Boxset Monday: Marvel’s The Punisher (season 1) (Netflix)

Please, sir, can I have some more punishment?

Marvel's The Punisher

The Punisher in all his incarnations has always been something of an accidental success. A former marine, Frank Castle turns lethal vigilante following the murder of his family by criminals, becoming judge, jury and executioner to those who would break the law. He had no powers, just his military training, a heap of weapons and a skull on his chest, and he was originally a bad guy – one of Spider-Man’s many badly becostumed adversaries in the early 70s.

Spider-Man and the Punisher

But it was that almost unique willingness to kill in comics that made him such a success that he eventually got his own comic and no fewer than three (pretty bad) film appearances, where he was played first by Dolph Lundgren, then Thomas Jane and finally Ray Stevenson.

However, his success ended for a while when a 2011 attempt by Fox to produce a TV series starring the character fell through.

But let’s now flash-forward to the era of Netflix and its Marvel superhero shows. The plan from the outset was very clear: there would be four one-season superhero shows – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist – which would then lead into a team-up show The Defenders.

The first sign everything was going off-plan was when Daredevil got a second season. It’s hard to tell whether that had been planned from the outset; however, it seems likely given

  1. Netflix awarded Daredevil another season only a week after its first season aired
  2. The whole plot of that second season is vital to the plot of The Defenders

Nevertheless, what definitely wasn’t part of the plan was the success of guest anti-hero/baddie The Punisher in that second season. That can be put down to the ‘lightning in a bottle’ casting of Jon Bernthal. Bernthal’s always been part of the supporting cast, never the lead.

He’s Andrew Lincoln’s best bud in The Walking Dead, not Andrew Lincoln.

He’s Ben Affleck’s brother in The Accountant, not Ben Affleck.

He’s the guy Andrea Anders rejects in The Class to go back to her husband (although he ends up with Lizzy Caplan so it’s not all bad).

But as Castle, Bernthal was the undoubted star of the second season of Daredevil, a brutal match for Charlie Cox’s gymnastic lead – a blue-collar grunt to Matt Murdock’s white-collar, morally-torn lawyer.

Bernthal so occupied the role that it’s hard to think of anyone else being able to play the character and it wasn’t long before Netflix and Marvel realised what they’d got and decided to break with the plan and commission Marvel’s The Punisher, with Bernthal as its lead.

Punishing?

The question was what form the show would take. Would it follow on, for example, from the comics’, the movies’ and season 2’s general theme of a man giving ‘the punishment they deserve’ to mobsters, rapists, paedophiles et al who seem to be above the law and escaping justice? Yet, how would a white man with a lethal arsenal shooting up cities go down in an age of the alt-right, MRAs and mass-shootings by white men who feel aggrieved by society? And how would it go down against the liberal backdrop of Netflix’s other shows: Daredevil stuck up for the poor and oppressed; Jessica Jones deconstructed superheroes, male power and sexual violence; Luke Cage asked what a black man can do for his community and others against both oppression and police shootings; and Iron Fist looked at the responsibilities of the rich towards the poor and the rest of the world.

The various trailers Netflix produced in the lead up to the show’s released seemed to suggest business as usual for Frank Castle – lots of gunfire against a rock soundtrack. And yet, oddly, that’s not what Marvel’s The Punisher is. For the most part, the show is instead the white, working class male’s equivalent of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. It’s a look at family, responsibility, friendship, parenting, class, class loyalty, what it is to be in the military and to have brothers-in-arms, the consequences of violence, and the role of government in helping the working class. And oddly, there’s very little punishment meted out.

Here are those moderately misleading and spoilerish trailers. Slightly less spoilerish review of all 13 episodes after the jump.

Stay on target

The Punisher is a meandering affair and an overly long one at that. It’s also got too many side-plots and too little action, and Frank Castle hardly feels like ‘The Punisher’ at all. It’s also got almost no connection to the rest of the Marvel TV universe, even to the extent of ignoring The Avengers’ ‘Incident’ and acting as if nothing catastrophic’s happened in New York since 9/11.

Yet, in the hands of showrunner Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal), it still has a lot to say for itself, offers us by far the best version of Frank Castle that we’ve seen and is often very smart. It’s also tonally the most similar Marvel Netflix show to the wonderful first season of Daredevil that we’ve had so far.

The first episode is effectively a reboot of what we’ve seen and the only real glimpse of ‘The Punisher’ that we see until the final couple of episodes. We start with the usual sort of damage we expect of Frank Castle, with our anti-hero going around killing off the remaining members of the cartel involved in the murder of his family. This switches between up close and personal fights through to sniping someone in Juarez while still in El Paso. It’s all very well done and raises expectations of more of the same to come.

