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Despite Slow Start, ‘The Punisher’ Serves Pain and Dramatics

The Punisher

Created by Steve Lightfoot

Starring Jon Bernthal, Amber Rose Revah, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Ben Barnes, Justin Moore, and Paul Schulze

All episodes now streaming on Netflix

Reber’s Rating – B+

First Season Syndrome – recurring problem with the Marvel shows on Netflix, wherein the introductory seasons take up to six episodes to gain traction but in back half of season the story remains unrelenting through season’s end.

Now, let me get this out of the way first and foremost. I consider myself a full-on fanboy with The Punisher. I grew up reading the comics, especially the Garth Ennis/Steve Niven years in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. I went to opening days for both 2004’s The Punisher and 2008’s Punisher: War Zone. My affinity for Dolph Lundgren’s take is publicly on record here at Fan Fest.  But when Jon Bernthal was cast as Frank Castle back in 2015, I about lost my bananas. Bernthal is an intense and tenacious actor, taking stock of any given role he’s cast in and taking his performance to a whole other level. So, when I got to meet him personally at Philadelphia’s first Walker Stalker Con in 2015, suffice to say I did geek out.

Okay, okay – I geeked out a smidge.

I remember he took heart, in the few moments we spoke, that I felt he had the right talents to portray the definitive version of Frank Castle/The Punisher for Marvel. And he was humbled, thanking me and shaking my hand hard. If there’s one prediction I made back then that holds true now, that would be Bernthal has absolutely made Frank Castle his own, a tortured soul reluctant to let anyone into his life for fear of just losing them again, his blinding rage and agony fueling his desire to paint the floors red  with the blood of his enemies, feeling some sort of semblance of salvation for saving those who can’t defend themselves.

Yet here we go again. Another Marvel show on Netflix, and even more thematically dark than its predecessors, yet the same sins of the past still find a way to remain unavoidable. The difference, of course, is that showrunner Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal) knows how to balance the dramatic, balancing gratifying characterization with intrigue and thrills in a story that unfortunately seems awfully familiar. If you’re expected a thirteen-episode season that is ripe with creative kills, tongue-in-cheek laughs, and an oozy river of red blood, well, you’ll be disappointed. Mightily. But The Punisher, which slogs off at a pace akin to a handicap cart at a Walmart but gradually gains momentum over time, is something completely different than I expected. Lightfoot doesn’t focus on the murderous nature of the vigilante. The Punisher actually spends time to build up the central characters as flesh and blood, attaching our interest with these flawed folk and why each is individually tortured on the inside, their hearts coursing with a fiery venom remaining insatiable.

Granted, we are in 2017, so much of the backstory is rejiggered for the present day. And for a comic book show, I was pleasantly surprised how many of the minuscule details Lightfoot and his writer’s room have taken to preserve the comic run. Castle is still very much a Marine, though spending eight years serving in Afghanistan as opposed to Vietnam, a whole other war that had similar crippling effects on soldiers returning home from war. (Hell, the villain’s name is Agent Orange, a sly wink to Castle’s origins almost 44 years ago.) His best friend, Curtis Hoyle, plays a very prominent part in Castle’s life, still one of the few Castle can entrust with his life and safety when he’s in a pinch. He shifts through the shadows under the guise of Pete Castiglione, a very sly nod to Castle’s real last name as created by Gerry Conway. Hell, we even get wind of the Gnucci family operating in New York, one of Castle’s biggest foils in the early Ennis/Niven years. Oh, and the battle van, we get the battle van! (Sort of.) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the writers plucking even more ancillary specifics of the rich comic line to keep eagle-eyed fans awake. Sure, previous Netflix shows have done their best to do the same, but The Punisher is a character that’s been severely abused over the years and to see Castle’s world brought to life with affectionate care is soothing. (We won’t discuss Jonathan Hensleigh’s bastardization of the character. Thomas Jane deserved better.)

Not everything can remain the same from the comics. The changes are actually warmly welcomed too. For example, let’s examine Linus David Lieberman, wonderfully brought to life by Ebon Moss-Bachrach. I guess Lightfoot was concerned that Linus wasn’t a known name these days, but that’s perfectly fine. Instead of a porkier hacker confined to a wheelchair with thick glasses, Lieberman’s character is actually built from the ground up to paint him with a sympathetic backstory, one mired by tragedy. Oh, Lieberman very much goes by his codename ‘Micro,’ a nice homage to the Mike Baron creation, a hacker whose efforts are known the world over. (Nice work too by Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I..E.L.D. to first acknowledge his existence too, showing the connectivity of the MCU.) Though, rather than a shrewd hacker out for revenge, Lieberman is underground because of his desire to remain sincere, leaking out footage of an illicit operation covered up. Sure, that means Micro is more akin to Edward Snowden, but the parallel of real-life rogue to woefully-tragic character actually makes for powerful drama. Lieberman is forced in isolation to watch his wife and children adapt to a life without him, the warm whiskey under his desk far from enough to sooth his aching heart or ire towards those who’ve forced his displacement. The chemistry between he and Castle is one forged by commonalities, unable to be with their loved ones, rogues on the run from the ruthless, one wanting to reclaim his life and the other just wanting to stop the hurting from usurping his soul. The laughs between both men feel genuine, their differences resonating even longer and deeper.

