It was with a great deal of trepidation that I awaited the debut of Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle, The Punisher, in the second season of Daredevil. I hadn’t been a great fan of the character over the years, but loved Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX comics (seriously, if you want to read some of the best shit Marvel published over the last twenty years, read it) and had seen all of the previous film attempts. When DD S2 premiered, I was overjoyed to see that Bernthal’s take on the character was easily the best ever and that first four-episode story arc that served as his introduction was the highpoint for the series. The rest of the season, with its focus on Elektra and The Hand, didn’t maintain the intensity, but whenever Frank appeared on-screen he was brilliant – particularly during a bloody and brutal prison fight scene that maybe outdid any of Daredevil’s various hallway/stairway battles, if only for the fact that Frank was flat-out murdering a bunch of motherfuckers. Ultimately, while Bernthal nailed everything about the character all season, the writing fell apart at the climax as Frank’s story turned on a cliché betrayal by his superiors that you could see coming from a mile away, plus a handy-dandy weapon’s cache fell into his hands. And that final appearance on the rooftop was cringe-worthy. So when The Punisher was announced as a solo-series, there was another great deal of trepidation. He had found and killed nearly everybody responsible for the death of his wife and kids, he was wearing a costume of sorts, and had been indoctrinated into the superhero world of Marvel’s Netflix shows. There was even a rumor that he could turn up in The Defenders. Thankfully, that never happened and he wasn’t handcuffed to the mediocrity of that show. Instead, we got Steve Lightfoot, an executive producer on Hannibal (he also co-wrote most of the final two seasons of that show) as showrunner and assurances that aside from appearances by Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and a couple of other smaller side characters, The Punisher would not cross over into the rest of the Marvel Netflix world. Then it was announced that Ben Barnes was cast as Billy Russo, and if you’re a comics reader, you might know Russo as Jigsaw, one of the Punisher’s most iconic villains (played by Dominic West in Punisher: War Zone), so there were a number of potential approaches to the story that could have been taken. Under Lightfoot’s guidance, The Punisher just might be the best live-action anything that Marvel has produced. There’s a lot of talk online about how the series opens slow (or boring) and if someone tells you that, don’t buy them drinks and especially don’t go home with them. The Punisher begins with Frank tying up the loose ends from Daredevil S2, tracking down and murdering the last remnants of the biker gang, The Dogs of Hell, the last survivor of the Mexican Cartel, and the last Kitchen Irish mobster before jumping six months into the future to see where Frank is now. And it’s not a nice place. It’s relatively peaceful but despite killing everyone involved in his family’s murder he’s not at peace. He’s haunted by nightmares and spends 12 hours a day breaking down walls with a sledgehammer on a construction site. The only person he actually talks to is an old military buddy, Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) who runs a support group for vets. And this is where we get to the heart of the series. While a large part of this show is about Frank murdering bad guys, there may be more here about dealing with loss, guilt, and trauma. Taking a page straight out of the Hannibal playbook, Lightfoot understands that Frank can’t be played one-dimensionally despite the fact that most of the history of The Punisher in both comics and movies have opted to go that route. What we’re getting at this point is still a young version of the character, in his thirties and only a year or two out from losing his family and his life. Daredevil S2 tried to establish that Frank wasn’t suffering from PTSD, but that he was simply seeking revenge that nothing would keep him from, but here we start to see that there was something building inside him even before his family was killed. In much the same way Garth Ennis builds Franks character in Punisher MAX, Lightfoot expands on Frank’s actual time in Afghanistan and we see that he wasn’t just the brave soldier who single-handedly saved his unit from a botched mission. We see that mission in episode 3, “Kandahar,” and we watch as Frank loses a part of himself, or maybe instead frees a monstrous part, and becomes a savage animal, killing and killing until he barely even seems human. It’s a heartbreaking moment where we see what Ennis called “The Great Beast” in his Punisher MAX: Born miniseries, examining Frank’s time in Vietnam. This reveal is combined with the fact that this wasn’t any