Superheroes have never been more prevalent in pop culture, with Marvel becoming as big a behemoth as any other company of storytellers out there. Over in Netflix’s impressive corner of the MCU, the comic giant’s most ruthless and cunning “good guy” is finally getting the TV spotlight with The Punisher, and the brutal and grounded thriller is the best Marvel TV show out there, and it also stands tall (and bloody) against most Marvel films. (Not to mention making the previous Punisher films look silly.) If you thought Jon Bernthal’s was impressive in Daredevil Season 2, then this show is going to blow your skull wide open.
Diving into The Punisher does come with some caveats, especially for 2017 audiences. First, even though Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle has already been introduced and had some of his backstory explained, The Punisher‘s main narrative doesn’t exactly start up with the revenge-driven badass turning bad guys into pulp, which may be what some comic fans are expecting. (The premiere itself does just that, but as more of a prelude to let the audiences catch up.) The Punisher feels far less like a comic book drama and more like a tautly wound conspiracy-driven action-thriller from the ’80s, though the best possible version of that, with a slow-burning Rambo Mode seeping in as the season goes along. Which all indirectly leads to the second caveat: The Punisher‘s focus on government and military adds some political heft to the subject of vigilantes and gun violence, so strong feelings on certain issues may be invoked at times.
Without getting too bogged down with spoilery details, let’s just say that The Punisher starts off in a place where Frank Castle has ceased to exist, with his quest to avenge the death of his wife and kids seemingly finished and behind him. But some old and morally shaky skeletons from the past come bursting through to the present, and he’s forced to once again face the multiple tragedies that brought the Punisher persona out of him in the first place. And as it’s plainly obvious on Jon Bernthal’s often harrowed face, going into Punisher-mode is not a very fun thing for him to do, even though it’s so engaging to watch Bernthal’s animalistic portrayal.
Frank’s latest troubles spark from his military years as a Special Forces operative, where he met and formed a lasting brotherhood with the effortlessly suave Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) and the endlessly optimistic Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), two comic characters that got notably expanded and altered for the show. Billy used his know-how to start up the private military company Anvil, keeping his government connections fresh, and Curtis is using his post-war life to give a voice to other troubled veterans via group meetings. Both men play major roles in this story that we can’t get into right now, but both actors nail the parts, with Barnes getting to show off his biggest range of talents yet.
Not everything Frank & Co. did on their missions was justifiable, and repercussions are finally starting to become a reality after a certain piece of information made its way to Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), an Iranian-American whose voice and allegations go unheard by those around her. Madani opens up the season’s conspiracy angle, making everyone around her seem potentially suspicious, and it sets both the agent and Frank on largely mutually exclusive paths to find the truth. Thankfully, Madani isn’t just a one-dimensional, hot-headed protagonist, and she does get a little reckless at times.
Finding that truth pairs Frank up with Ebon Moss-Bachrach as David “Micro” Lieberman, a comic fave who also got more heavily developed for TV. Being a government whistleblower, Micro has spent the past year holed up in a secure location, while everyone else thinks he’s dead, including his increasingly troubled wife Sarah (Jaime Ray Newman), and their son and daughter. Daredevil viewers saw Micro’s first communication with Frank, and their partnership-of-sorts is arguably the most interesting of all the Netflix drama’s character relationships. The two men share a lot of the same faults and poor communication skills, making it a constant challenge to keep their teamwork consistent and successful, and it’s interesting to see the various shades of humanity that color their time together.
Rounding out the major characters is Daniel Webber’s troubled young veteran Lewis Walcott, who suffers from a crippling case of PTSD and finds that he has a few things in common with Frank Castle. Then there’s Michael Nathanson’s Sam Stein, an offbeat Homeland Agent that gets paired up with Madani in her efforts. And, of course, we have Daredevil star Deborah Ann Woll reprising her role of New York Bulletin reporter Karen Page for a handful of episodes. Karen factors into the best episode of the season — a time-shifting narrative taking place solely inside a single location — and she also gives Frank a chance to be emotional without rage taking over, which is actually needed from time to time.
This extremely strong ensemble cast — which also includes Paul Schulze as CIA heavy William Rawlins and Shohreh Aghdashloo as Madani’s mother Farah — is the perfect complement to the deft and detail-driven storyline crafted by creator and showrunner Steve Lightfoot and his creative team. Having been a big part of the creative side on Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, Lightfoot knows how to bring characters to life through details and actions, and it’s one of The Punisher‘s more thought-provoking achievements, in that nearly zero time is wasted on fluffy moments that don’t directly affect the plot in some way. It’s not the most complex puzzle to unravel, to be sure, but all the moving parts are there and moving for a reason. Even if, sometimes, that reason is to get Frank to beat the shit out of something.
If I’ve possibly made it sound like The Punisher doesn’t go heavy on the action and fight scenes, let me allay those fears. Steve Lightfoot, the various episode directors, the visual effects crew and the stunt team all deserve some mighty lengthy applause for what they bring to life in these 13 episodes. We get to see a huge variety of insane fights, from tactical gun battles to gun-free brawls to blood-soaked duels. (There’s one fight early on involving a sledgehammer that will instantly become a fan favorite.) What’s more, all of the violence isn’t just for fan service, since all the harm-inducing acts being carried out result in consequences, and many fights themselves are ostensibly miniature representations of the characters’ dynamics, taking things from cheer-worthy to uncomfortable in a matter of seconds. Wilson Fisk’s savageness in Daredevil takes an immediate backseat to the mayhem that Frank Castle causes.
Plus, while The Punisher doesn’t seem to be laying out any hard-lined answers telling people what to do, the show does shine some much-needed light on the problems that men and women face after returning from military conflicts. While Curtis is a guiding light trying to lead soldiers out of the darkness, characters like Frank and Lewis find it impossible to keep those days from bleeding into the present, and The Punisher‘s overall groundedness is a chilling reminder of how many silenced people out in the world might be moments away from letting their inner demons get the best of them. Even as “the Marvel version” of that concept, it’s effective.
Fans coming to The Punisher expecting a never-ending spray of machine gun bullets are going to be surprised to find how brutal this show is with its emotional underpinnings, as opposed to just tactile weapons. Adhering to a more realistic aesthetic works wonders for The Punisher, which gets to the heart of Frank’s tragedies in interesting ways, and allows comic characters like Micro and Billy Russo to find dramatic relevance in live-action that they never quite had on the page. Its violent narrative may feel extremely timely in 2017, but the psychology and heart at its core are timeless. As are Bernthal’s guttural howls when he’s going buck on an unlucky schmuck.
Without the super-strength of Luke Cage or Jessica Jones, or the high-tech otherworldliness of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Punisher is able to put its humanity front and center, which is one of its strongest elements. So while Thor Ragnarok is currently winning over moviegoers who are calling it Marvel’s best feature yet, Netflix subscribers are just days away from getting Marvel’s best TV show, and it’s one that’ll be all but impossible to top in the future.
All 13 episodes of The Punisher Season 1 will soon hit Netflix for all your binge-watching needs on Friday, November 17, at 12:01 a.m. PT. Head to our 2017 Netflix schedule and our fall TV premiere schedule to see all the other new and returning shows hitting the small screen soon.