Oh, boy. Here we go.
Six months after finishing off the gangsters responsible for the death of his family Frank, played by Jon Bernthal, retires from vigilantism and goes into hiding. While haunted by nightmares of his dead wife, a former NSA analyst named Micro, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, contacts him incognito. They team up when Frank learns there is more to his family’s murder than he once thought.
I am going to say something out character as a fan of Punisher. I know the guy like the back of my hand and when you get down to the nitty-gritty, why his family was killed does not matter. The what is more important because it was the trigger that turned Frank into the Punisher. The only why that has any meaning is the question of why he keeps killing after getting revenge.
All this stuff in the show about the CIA’s wet-work operation and tying up loose ends was boring and played out. We get it; Frank did some stuff back in the day that the Company wants to keep secret. They try to kill him, it does not work, and he kills them back. His very simple and complete revenge story was finished in Daredevil season two and the first five minutes of Punisher. We did not need all this convoluted Jason Bourne crap with Homeland Security and a private security firm caught in the middle of a CIA agent’s quest to redeem his masculinity.
The overarching story is the only major issue I have with the show. It was run-of-the-mill, had way too many moving parts, and I totally understand why. Frank is not a difficult character to get, but trying to make a watchable season of 13 one-hour episodes about a Nietzschean Void is impossible. Imagine a show about Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men; that is what a proper Punisher series would look like and it would be horrifying.
An action-based deconstruction of the anti-hero archetype would be an ideal show. Thing is, no one would watch it. It would be depressing with Frank mass-murdering criminals without feeling or remorse with accompanying narration. It is all he wants to do because he is driven by pure animalistic instinct. Delve deep enough into his character and you find there is so much that cannot be put to screen for mainstream audiences. The show Mindhunter is all about the psychology of murderers, but that is not Marvel-friendly material.
Taking out the depth of the character, a straight action show would be indistinguishable from the rest. There has to be something else to break up the monotony. Punisher’s convoluted story had to be that way with a lot more meat on its bones. So, we got the family connection, the CIA operation, and Homeland Security to pad out the show. It would have been fine with just Frank, Micro, and a bad guy in nine episodes.
The actual execution of the story was fine. Each plotline per episode got an equal amount of coverage without overshadowing one another. It worked as a cohesive whole; it is just too bad half of it was not very interesting.
Frank and Micro’s arc was the best part. They have great chemistry as partners in vigilantism with similar experiences. Where Frank lost his family, Micro had to leave his family after a little whistleblowing almost got him killed. Things get interesting when Frank plays surrogate father/husband for Micro’s family. Their personal conflict comes out of their dueling personalities. Where Micro is sympathetic and easy to understand, Frank is a killer with a moral compass. In that way they worked really well together and I cannot wait to see them again for season two.
Another good element of the show is the action. From what I could see, real blanks and squibs were used for the gunfights. You can tell a lot of work was put into making each fight different with a heavy dose of visceral violence. People are stabbed, punched, and pumped full of lead like an old fashion action movie. While not very creative these scenes are flawlessly executed. There is also no shaky cam and you can tell what is happening at all times. I would love to talk about my favorite scene, but I think you should see for yourself.
Those two elements make the show. The rest you can skip.
First is the Homeland Security plot. We follow Agent Madani, played by Amber Rose Revah, and she is terrible. I get characters need motivation for narrative, but Madani was so unlikeable and one-note I could careless. Her whole deal was meant to parallel Frank’s quest for vengeance. She wants justice for an Afghani police officer that was killed under mysterious circumstances and that is all. There is nothing to her. Madani is a boring strong female archetype that no one put any thought into when they had to meet a quota.
She is not even big or tall enough to come off as an agent of anything. She is five-foot nothing with the body of model. In the scenes where she is holding a gun, the weapons are bigger than her. My short friend in the Army was looking to replace her old personal side arm because it was the size of her head. She had to buy a tiny Sig Sauer to have any hope of hitting something. Madani looks like a Barbie doll got mixed in with the GI-Joe toys by accident.
And do not get me started on her partner. The guy is David Arquette annoying.
Then there is the CIA story taken from Punisher MAX. Here we follow the character Rawlins, played by Paul Shulze, who wants to kill Frank before he exposes the Company’s operations. There is a character in MAX of the same name and a million times more interesting. Show-Rawlins is a standard Company man who uses national security to justify his actions. MAX-Rawlins is an asshole that relishes being an asshole before Frank pries out his eyeball with a knife. Being a tough guy piece of shit was a façade because his persona and business depended on it.
Show-Rawlins has that masculine insecurity evident in his need to torture Frank for taking his eye, but the rest of him is boring. He is this box-standard dude that believes in protecting his country, even by illegal means. Something with depth, like the implication he enjoys torture and murder, is nonexistent. Maybe it was the actor’s lack of charisma, but there could have been a scene or two where he is smiling and laughing at the possibility of getting his hands dirty. MAX-Rawlins had a lot more to him beyond the traits of a cartoony Gareth Ennis villain character.
There is plenty of good to be had, but the whole of Punisher would have fallen apart if not for Bernthal’s best performance to date. The guy has the makings of a young Kurt Russel or Clint Eastwood, full of charisma with intensity to boot. Not only does he sell the character’s pain and anger, but he is also scary to watch. I expect nothing less from the guy that accidently clocked Jonah Hill in the mouth on Wolf of Wall Street because he was so into the scene. I have no idea how Bernthal could top this in the future.
When it comes to expectations everyone has a vision they want to see come to fruition. For me and other fans, we wanted an incarnation of Punisher to rival Ray Stevenson in War Zone. The second season of Daredevil gave us a taste of what was to come in the following year. Marvel’s the Punisher is the most we can ask for. There will never be a perfect incarnation, but Jon Bernthal is damn close. I highly recommend it if you are a fan of the character and of action, especially the graphic kind. But get ready to skip over a lot of boring shit to get to the good stuff.