'The Punisher' binges on the misery of Frank Castle

This is a review of the first six episodes of The Punisher. Episodes provided by Netflix.

Marvel’s Netflix shows are becoming extremely hard to rank against one another, butThe Punisher stands out. Not just because Jon Bernthal was just so good in Daredevilthe franchise had to give him a solo run, but because it shows what Marvel is capable of outside the confines of continuity. It’s refreshing. The sad, visceral series offers a unique impact Marvel’s other superhero shows, and many other drama series for that matter, have yet to achieve.

Frank Castle is his own man, and The Punisher narrowly escapes the usual Marvel formula.  There are numerous subplots, but the series moves at a distinctly slow, dragging pace that compliments Frank’s wallowing temperament. The lone wolf approach injects a fresh dramatic narrative. While some may call The Punisher’ s violence inappropriate and untimely, this story isn’t all about guns and shooting… and when it is, there’s consequence and an underlying message of restraint and personal responsibility. If anyone can be The Punisher and do it with such gentlemanly grace, it’s Jon Bernthal.

Frank isn’t a straightforward anti-hero character to begin with. He fits the criteria of a villain--he murders people and clearly enjoys it--but we somehow still have sympathy for him, which in a sadistic way is the only thing that makes him a hero. Therefore, the antagonists of this story have similarly dysfunctional moral compasses. Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) is a Persian-American CIA agent who understands very well the government considers her alternately dispensable and indispensable, just like the Afghani operative who the United States military tortured and murdered for no good reason. While she is chasing after Frank Castle (who is believed to be dead), she’s also suspicious of her agency’s corruption and keeps the bulk of her investigation under wraps knowing it could get her killed and Frank Killed. Billy Russo is Frank’s best friend from his Marine days, but he now works for a private military company still contributing to problematic warfare and using unethical recruitment tactics.

The story establishes a depth that isn’t solely braced by the events of Daredevil Season 2. An incident during Frank’s time in service brings Madani, Russo, and other main characters together. Ebon Moss-Bachrach is Frank’s ally, Micro. Both hunted by the government for knowing about the aforementioned covered-up murder of an Afghani operative that ultimately resulted in the massacre of Frank’s family (as seen inDaredevil Season 2), they are the only two alive who wish to right the government’s wrong. They are also two of the most mentally and physically healthy characters in the series, which is saying a lot….

Civilian life is at the center of The Punisher, which views post-traumatic stress disorder from multiple lenses. An injured vet who served with Frank, Curt Hoyle (played by Jason R. Moore) runs group therapy sessions for veterans. Lewis Wolcott (Daniel Webber), an attendee who has dug a bunker for himself in his backyard, is used to illustrate how any veteran could end up mentally debilitated after service. Lewis’ vulnerable psychosis attracts the likes of a conservative gun activist, at which point he becomes a clear danger to himself and others. The series encapsulates the impact of simple policies like gun control and mental health services without choosing a side. Through these former soldiers trying to make sense of the modern world, The Punisher explores the cause and effects of terrorism, both domestic and overseas.

Providing emotional relief for Frank through all of this is none other than Daredevil ’s Karen Page, whose presence in the series does not feel forced. Karen’s connection with Frank is more than just good acting, as it seemed in Daredevil. Their scenes together do have a hint of will-they-won't-they, but it’s clear Frank and Karen’s intrinsic connection is not based on romance. Pain is at the core of this relationship, whether it be a friendship or budding partnership. Sadness and conditioned vulnerability radiates from them both, an unspoken vow of unconditional support in survival caused these traumatized characters to become invested in one another. They’ve both had their families ripped from them and suffer from a sort of reactive attachment disorder that causes them to question every interpersonal relationship. But unlike Daredevil who pushes everyone away, Karen and Frank have a level of understanding that’s hard to replicate.

It’s a somber series with no humor at all, but there’s a lot going on below the surface. It’s just as deep as Jessica Jones and the fight scenes are just as sharp as Daredevil.But the lack of Defenders characters and generic heroes and antiheroes provides a sense of relief. There’s less focus on what’s going to happen and more focus on the character interactions in the present, giving viewers a chance to binge in the misery of Frank Castle.

The Punisher arrives on Netflix Nov. 17.

Originally published on Player.One.