ordinary mission. It was the latest in a long line of illegal snatch and grabs of Afghanis who are then tortured, executed, and buried in unmarked graves. Despite knowing that what he’s doing is wrong, Frank continues to follow orders until this last mission, where he snaps. But it’s another soldier, Gunner Henderson (Jeb Kreager), who steps up and secretly records the torture and murder of an Afghan police officer who has stumbled upon their heroin smuggling operation. It’s the discovery of this video that actually triggered the targeting of Frank and his family, as the CIA-operative in charge, Agent Orange (Paul Schulze) and Major Schoonover (Clancy Brown) believed Frank was responsible. But Frank doesn’t know any of this. Still believing that his family was killed to cover up the heroin smuggling, it’s not until he is contacted by another dead man, David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who goes by the codename Micro to conceal his identity after faking is his own death a year earlier. Micro is a hacker and former NSA analyst who is responsible for getting the video out and into the hands of Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah). So, essentially we have three people all hunting for Agent Orange. Frank for revenge, Lieberman so he can protect and return to his family, and Madani for justice, since the Afghan cop being tortured and murdered in the video was her friend. It’s her pursuit of this case that has gotten her sent back to the States. In the meantime, we also have a side story about a young soldier back from Afghanistan who is having serious trouble adapting to life as a civilian. Lewis Wilson (Daniel Webber) serves as a vehicle for the series to explore the problems of real soldiers dealing with PTSD and provides some of the most harrowing and disturbing moments in the first half of the series as he struggles with nightmares, suicidal urges, and erratic behavior. He’s a part of Hoyle’s support group but gets swayed by the anti-government gun-rights rhetoric of another group member, O’Connor (Delaney Williams). When Wilson finally snaps, the series loses a little bit of its intense focus and becomes a more traditional Marvel Netflix series, as Wilson begins threatening Karen Page’s life, drawing Frank out into the open to keep her safe. Episodes 9 and 10 signal this shift and those viewers hoping for more heroic action sequences and a more familiar Punisher will get everything they’re hoping for as the series wraps. At the same time, we also get a version of Billy Russo that is radically different from both the comics and previous film appearances. In The Punisher, Russo is one of Frank’s oldest friends. They’re practically brothers, and while we see that Russo isn’t actually what he pretends to be, he’s also given a surprising amount of depth. This show continues Marvel’s and Netflix’s emphasis on creating villains for their shows who are just as complex and interesting as the heroes. So when his betrayal is revealed to Frank it’s a gut-punch that pushes their relationship into another realm. And the finale sees both characters left in places that can provide an intense and violent catalyst for a second series. While there’s a lot of heavy drama here, punctuated by bloody and sometimes nightmarish violence, there are also some lighter moments, mostly between Frank and Micro as they spend a lot of time in Micro’s secret lair. Their relationship starts rocky, of course, but once they begin to trust one another we are treated to a side of Frank that doesn’t get out much. Highlights are a scene involving a road trip and a sandwich and then another where they get drunk together and we learn maybe a little too much about Micro. Let’s just say, Micro ain’t all that micro. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this is the peak of Marvel’s Netflix series. It takes the emotional and psychological complexity of Jessica Jones and expands upon it. It takes the questioning of violence as a means to an end and the nature of vigilantism of Daredevil and autopsies it. It takes the texturing and detail work of creating a living, breathing world of Luke Cage and makes it just as integral to developing character and creating relationships as Cage did. And it pretty much skips anything that Iron Fist or Defenders brought to the table as it rightly should. It’s the first Marvel Netflix series to actually utilize all 13 episodes in a way that never feels like it’s spinning its wheels or doesn’t know where it’s heading – despite what you hear from those mouthbreathers who say it’s boring. This is peak Marvel, whether we’re talking television or film. Whenever there’s the chance of a cliche sneaking in, the writers are totally aware of it and subvert it to create believability and to humanize the characters. I feel no hesitation in saying that it’s the best thing Marvel has done yet. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.