Review: Marvel’s The Punisher

Finally the Netflix/Marvel collaborations deliver one that bears fruit to match (and exceed) Jessica Jones. The Punisher takes the Frank Castle character and fills it with a plot that targets PTSD, grief, guilt, revenge and rage without skimping on the violence. Yes, this is gratuitously violent (some to cringeworthy level) but it’s the dynamic, layered and fully invested turn from Jon Bernthal that keeps this effort highly engaging.

Let’s be completely honest. The Marvel TV outings have been a fairly generic  affair with Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders and Inhumans all finding themselves photocopies of one another with lessening production values as each entry came along. The true stand out has been Jessica Jones that gave us a series driven by an actual dynamic heroine and villain that wasn’t about taking over the world as it was about obsession. The more these tales stick to human drama, the better they work.

Enter Daredevil Season Two where we met Frank Castle (aka The Punisher), an ex-marine who’s family were brutally murdered by a drug cartel and he himself bullet riddled and left for dead, whose  morally compass is somewhat warped where he doesn’t capture criminals – he kills them. Often brutally.

Picking up straight after the events of DDS2, the opening preamble of The Punisher sees Frank exact his revenge on those that killed his family. The body count is high, the kills are ferocious and, after the last assailant is strangled in a toilet – Castle vanishes. Months pass. Castle assumes a new identity as Pete Castlano, a lowly construction worker doing demolition in one of the New Jersey burroughs.

Yet, something is not right. Frank (Bernthal) is still riddled with rage, plagued by nightmares, and cannot cope with his grief. Racked with post traumatic stress disorder, his self isolation is interrupted when a doe-eyed new worker on the site is indoctrinated into a shady crew and a botched robbery. Within moments Frank snaps into brutal action, exacting punishment on them all and saving the newbie.

And in the process he gets identified on CCTV via a mysterious hacker and thus begins our story.

The standard Marvel tropes are here with a nefarious shadowy syndicate running amok which involves our hero’s past and, of course, corruption at the highest levels of power. Supporting players are as defined and robust with particular note to Amber Rose Revah’s driven Fed Dinah Madani the next to join the impressively strong line up of women law enforcers populating this universe. A modest return to the screen for Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is welcome and a lively turn as Frank’s unwanted frazzled sidekick David hands Ebon Moss Bachrach his best performance on screen.

What shines in this series is the inclusion of a PTSD story line featuring a post war support group, Frank’s constant internal battle with his own trauma & rage, and, refreshingly, how it never acknowledges Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage or Iron Fist at all. This is its own self-contained story. There are no super powers here. There are no magical gifts.

The series does have a few shortcomings. It is pervasively violent to the point where I am surprised it is an MA in Australia given how much blood is spilled and how brutal some of the scenes are. It put me at great odds with myself given the high level of celebrated gun violence, an insistence in American cinema that I have grown weary of, which normally repels me. There is an overarching hyper-masculinity that does cloy at times, and the insertion of a couple of graphic sex scenes seem more to viscerally thrill than to actually serve a real purpose.

Overall, however, this is, by far, the best of the Marvel TV Series ventures. Frank is fully realised character, thanks to the devoted performance of Jon Bernthal and a bruising narrative that never lets up. The season feels centred, has a real sense of time, place, urgency and moves at a propulsive pace. The series does justice to Frank Castle, a character that has never translated to the big screen properly, and it pulls no punches in kicking up the body count with gay abandon.