And then there’s Billy Russo. In a change from the comics – and one that actually doesn’t hurt the character either – Russo instead is tied to Castle’s past, both men serving in the same unit, kicking tires and lighting fires as brothers in arms. Though, much like witnessed previously in 2008’s Punisher: War Zone and affectionately in the comics, Russo is more than just your regular pretty boy. Who else but Ben Barnes to bring the narcissistic and vain player to life. Unlike his comic counterpart, who rose to fame as a hitman for the Mafia families in opposition to Castle,  Russo actually makes a name for himself running a private contractor company, Anvil. He obsesses over his looks, the desire to remain absolutely perfect in appearance, hair gelled the right way, suit as dapper and sharp to stick out in a crowd, unafraid to bed any woman who’ll stroke his ego. He serves to better himself, not those who wish to serve for him. Barnes’s nefarious take as the cold and cruel veteran makes for a better foe than the central villain, Bill ‘Agent Orange’ Rawlins, a baddie whose physical defect comes at the hands of Castle. Despite Agent Orange as the main player, Russo is truly the despicable deviant who plays people like puppets, tugging at strings behind the scenes while masking his devotion to his own intentions. Barnes may have served as virtuous characters prior – especially as Prince Caspian in two Chronicles of Narnia entries – but his spin on Billy Russo creates the second most contemptible cretin across any Marvel/Netflix show, just a half step behind David Tennant’s murky Purple Man.

But aside from the central characters (and there’s several who actually are developed richly and fully), that is where the First Season Syndrome creeps in. The story. The pacing. The agonizing necessity to reel in the viewer and then push the narrative to a damn-near standstill for half the season. (Don’t worry. For once, we actually don’t get an origin story as a recap.) Sure, the central story of Castle and Lieberman looking to get even with Agent Orange and his cronies works just right, the plot unfolding across months to show the lengths the two men will go for their cause. But that’s where the niceties end with the story. We end up with smaller subplots that feel more like a chore to wallow through without much payoff. Castle ends up initially tracking Lieberman by getting to the latter’s wife and kids, continually dropping by since David is an outcast of society, a story that feels like a ripoff of 2008’s War Zone though with more fulfilling emotional resonance. We follow a former Marine who can’t cope with readjusting to society from the battlefield, played with an infinite but brutal sadness by Daniel Webber (fresh off 11.22.63) but whose story goes totally off the rails. There’s the Homeland Security investigator trying to pin Castle as the enemy but learning he’s only after the wicked. The random steamy bed scenes that lack any aim whatsoever. The list goes on. Plus, why do we need to have the first half of a Marvel introductory show just lumber on? I was ready to turn off the show but, and usual, the sixth episode is where the tide shifts and the show careens towards its finality with tenacity.

Despite the tepid nature of the first half, at least Lightfoot is afforded to take full advantage of the MA rating granted by Marvel. Other Marvel shows have played out more as PG-13 than R but The Punisher is as jaw-dropping in thematic and adult material like in Jessica Jones, another show that didn’t hide its mature tones. Frank doesn’t just kill for the sake of satisfying his blood lust, his rage blinding him at times when rationality must take precedence over desire to fulfill wrath. But when Frank does become unhinged, my Lord is the violence at a level that Disney must have squirmed at seeing unfold. The blood flows regularly, sometimes with your traditional tired run-and-gun deliverance, but other times with a creativity that I haven’t seen since the 2005 Xbox video game. You’ll never look at a hammer the same, that’s for sure.

And while the violence isn’t the crux of the season, there’s another God-to-honest real subject that isn’t ignored – and that is PTSD. All of our characters suffer from a type of aggression or trauma that has warped their minds. Frank’s bloodied family plays in his mind as he attempts to balance justice with blinded rage. Lieberman quivers as he feels trapped in his prison off the grid, doe eyed as he cannot go home to a family he would sacrifice his life for. And Lewis Walcott, Daniel Webber’s tortured Marine, probably grabs the most attention as he struggles to find his place in the world, back in the safety of his home but unable to cope with reality. The violence may be essential to the show, but tackling such a very heart-wrenching topic with these very real characters makes the show a can’t miss, even when the story makes you want to turn the television off in frustration.

The Punisher has had to wait a very long time to get the justice he deserves. Three feature films missed the point one way or another, forgetting what made Frank Castle such a tragic hero that made his books a must-read monthly. But somehow, someway, someone has finally managed to get it right. Castle is home where he belongs with Marvel and, by God, Jon Bernthal’s ability to play hearty – and heartless – makes him the undisputed Punisher. I hate to think we’ll have to wait two years for a second season – and on what medium is the question, due to Disney’s upcoming streaming service – but do yourself a favor. The Punisher is the show that we’ve been waiting for, an absolutely emotional and unflinching experience that burns slow but, at full speed, won’t let you go till your binge has come to a close.

Welcome back home, Frank. Don’t go away for long this time.

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Jerrold Reber

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Jerrold spent his childhood in southeastern Pennsylvania ingesting far too many TV shows and movies, thus creating a stark-raving mad geek. He’s a movie aficionado, binge-watches Netflix, and is a total TV junkie. His addiction has led to an unhealthy and rabid obsession of various geek pantheons – Star Trek, Star Wars, both DC *AND* Marvel,
cult 80’s and 90’s television, Supernatural, The X-Files, Doctor Who, and, and…holy overload. He’s still waiting to run away in a 1967 Impala or a a blue police box.