Right from the opening credits scene you know Punisher is going to be a complicated story. The smoke trails and plumes against a black screen make you wonder what you’re seeing. The slow introduction of gun parts appear in sharp detail, bringing with them the full picture of what is happening. Instruments of war, defense, killing, and protection opened up and exposed as just tools. Moving parts designed for a singular purpose but put to many uses. The juxtaposition of beauty and danger in that opening highlights the complex story of the character whose life we are about to see. It’s a complexity that has been missed by some reviewers I’ve seen; more interested in their political points than honesty. Frank is a man, a series of moving parts designed for a purpose but with a mind that can turn to many uses. He is more than past screen iterations have given us. He is an instrument of war and killing, but also defense and protection. He isn’t just an angry white man with a gun. The Punisher isn’t only a bullet-spitting tool to give us a flashy action flick, and Netflix provides something deeper than we’ve seen before.
If you haven’t seen it yet I’m going to try not to spoil too much for you. What we get with this story is a look at a man who lost everything and wants to set it right. He knows that the system can’t help, because the people involved are part of it, but he also wants to do it with his own hands. That’s pretty par for the course for any Punisher story, though in the comics Frank was a former cop not Marine. I think that was a wise choice in alteration. It does show consideration for the current political climate within the confines of telling such a violent tale. You can’t tell his story without violence, killing and blood and to expect otherwise would be childish. With that requirement they still put some thought into how to tell the story.
The writers touched on several hot-button issues, and they do it in a clever, sometimes subtle manner despite the wild and violent nature of the show. PTSD, gun control, terrorism, and women’s issues all handled with glaring, harsh scenes, or brought up in normal and realistic conversation. From Karen’s offhand comment about the city being dangerous for women to Lewis’s tragic end the show delivers an intricate weave of today’s important discussions. There’s no candy coating to it. They do not handle anything with kid gloves, but they do handle it with care.
Central to the story is the pain and effects of PTSD. Frank is dealing with some from his time at war and the things he was required to do, but also from the tragic and violent loss of his family. He has flash backs, nightmares, and moments of guilt over the events of his past. It drives his actions, but not as much as it might. Castle harnesses the anger and uses it to fuel his vengeance against the people who hurt his friends and family. He deals with the trauma in his own way, but in the end he knows it is not healthy. Despite what I’ve been told I did like the end. Frank accepts what his PTSD has done to him and attempts to help himself and others.
A mirror to Castle, and an exploration of how PTSD can damage a soul, we got the heart-breaking story of Lewis. The young vet also struggling with the trauma of war and the return to a country that has no place for him. Lewis’s story is a side plot to the main, but interweaves with the story well. It shows Castle what might be if he lost control over his own emotions and crossed the line too far. Lewis shows us, in harsh realistic terms, the suffering that many go through in the initial scenes he’s in. PTSD in vets is not uncommon, and when left untreated it can lead to damage and pain for those who are suffering from it, and the people around them. Lewis’s story is obviously an extreme exploration of this issue, but it’s not an unrealistic one.
Some critics have painted this as a story about white male anger, too violent and out of touch with the political environment today. I disagree. Not only that but I am angered that such a real and troubling issue is simplified that way. PTSD does not just affect white men. Female soldiers, and soldiers of all races come home from foreign conflict changed people. Some of them to such an extreme that they have trouble functioning back home. They have nightmares and flash backs. They don’t feel at home, accepted or normal. To take this topic and strip it down to a politically convenient point dishonors all those who suffer, and often sacrifice their own mental health for us.
The villain, Billy Russo, has had his story changed as well. Unfortunately this is the one part of the show that I was a little disappointed with. Known in the comics as Jigsaw, Billy was first charged with killing Frank. That’s something you might already know so painting him as Frank’s friend was a little unusual. It immediately clued me in that he was going to be the friend that goes rogue and betrays his ‘brother’. It’s a trope that’s quite common so it wasn’t hard to figure out. That’s not to say the character’s story wasn’t good. The handling of this trope was well done, but it was predictable.
Over all the story is fantastic. I’d put it just under Daredevil in quality, but above all the rest of the Marvel shows on Netflix. There were lulls in the story as many have noted. I am going out on a limb and saying that I think it was intentional. Late in the series, but before the final episodes, we have a calm before the storm. It’s also similar to the moments of peace that someone suffering from trauma might experience between bouts of anxiety and pain. The show is a roller-coaster of violence, peace, drama and even some humor. There’s a lot of emotion in Punisher, which may seem unusual for such a violent character. It shows that even stories full of violence and death can still touch on the other aspects of humanity, not just the dark parts of it.
It pulled at my heart when I saw Jon Bernthal struggle with these emotions. His portrayal of Castle is passionate and powerful; beyond convincing in his pain, anger, and drive. It’s the best role I’ve seen Jon in, and probably the best single character done on the Marvel shows on Netflix. He makes you believe his trauma and guilt. His roars of pain are clearly not just physical. He has a code, and clearly knows how close he is to violating it to get what he wants. Through the whole thing I didn’t feel like I was just watching Frank on screen, but was experiencing the ride with him. As a father, and husband the sense of loss hit me right in the gut and sat there like a lead weight the whole time.
Along with Bernthal, Deborah Ann Woll was excellent in her role as Karen. We’ve seen her grow into the role since the first Daredevil, and she’s become quite a link between the two shows. Woll gives us a strong character, that isn’t just superficially so. She still has flaws, fears, and weaknesses, but she deals with them like we all do. She is brave, and cares deeply for Frank, which makes her vital to the story in many places. Her handling of the gun control politician was clever, and humorous without feeling like someone trying to browbeat people. Her actions after a bombing she was present for were very believable and showed us her resilience and bravery while keeping her human.
The rest of the cast was great. Most notably Amber Rose Revah as Madani and Ebon-Moss Bachrach as Micro played off Bernthal perfectly. They played the part of friend and moral compass for the Punisher, as well as his link to the system he distrusts. They showed us his highs and lows. Through his saving of Madani’s life and his torture of Micro, we see the lengths he will go and the code he holds dear.
Give the show a watch, despite what some of the headlines say. Watch it with an open mind, and realizing that it’s not going to be a comfortable ride. It is worth it though. If they can tap what was done with this show and inject a little of it into the others they might just elevate Luke, Jessica and Danny to higher levels.