often fail to capture.
Frankly, the antagonists of the series have always outshone their big screen counterparts and, as such, the Marvel/Netflix partnership was always seen by me as a vehicle for pushing boundaries that the 12A films could not.
But then the road got bumpy. The Defenders was meant to be the great culmination of four fantastic characters, each given their own time to breathe before joining forces. Neat concept, terrible execution. The series was bland, stretched thin (despite only having 8 episodes), and remarkably made Sigourney Weaver boring to watch. Go figure. It is with great pleasure then, that I can tell you The Punisher wants nothing to do with any of it. Thank God for that.
It’s a strong opening. We join Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) as he cleans up the rest of the gangs from Daredevil S2. Bikers, Cartel, one by one they fall, and you feel you could watch murder after murder and never get bored. However, as quickly as the show gets moving it slows to a halt. He’s done, it’s over, no more killing. For a show called The Punisher the punishing is kept to a surprising, yet sensible minimum.
This show is a slow burn, make no mistake, more concerned with government conspiracy than it is criminal witch hunts. There’s the evil CIA agent at the top, the ambitious FBI agent, the old friend-turned-enemy, and a whole host more of familiar character tropes to surround Castle with, but despite bordering the realms of familiarity, the show never feels stale or predictable. Much of this will come down to Castle’s penchant for violence. When your main character has no qualms with murder, all bets are off. His mantra is unwavering, and thus our time is not wasted with any overlong attempt to ‘help him see the light’. It’s the Punisher’s show, and no one’s going to take that away from him.
What we’re left with then is a gripping thriller, with twists and turns, explosive fire fights, and graphic executions. At the centre of it all is Jon Bernthal. F*** he’s good. Having followed his work from the early days of The Walking Dead, through various bit-parts in feature films, it’s good to see him finally stretch his wings. Frank Castle is haunted, deranged, caring and violent, and Bernthal nails every scene. From touching family flashbacks, to dragging a man’s face through shattered glass, the range on display is astounding: this is the American actor’s best work yet.
Surrounding him are an impressive supporting cast, most notably Amber Rose Revah’s Agent Madani, and Ben Barnes’ Billy Russo. The acting carries this show through it’s quieter moments, while the choreography of the louder ones makes them all the more memorable.
It’s not all good. Daredevil’s Karen Page primarily serves as a damsel in distress, whilst also muddying the water with a confusing mix of liberal journalism and pro-gun rhetoric. Furthermore, a senator advocating gun control is later portrayed to be a coward and somewhat of a hypocrite, leaving the show in a bit of a moral conundrum. By making the one advocate of gun control a weak, pathetic character, the show comes dangerously close to endorsing the actions of Castle. It does well to keep the contemporary politics to a minimum, though, and keeps the focus primarily on the role of entertainment.
It’s nasty, wonderfully violent, and surprisingly tender at times. The Punisher is a welcome addition to a universe it seemingly wants no part of.