Marvel has form when it comes to excellent casting choices. From Robert Downey Jr through to Krysten Ritter, they’ve hit the nail on the head more often than not. However, getting Jon Bernthal to play The Punisher is simply a masterstroke. His performance isn’t just compelling, it elevates everything around him. It made the first half of Daredevil Season Two essential viewing and it does the exact same thing for his solo series.
Which is not to say that The Punisher’s first season is in dire need of rescue. It’d be easy take Frank down the wrong path but creator Steve Lightfoot and his writers do an impressive job of delivering sensitivity and intelligence as well as the rage, revenge and bullets. Lots and lots of bullets.
How well you think the show deals with the question of terrorism vs…whatever it is that Frank does is, to a certain extent, a matter of opinion, but it’s intelligent enough to address that issue and to regularly force Frank to question his actions and the impact he’s having on the very few people he allows to get close to him. Bernthal clearly has no problem finding the character’s fury, but he also gives Frank a self-loathing death wish that elevates the character beyond the Cliffs Notes and makes him grounded, real and human.
If anything, the most basic storytelling comes at the start as the show runs face-first into the evergreen Frank Castle problem of finding him a new target. After an excellent, necessary first episode that pushes the character out of his bearded life of peace and into getting between a dumb kid and murderous goons (via a brutal sledgehammer sequence brilliantly set to Tom Waits’ ‘Hell Broke Luce’), we discover the black ops team Frank served in back in Afghanistan was covering up something big.
Help comes in the form of hacker in hiding David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), aka Micro, and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) is still keeping an eye out for him. Meanwhile, crusading NSA agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) is trying to follow the same clues while battling against red tape and conspiracies.
While a crowd-pleasing “Frank takes down the mob” storyline would probably have been a lot of fun, there’s a real effort here to add depth to the world surrounding the skull tee. Revah works hard to add shades of grey to her “dogged cop” character and succeeds in being the best thing in a slightly drab storyline, Micro’s forced abandonment of his own family is powerful dramatic material, and although it is used as a crutch to kill time and/or add jeopardy a little too often, Moss Bachrach and Jaime Ray Newman (as his wife Sarah) are very good. The former even adds a little much needed humour thanks to his very-odd-couple routine with Bernthal. And, without spoiling anything, Ben Barnes has a hell of a lot of fun as Frank’s good-lookin’ best friend Billy Russo (yes, fans of the comics, Billy Russo…)
However, the most engaging storyline belongs to one of the show’s key but relatively minor characters. Daniel Webber (Lee Harvey Oswald in 11/22/63) is excellent as a young returned soldier struggling to cope with PTSD. Watching his journey is affecting and scary, and it addresses issues that feel important and relevant to this material.
The Punisher is a grim show that takes itself completely seriously (not a single polar bear is punched in the face), and that does begin to take its toll when the inevitable slow patches arrive. The pacing is getting a little better on these shows, but slowly, and fewer episodes would have been a good call. That being said, the direction is consistently excellent, the fight sequences are brutal and gripping, and Bernthal not only delivers the definitive Punisher but one of the best performances we’ve seen on TV all year. This isn’t flawless but it’s damn strong stuff.