Film Review: Marvel's The Punisher

After exacting revenge on those responsible for the death of his wife and children, Frank Castle uncovers a conspiracy that runs far deeper than New York’s criminal underworld • 4/5

Skull-cracking: Jon Bernthal is Frank Castle/Punisher
Skull-cracking: Jon Bernthal is Frank Castle/Punisher

As the comic book giant Marvel continue their forward march of pop culture domination across various media – spreading their comics-originated IP to scurry over like money-making gremlins to cinemas and TV screens – its latest long-form, binge-friendly project can in fact boast of hitting the jackpot in more ways than one.

First debuting on the small screen in the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil – the series that would inaugurate the ‘House of M’s collaboration with the streaming service Netflix – Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle/Punisher now gets a show of his own.

And as it tends to be the case with the psychologically scarred and entirely merciless vigilante, this time it’s all about “unfinished business”.

Following his misadventures with the ideologically-opposite Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Matthew Cox) and after avoiding a lifetime in prison (in large part thanks to the sympathetic ear of journalist Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), Frank Castle (Bernthal) has eased up on his killing spree of every criminal in sight and agreed to lay low. Taking on the monicker of ‘Pete Castiglione’, Castle spends his days hammering away at a construction site, and his nights drinking himself to sleep in a desperate attempt to assuage the swirling, painful memories of his family – all of which were murdered in cold blood following Frank’s apparently permanent return from military service in Afghanistan.

Home(land)-coming queen: Amber Rose Revah as the tireless agent Dinah Madani
Home(land)-coming queen: Amber Rose Revah as the tireless agent Dinah Madani

Having burned through most of the organised crime rings in New York during his expansive vigilante mission, Castle is keen not to draw attention to himself. But the mysterious and technologically-savvy David ‘Micro’ Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) has other plans for our rugged anti-hero. Claiming to be on a covert mission of his own that would be of mutual interest to both of them, he eventually convinces the doggedly solitary Frank to consider some of his discoveries.  Namely, that the death of Frank’s family may have had less to do with a random mob hit and more with his own (at times highly dubious) role in the ‘war effort’ in the Middle East.

As Liebermann watches his own family through carefully-installed cameras around the house – his wife, Sarah (Jaime Ray Newman) and their two kids believe him to be dead – the unlikely duo now come face-to-face with a wide array of dangerous obstacles and dangerous people... from the top brass of the topmost corrupt branch of the CIA in ‘Agent Orange’ (Paul Schulze) to the determined Homeland agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah)... who appears to be after the same targets as Frank, though their methods differ wildly.

And how will Frank’s fellow military survivors Curtis (Jason R. Moore; now running a veteran rehab centre) and Billy (Ben Barnes; now running a successful private military operation), fit into the picture?

The biggest win for this latest iteration of The Punisher is showrunner Steve Lightfoot’s desire to run with a re-jig of the protagonist’s origin story, in a way that lends topical currency to what would otherwise have been generic vigilante fare.

By injecting an element of critique for the American military-industrial complex, the show circumvents the problems of melodrama and redundancy that have plagued previous Punisher adaptations and, arguably, neutralised them into utter irrelevance. This is because both the well-meaning 2004 Thomas Jane adaptation as well as the more recent, Ray Stevenson-starring Punisher: War Zone were franchise non-starters (though we’ll concede that the very, very first one of the lot, starring Dolph Lundgren and released in 1989, remains a slice of B-movie joy).

Viewers who got a chance to meet Bernthal’s Punisher in the Daredevil series will be familiar with the actor’s on-point blend of the savage – his wounded howl is one for the ages – and the vulnerable – his pursed lips and half-wink in moments that call for either sarcasm or sheepishness is a winner – and it’s a joy to see him unspool these talents even further in this stand-alone series. Ironically enough, the actor gets more berth to showcase these features in a show about a mass-murdering vigilante than he did in the likes of The Wolf of Wall Street, Fury and Baby Driver – where he performed adequately but was given somewhat one-note roles to start with.

Soldier boys: Jason R. Moore and Ben Barnes
Soldier boys: Jason R. Moore and Ben Barnes

It’s a good thing, too, because Frank is something of a tough cookie to be strung along by; his morally-questionable methods are baked into the very concept of what the character is about, and Berthnal’s complex portrayal goes a long way to salve that. But the jittery “pain in the ass” that is Micro also does his bit to tip the balance – a former NSA analyst trained to fight with keyboards and not guns, some comedy does emerge from him being way over his head but – even more crucially – he’s an excellent foil to Frank, and a voice of reason too (though as the situation escalates, the opposite also becomes true).

As both the good and the bad elements within the legal and enforcement establishment close in on their respective targets along with Frank and Micro, the show succeeds in calibrating our interest to a fever pitch; blending in the personal and the political and lending a complex shade to Frank’s traditionally uni-directional quest for revenge.

For this reason above all, a second season will be a challenge to pull off. But if Marvel’s commitment to keeping things fresh doesn’t waver – aided along by the little universe of ‘urban heroes’ they’ve already established, and which reached its first peak with this year’s The Defenders – viewers should have very little to worry about.

Single(?) White Female: Jamie Ray Newman is Sarah Lieberman
Single(?) White Female: Jamie Ray Newman is Sarah Lieberman

Marvel’s The Punisher series is a tightly-woven and bloodily told little saga that can stand proudly among the best of what the entertainment monolith has helped produce so far – on both the big and small screen. Aided by a great writers’ room endowed with a keen sense of what makes viewers tick, along with sensitive and on-point performances from its actors all-round, this show is one binge-watching experience whose 13-odd hours you won’t regret losing to the streaming service.


Marvel’s The Punisher is currently streaming on Netflix

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