After more than two years and six seasons of (mostly) successful series, Marvel and Netflix have established an impressive track record with their street-level cinematic universe based on some of the comic publisher’s hard-luck heroes.
Much like their cinematic counterparts, the shows have won over audiences by simultaneously staying faithful to characters with decades of comic-book history and making those characters’ stories accessible to newcomers. It’s not an easy line to walk, but the stumbles have been few and far between up to this point.
The latest addition to that universe, The Punisher, just might be the most true to its source material of all the shows so far — but it could very well be the most polarizing series to come out of that universe, too.
Set after the events of the second season of Daredevil, The Punisher brings back Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle, a U.S. Marine who wages a one-man war against crime after his family is killed in the crossfire of a botched drug deal. Presumed dead following his disappearance at the end of Daredevil, Frank attempts to move on with his life only to be pulled back into a new war at home when he discovers that his family’s death might not have been a random tragedy, and might actually be tied to his own bloody past and a far-reaching government conspiracy.
Hannibal executive producer and writer Steve Lightfoot serves as showrunner on the series, which also features Daredevil actress Deborah Ann Woll reprising her role as reporter Karen Page, as well as a large cast of new additions to Marvel’s live-action universe.
Building on his breakout performance in Daredevil, Bernthal further establishes himself in The Punisher as the best on-screen version of Frank Castle to date. Bernthal’s version of Frank is a visceral interpretation of the character that never buries his simmering rage too deeply — even in the series’ calmer moments. He looks most comfortable in the midst of a firefight, relentlessly slashing, stabbing, and brutally goring anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path.
Bernthal’s version of Frank is prone to guttural roars that seem to well up from a dark, primitive place, and he makes these savage sounds seem more natural to his character than any dialogue he utters.
The Punisher has been presented in different forms over the years with different backstories and motivations that informed his one-man war against crime, but at his core, Frank has always been a deeply damaged man. He never left the war, and instead, he took it with him from Vietnam, Afghanistan, or countless other battlefields back to the streets and alleys of his own country and put it to use in a far more personal mission.
That theme looms large over The Punisher, in much the same way the nature of vigilantism shaped the conversation running through the first season of Daredevil and the trauma of rape informed the story at the heart of Jessica Jones. The Punisher explores not only Frank’s search for post-war purpose, but the plight of veterans who find themselves desperately in need of something — a cause, a campaign, a person, or anything, really — to give them direction after they come home.
It’s not the only important, real-world theme along those lines that the series explores, but it’s the one the season handles with the most nuance and careful consideration.
For his part, Bernthal does a fantastic job of giving that frustration felt by veterans a tangible presence in The Punisher, and it’s a testament to his performance that he does most of the heavy lifting — literally and figuratively — in the season-long story arc without a prominent villain to play against. Where the first season of Daredevil had Vincent D’Onofrio’s criminal kingpin Wilson Fisk and Jessica Jones had David Tennant’s sinister mutant Kilgrave, The Punisher pits its protagonists against a less-specific threat centered around a shadowy government operation.
Fortunately, Bernthal delivers a strong enough performance that it doesn’t really matter who the enemy is, because you can’t take your eyes off him.
That’s not to say that The Punisher surrounds Bernthal with a weak cast. Far from it, in fact.
As a former NSA analyst who teams with Frank to expose the covert operation that stole both of their families, actor Ebon Moss-Bachrach holds his own in the scenes he shares with Bernthal. His portrayal of David Lieberman (aka “Micro”) is a mesh of hacker paranoia, modern skepticism, and nervous humor that manages to be both entertaining and fascinating when it’s thrown up against Bernthal’s brooding, hulking protagonist.
Amber Rose Revah also delivers a good performance as a Department of Homeland Security agent who’s pulled into Frank’s mission of vengeance when a case she’s investigating is linked to the same covert operation from his past. The role is an important one that anchors one of the season’s major narrative threads, and her performance is strong enough to give that narrative the weight it requires.
Despite all of these strong performances, however, The Punisher still suffers a bit from some clumsy handling of hot-button topics.
While the series deserves to be commended for how it tackles the plight of veterans in their struggle to adapt to civilian life, The Punisher shows no such nuance when it comes to one of today’s most controversial topics: gun control.
It makes sense that a heavily armed vigilante with an affinity for murdering bad guys would have strong opinions on the Second Amendment, but rather than give the topic the sort of measured, thought-provoking discussion that Daredevil provided on the subject of vigilantism, for example, The Punisher takes the easy way out. Not only does the controversial subject feel shoehorned into the season’s story arc, but the discussion that spins out of it amounts to a heavy-handed, casual condemnation of one side of the debate that falls short of the high standard of discourse set by previous Marvel series.
Instead of exploring the unique perspective on guns that veterans might bring to the table, for example, The Punisher instead opts to paint any character who shows a lack of experience with guns or an inclination toward stricter gun laws as bumbling and naive. Given how heated the debate around this topic can get, the show’s shallow dive into the subject seems half-hearted at best, and insensitive at worst — especially given that Marvel has shown a knack for exploring controversial themes with impressive nuance in the past.
Although The Punisher fails to live up to that particular high mark set by Marvel in previous shows, it breaks the mold in other ways (for better or worse) when it comes to the level of raw violence the show brings to the screen.
In keeping with the historic tone of Frank Castle’s comic book adventures, The Punisher features the most graphic violence of any Marvel series to date, and not by a small margin. Frank bludgeons, shoots, and slices his way through his enemies over the course of the 13-episode season, and the camera consistently lingers an extra second on the gruesome results of his rage. Bones audibly (and visibly) break, cartilage and tissue are pulped, and blood spatters with the sort of frequency that makes most current shows known for scenes of graphic violence (Game of Thrones, for example) seem tame in comparison.
This level of violence feels like something new for Marvel’s live-action universe, which now seems to have been priming audiences for exactly this sort of viewing experience with a memorably brutal prison sequence featuring Bernthal’s character in the second season of Daredevil. That scene felt like the rare exception to some sort of self-imposed standard in Marvel’s cinematic universe at the time, but The Punisher makes it clear that no such rule exists as it revels in every gory moment.
More so than any live-action Marvel series so far, The Punisher feels like a very different corner of that cinematic universe, one where the stakes are infinitely higher for everyone involved — heroes and villains — and the difference between the two is more difficult than usual to discern. The series features incredible performances, particularly by Bernthal, but the characters they play and the world they inhabit occasionally feel too bogged down in their own darkness to coexist in the same world as Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, or even Daredevil.
Make no mistake: The Punisher ranks among the best series to come out of Marvel’s live-action universe on Netflix, but the elements that make it truly exceptional also happen to be some of its most divisive qualities.
The Punisher premieres Friday, November 17, on Netflix.
This article was originally posted on Digital Trends
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