Basically: A methodical, tautly written revenge story turned crime drama that hurts because of its unflinching truth.
Marvel’s The Punisher is a difficult series to review—for a lot of reasons. While the other Marvel Netflix shows are crime dramas with more than a little grittiness, The Punisher takes on notes of revenge films and explorations of veteran trauma. These genres add a bleakness to the story of Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) that, at times, is hard to watch because it’s so emotionally wrought.
America is also facing the agony of a series of horrific public shootings, and we still haven’t learned how to begin the conversation about “safe gun laws”—laws that will protect everyone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as much as their right to bear arms in a well regulated militia. The Punisher is brutal (like Death Wish to the fifth power with better visual fx). Frank takes people out with sledgehammers, guns, and pure cold-bloodedness. His quest for revenge is riveting and merciless and, as the bullets blast through bodies, it’s hard to know how to feel about it during times like these.
See? It’s difficult. So let’s start at the beginning. Frank Castle has faked his own death and is living as a construction worker by the name of Pete. With everything Frank has been through, of course he’s a little weird, and enjoys demolition a little too much. As always, the weird quiet person who takes on too much overtime attracts life’s assholes: Bring on the goons! The goons lead to bigger criminals and those crimelords lead Frank to a conspiracy that goes all the way back to his military days. By the time episode six ends we’re left to wonder if Frank’s thirst for revenge will ever be quenched or if it’ll just grow deeper and wider until it swallows everybody he loves.
The Punisher, the man, is not a hero. Which means his series could never be a superhero story. In Marvel’s The Punisher each of the tropes we’re used are flipped. Frank gains a sidekick who’s manipulating him and is definitely not everyone’s favorite character. Frank himself is kind of a Mary Sue, with love interests in every corner of his world, but we kind of want him to stay away from each of them so they don’t get hurt. And above all, the killing seems to quiet his rage rather than fuel him to elevate himself. Frank Castle is not a hero, he’s not simply a vigilante either. We could call him an anti-hero or we could call him an anti-villain. There’s no easy answer and that is the beauty of The Punisher. We, as the audience, have to think through every tough call Frank makes. There are consequences—in a world as messed up as his, no decision is going to be right for everyone and the greater good just might be on the wrong side of a bullet…but probably not.
The cast is strong. We already know Jon Bernthal is amazing in the lead role but then we also get Jason R. Moore’s wounded warrior-angel Curtis Hoyle, Amber Rose Revah‘s unstoppable agent Dinah Madan, and the heartstompingly broken veteran Lewis Walcott played by Daniel Webber.
Marvel’s The Punisher is a methodical, tautly written revenge story turned crime drama that hurts because of its unflinching truth. If there is a drawback, it’s how dismal the show makes life for Frank and everyone around him (especially the veterans)—the series is relentless. As a viewer who cares for these characters you’ll want to take breaks; even while you recognize the irony of the fact the characters themselves don’t get a break. Overall the series could use a bit of David Simon-style sparkle by adding moments of levity that let you know things are bad but not all bad.
In the end: Marvel’s The Punisher is tough to watch but the performances and its truth make it well worth it, and the hope of redemption will keep you binging late into the night.