After that, though, Frank’s mission is over. That’s it. Screw the criminals – that’s not the mission any more. So, since the world still thinks he’s dead, he goes off to become a brickie. Just like that. Beyond a bit of an altercation with some of his workmates, he’s hung up his skull for good, it seems.

The main plot of the rest of the season is then more or less utterly disconnected from both this and what we’ve seen before of Frank. There are no hints at the brain damage that might cause him to think he’s constantly at war that Daredevil developed. Instead, Frank finds out he’s being hunted by various people because of something he did in Afghanistan while on loan from Force Recon to the CIA. There’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach (last seen destroying humanity in The Last Ship) as an NSA analyst turned whistleblower, who’s gone to ground after sending a video of Frank’s unit torturing an Afghani police officer to the Department of Homeland Security and ended up getting shot for his pains.

Then there’s DHS agent Amber Rose Revah (House of Saddam, Indian Summers), the recipient of said-video who now wants to find whomever was responsible for that police officer’s murder. She thinks Castle might be alive, but she’s the only one at DHS, and her boss (C Thomas Howell) wants her to stick to more concrete issues.

Lastly, there’s the man who ran the operation and the interrogation (Paul Schulze of 24, The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie fame). He would soon take the war to both Castle and Moss-Bachrach, if he knew either of them was still alive – which he does soon enough.

Three familes

Initial episodes largely involve the establishment of the working relationship between Bernthal and Moss-Bachrach, who both have their own very special set of skills, the latter proving to be not just a smart computer hacker but a moderately good ‘spook’.

Fans of the comic won’t be too surprised to learn that Moss-Bachrach is Micro (Chip), despite the significant change in backstory and his lack of ‘Dalek’ (those references will probably enable the reader to establish exactly when I used to read Punisher comics back in the day); the battle van comes relatively quickly, though. Almost whole episodes are simple two-handers between Bernthal and Moss-Bachrach, stuck in a basement lair, talking about their lives, feelings, concerns and families, like two soldiers on down time before battle.

However, Micro’s family still thinks he’s dead and Castle ends up ingratiating himself with Micro’s wife Jaime Ray Newman (Mind Games, Wicked City) and children, effectively making them a surrogate for his own deceased family. A surprisingly large part of the season is then about how this plays with Moss-Bachrach, who was never the kind of dad to play football with his son or mend the plumbing as Castle does, as well as with Castle himself as he reawakens old memories and old skills at fatherhood. Here, the show asks what it means to be a good father and what effect being in the military can have on a man. Frank is the ideal dad it seems, but he lacks Moss-Bachrach’s kindness and when he has to teach Newman’s son not to be a bully, it’s clear his diminishing empathy means he doesn’t have the skills any more.

As well as many frequent flashbacks to Castle’s own family, often in dreams and nightmares, there is a third family for the Punisher: his former squad mates. These include Jason R Moore, a former Corpsman who lost his leg in the line of duty and now runs a support group for former members of the military, and Ben Barnes (Westworld, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian), Castle’s near-brother and former Force Recon member, who now runs a private security company. The responsibilities and closeness of this family’s members are a major concern of the show. The government isn’t going to help them, so they have to help each other. But what happens when one of their number can’t cope?

Uncontrolled

Oddly, that’s a major storyline for the show, almost totally disconnected from the main plot, as young vet Daniel Webber (Lee Harvey Oswald in 11.22.63) slowly comes off the rails, struggling first to find work at Barnes’ company before taking up with an older fellow vet (Delaney Williams) to speak up for the ‘one remaining oppressed minority: the white Christian American’, whom he believes the government is trying to destroy.

Here the show fumbles the ball a little. It’s all very exciting and leads to the season’s most impressive episode: a non-linear, Rashomon like piece about the terrorist incident Webber ultimately perpetrates. It also gives the show a chance to speak out against the use of violence by those who feel aggrieved by the state, as well as the need for proper care of those who return home from war.

Yet at the same time, it’s a very clumsy handling of the issues around gun control, presenting a strawman Senator who seems at first to be interested in banning all guns, not just some, allowing the show to deploy the unnecessary counter argument that guns aren’t the problem, it’s the people who use them – it even gets Castle’s only ally from Daredevil, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), to be the concealed-carrying voice of reason. The show does expand on the argument a little, but never gets as far as something more cogent around how to control guns or even just some of them.

