The first season of Marvel and Netflix’s The Punisher, was a solid start and a welcome surprise.
(In honor of the new season of The Punisher being released tonight, we’re reposting our original review of Season 1. We’ve edited some slight details in the process.)
Netflix and Marvel have had a great track record in recent years with the TV shows based on Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. As well as the team-up series, The Defenders. For the most part these shows have received praise from fans and critics alike for not only being solid material but truly realizing each of the titular characters.
After the introduction of the Punisher in season 2 of Daredevil and the praise for Jon Berenthal’s performance as the gun-toting vigilante, a TV series based on the character was greenlit. The entire first season is now streaming and may in fact be Marvel and Netflix’s best venture yet.
Frank Castle, aka the punisher, is a former Marine whose family was killed by the mob. Seeking vengeance for their brutal deaths, Castle goes on a rampage to hunt down and kill everyone associated with the death of his family. From there he becomes a violent vigilante who hunts down criminals and takes them out by whatever means necessary. In the second season of Daredevil we see Castle hunting down the mob members who killed his family and the commanding officer of his Marine unit that put the hit out on Castle and his family. At the end of that season it’s revealed that there’s more to Frank’s Origin story than what played out in Daredevil.
The Punisher series begins with the world believing Castle is dead. After killing the last few members of the gangs that helped have a hand in killing Frank’s family, he takes up a new alias and works as a construction worker. It’s clear from the beginning that he’s still intensely tortured by the murder of his children and wife. In spending his days tearing apart walls with a sledgehammer, Castle is just trying to get out his anger and helplessness that hasn’t yet diminished now that he’s killed all of the gang members associated with their deaths.
Castle soon becomes entangled with David Lieberman, aka Micro, who is in hiding after trying to reveal the horrific truth about the covert black ops mission Castle was also part of. After being believed to have been dead for a year, Lieberman works to convince Castle to join him in taking down the people behind the mission. These are the same operatives that had a hand in ordering the hit on Castle and his family. The rest of the season plays out with Castle going after the people he used to trust with his life, with Lieberman helping along the way.
As the season goes on we get treated to three other sides of this world. The first is through Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani, who is hunting down the same people as Castle, as Micro has sent her a video of the black ops team killing a former partner of hers in Afghanistan, Ahmed Zubair. That video is what led to Lieberman having to go into hiding and Madani is hell-bent on finding out who was behind the mission as Zubair was a good law-abiding man and not a terrorist as was implied after his death.
The second biggest side story revolves around Billy Russo, Castle’s best friend in his Marine unit who now owns a private military corporation named Anvil. His story intertwines with Castle and Madani’s in various ways as they both get closer in their hunt for justice.
The last big side story revolves around Lewis Wilson, a young veteran who is having trouble adjusting to life back home. Wilson is introduced through Curtis Hoyle, another one of Castle’s Marine buddies who holds meetings for Veterans to come and talk about life after service. As the season goes on Wilson continues to have trouble adjusting to regular life and continues down a dark path that eventually crashes into Castle’s path.
Wilson’s story is one of a handful of elements that help create a story that goes beyond a tale of superheroes and vigilante justice. The Punisher is at its core a character piece. One that focuses on what it means to live with grief and the pain associated with the loss of loved ones, coupled with difficulties of coming home after war. The show takes it’s time to truly unwrap every aspect of these elements.
The show elicits empathy for Castle and shows how Wilson and Castle can be torn apart in horrible ways. It reveals how terrible the world can be for someone who gives up their life to serve their country and experience horrific things, only to have to come home and act like none of it happened.
The show does a perfect job of painting an image of the PTSD that comes not only from war, but also from a horrific act like losing one’s family in the way Castle does. He’s haunted by nightmares of his family being killed over and over again. And most of these, at first are shown in first person. This drags the audience into it.
The end of the season shows Castle picturing himself with his wife in an intimate and personal way, almost intruding on a peaceful moment that Castle clearly deserves to have all to himself. That type of feeling isn’t something expected from a TV show about a comic book vigilante.
And that’s the type of thing Punisher does. Yes it’s a revenge story. Yes it has some interesting twist and turns. It features a few interesting cameos. But nothing that forces the usual “Marvel World Building,” or other elements of a “shared universe.” It’s all done in ways where these characters are needed because they’re part of Castle’s story and it makes sense to bring them into the fold.
The show could be just like the other Netflix/Marvel series: a comic book tale that sets up a wider universe and has connections to five other series and multiple films. But it’s not. It’s purely about loss. Losing family, normality, a part of ourselves. And it’s about what we do when we lose things. When part of ourselves has gone and how to move forward. The show doesn’t give a direct answer to that. And that’s the point. Because we don’t ever get a direct answer in the real world. We just have to find a way to keep going. As Frank says at the end of the season,
“The silence when the gunfire ends. How do you live in that?”
The first season of The Punisher is currently streaming on Netflix. Season 2 hits the streaming service at 3am ET 1/18.