Fans clamored for Netflix and Marvel to give The Punisher a solo run from the moment he appeared in Netflix’s Daredevil. Marvel and Netflix swiftly agreed. When Marvel announced Steve Lightfoot as showrunner, fan excitement only increased. If anyone knows how to do death elegantly on the small screen; it’s the man behind Hannibal. Netflix’s The Punisher builds a story around Frank Castle that’s nothing like what you’re expecting.
Even if you’re not a comic book junkie, Netflix’s initial introduction to The Punisher lets you in on his backstory and driving motivations pretty well. And if you haven’t watched the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil, you’ll find no spoilers here.
I will say, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) makes an appearance and that relationship history lies in Netflix’s Daredevil season two.
Right out the gate, Netflix’s The Punisher aims to more than live up to the hype. Episode One dives right in with a mind’s eye view of the world inside Frank’s head. It’s not a pretty place to be…at all.
Frank’s finished raining death and ruin down upon his enemies in a hail of bloody vengeance. The Punisher’s dead and Pete Castiglione takes his angst out on a cinderblock wall. But a new identity and job can’t keep him free of memories. Circumstances, yank ‘The Punisher’ out of retirement from where Frank’s buried him. But this decision clues someone else lurking in the shadows in Frank Castle is far from deceased. What comes next sets The Punisher on a new wrathful path. This new player has an agenda all his own and intends to make use of Frank no matter the cost.
A parallel story begins in Episode Two that lights the way for the overall story arc for the season. Homeland Security Investigator Dinah Madani’s (Amber Rose Revah) returned from Afghanistan to a new post. She’s intent on solving a murder that occurred while Frank was in-country. Despite being warned away from further attempts to uncover his killer (and the plot that led to his death) by her boss Carson Wolf (C. Thomas Howell) Madani’s has no intention of dropping the case. She drags her new partner, Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson) into her hunt; which makes for interesting moments given her serious trust issues. He’s reluctant and serves as a rarely-headed voice of reason while she’s surrounded by agents and charming allies she should know better than to trust.
Every step she takes – and body she trips over – only further convinces her that one way or the other, Frank’s at the center of everything. These twin storylines reveal a conspiracy spiraling around Frank that so much bigger than he ever understood.
The espionage angle is an interesting setup and logical way to dig dipper into the world of Frank Castle that goes beyond his vigilantism. It brings his past into sharper focus while weaving an engrossing narrative that keeps the plot from just being murder/death/kill. This plot creates a tension and sense of intrigue that is an ill-fitting skin for Frank and as new characters emerge it becomes more obvious that Frank’s in over his head.
It becomes more and more obvious that Castle is a pawn far too many people aren’t through moving around the chess board. Through all of this, we see Frank’s fractured psyche through new eyes as he struggles to reconcile and resolve the mess he finds him in… again. Frank’s hunting down bad people doing bad things again and trying to solve a mystery that’s never been more personal. This series does a great job of playing off the angle of Castle being a man who acts on simple motivations by throwing him into the deep end with savvy, clandestine operators. Frank’s a sledgehammer (you’ll get the irony before episode one ends) surrounded by people wielding scalpels.
The company he’s keeping makes for some surprisingly hilarious moments. Jon Bernthal does more emotionally with just a facial twitch than a lot of actors ever manage. This is thrill ride through the full range of Castle’s emotions. Seeing how he became so comfortable with extreme violence adds a whole new by-play to this character.
Netflix’s The Punisher isn’t just an adrenaline-fueled ride-along. The imagery and more visceral take on The Punisher in action strongly call to mind Garth Ennis’ Punisher Max series. The dark and murky look coupled with the pace makes for good story cohesion and tension. The violence isn’t gratuitous but neither do they shy away from kicking up the body count. The plot is a solid suspense thriller that elevates what could’ve been a very shallow story arc.
Paring all that look with a more emotional and layered storytelling built around the bigger picture beyond just his family’s murder makes for a cat-and-mouse game worthy of this cast. There are a few episodes where sub-plots and lateral character building low the pace and throw off the building tension. But the slow build works in the series favor because comic fans can’t rely on canon to inform them of what’s to come. This cast is so strong that these hiccups don’t take away from the main story. Sometimes, it makes it interesting as you find yourself not rooting for who you think maybe you should.
This first season of Netflix’s The Punisher may not take the direction many people are expecting but it’s a great bounce back for the Marvel series. This is a great way to add to the superhero world building going on and a perfect way to establish The Punisher’s place in it. He’s an antihero unlike others living and battling in this city. He’s not motivated by the things that move them but he’s got a code that’s just as unbreakable. Keeping those core characteristics intact makes this Frank Castle recognizable even as his story is changed. Frank’s back hunting bad people doing bad things and it’s never been more personal.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5