Woll at least does seem to be a halfway decent journalist now. Better still, editor-in-chief Geoffrey Cantor is back and seems to be a semi-realistic editor for a change – sitting halfway between the complete tool of the first season of Daredevil and the wise mentor of the second season. He and Woll have some decent conversations about stories, when to publish, when not to, as well as the responsibilities of journalists.

The Punisher
Jon Bernthal and Deborah Ann Woll in Netflix’s Marvel’s The Punisher

Class

As well as the consequences of one’s actions, especially during war, The Punisher has one big theme running throughout: class. Whether that’s because Lightfoot’s a Brit or because there’s something intrinsic to Castle or Marvel that makes it so important, class crops up at every turn. Castle’s initial building site activities are all about status among blue collar men and who gets to be accepted into a group and why. He’s frequently rough on the street, among the homeless, and his excuse for losing his initial beard is ‘I hated looking like a hipster.’ The ‘dad-off’ between Castle and Micro is really about working class versus middle class parenting styles.

Meanwhile, Revah comes from a rich, upper middle class family with connections, which helps her climb the DHS ladder; Schulze comes from old money and regards the likes of Castle as a disposable grunt. Here the show has some sparky dialogue and interesting observations to make. Barnes is an orphan who’s passed through the fostering system and after he tells Revah his story while he’s in her expensive apartment, he adds: “You have the guilty look everyone middle class gets when they hear my story, just because you had all this and I didn’t.”

Aside from the glimpses at Castle’s family life, both his own and his surrogate, the main consideration of class is through his relationship with Barnes. Both are working class; both are equals of one another in terms of skills and training.

SPOILER ALERT

(spoiler alert) But Barnes is also in cahoots with Schulze and is ultimately the season’s ‘big bad’ – the metaphorical ‘evil twin’ of Frank. Here the show argues that Barnes is basically a class traitor. Unlike the broken-nosed brickie Castle, he’s pretty, looks good in a suit and works in the private sector. This alone doesn’t make him a bad guy, but it stops him from being a good guy. However, it’s his adoption of middle class attitudes to the working class and his lack of family ties, including any to former members of the military, that are the issue and the show is clear that when he ultimately gets his comeuppance and is turned into Punisher villain ‘Jigsaw’ at the very end of the season, it’s because he betrayed his class and needs to be made ugly so he can be reminded of where he came from.

Action

Despite ultraviolence virtually being the Punisher’s raison d’être in most media, the action throughout the season is spare, cropping up only every two or three episodes. When it comes, it’s as brutal as in Daredevil‘s first season, but mostly without the extreme sadism/masochism. And although the ability of everyone to take punishment and to recover from that punishment is hugely exaggerated, the show is keener to emphasise that Castle may be ex-special forces, but that doesn’t make him indestructible and everyone else a pushover. There are no equivalents to the iconic prison fight scene from Daredevil for example:

Instead, Castle struggles one-on-one with well-trained FBI agents and is frequently dealing with a fresh gun wound from whoever his latest opponent was.

This emphasis on one man not being an army to himself is refreshing, but it does rob The Punisher of his almost Terminator-like qualities – God spills blood and everyone knows He can be wounded and needs frequent transfusions of O- to keep going. There are exceptions, but even when Frank is functioning at his peak, the fact his enemies can thwart his ever-accurate sniping with mere bullet-proof glass means this is a battle of wits more than it is of sheer brawn. I like it, but it’s no more The Punisher than it is My Little Pony.

The Punisher

Marvel’s The Punisher is a smart show, a return to the quality of the first two Marvel Netflix seasons, with a strong cast, points to make and clichés to break. It gives us the best ever actor to play Frank Castle and the best ever version of one of his classic villains – possibly even his best ever villain.

It’s also a show that could do with being about five episodes shorter and losing pretty much everything to do with Webber and his entire plot, which feels more like a way to make Frank Castle a hero in what is a politically difficult time for a somewhat right-wing character. Revah’s character doesn’t quite gel, unsurprisingly given everything she has to carry on her shoulders, from being a representative of modern, Islamic women and Iranian-Americans through to a go-getting minority DHS agent navigating career pathways through to a collector of antique American cars. The show could also do with having some actual ‘punishment’.

Although it feels almost complete in itself, I’m hoping it gets a second season far more than I’m looking forward to a third season of Daredevil. There are enough standout moments towards the end of the season, clever decisions by the writers, realistic takes on society, the government and people, that it stands head and shoulders above that show’s second season and is nearly up there with the first.

If you can take the enormous run-time and enjoy the genre, I’d recommend Marvel’s The Punisher as a bit of intelligent, semi-realistic and exciting viewing. The question is: is that what you want from a show about The Punisher?

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