I’m in two minds about Netflix’s foray into the world of Frank Castle, one of my very favourite comicbook characters. The trailers had me weary right out of the gate when they spotlit a CIA conspiracy being responsible for the murder of Castle’s family, as well as an apparent reticence to have the man himself appear in costume, a costume that personally I’m not a big fan of. Still, I wasn’t going to leave my main man hanging, and besides one scene I enjoyed his appearance in Daredevil season 2, so I gave it a go.
Cruelly, the first episode teases what I would want from a Punisher TV series: Frank in costume killing off the last remnants of the criminal groups involved in his family’s deaths, a sweet sledgehammer fight and a brief appearance from the Gnucci crime family. Two Homeland Agents who appear to be analogues for Detective Soap and Lieutenant Von Richthofen show up, if I hadn’t seen the trailers I would have expected an ultra-violent, vigilante rampage cherry picking the best parts of Garth Ennis’ sizeable run on the character. Tragically that’ll have to wait, because the remaining twelve episodes are an extended origin story of sorts, in which Frank and partner Microchip enact a drawn-out plan to kill the men behind the men in relation to the deaths of the Castle family, punctuated with the odd action scene, hampered by a woeful subplot and finishing on a burst of extreme violence. The A plot, Frank and Micro enacting revenge, is strong enough; the two have an unexpected chemistry, helped along by Jon Bernthal’s rather different interpretation of the character. Whereas the comic version is a man of sheer unflappable focus, cold and steely eyed but with a surprisingly active sense of dark humour, Bernthal’s Castle is a hot-blooded, emotional and personable berserker. He can laugh and crack wise, he can be caring, he can relate to other people openly, and when called upon to handle action scenes he throws himself into them with brutal, bellowing aplomb. He’s a man clearly ruined by his tragedy and wracked with survivor’s guilt, with a skill set and unending font of unbridled rage waiting to be turned on anyone who deserves it. Two scenes in particular at the tail end of the series go far beyond anything Marvel’s done before, including both seasons of Daredevil. Elsewhere the aforementioned analogues, actually named Madani and Stein have a solid dynamic of pain in the arse go-getter and “Let’s not piss off the wrong people” sidekick, though Stein doesn’t have all that much to do. Madani is the stronger character, acting as a driven, motivated voice of reason, dedicated to the pursuit of justice for an illegally executed Afghan police officer, and a much needed ally for Castle. The characters are uniformly good, the exception being the two catalysts for the woeful subplot I mentioned earlier: a phoney vet complaining about how the government’s coming to TAKE OUR GUNS and a PTSD-riddled young man who gets dragged into his bullshit orbit with catastrophic results. This brief look at the gun debate, the treatment of veterans and the epidemic of law enforcement shooting unarmed suspects are clearly an attempt to address or at least examine real world issues, but the rushed approach, their actual effect on the plot and the general way they’re handled mean the show is way in over its head, and none of it works. This ties into another problem the series has in that at thirteen episodes it’s too long; a solid eight to ten would have been enough, as it stands it’s bloated. Cut out the entire subplot with the two vets, focus on Frank, his targets and the two Agents on his trail and this would have been a tight, lean intro to a potential season 2 more in line with the comics. That’s not to say its actual form is bad, it just could have done with some trimming.
Overall The Punisher is a success, in spite of taking a detour from the comic. For the most part the characters are well-written and likeable; Jon Bernthal’s Frank is compelling and it’s nice to see him let off the leash and Madani makes for an interesting counterpart, but surprisingly it’s Micro who acts as the heart of the piece, his connection to Frank and their developing friendship being genuinely touching, to the point where I’d gladly accept him as part of the universe going forward. As a Punisher fan I appreciate this take on the character and his world, and I do believe if you’re unfamiliar with either you’ll still get something out of this. It could do with more action, all told, but I’m hoping Netflix will bring along a second season to handle that, where they can just write a long list of bad guys from Garth Ennis’ run on the character and send Frank after them one by one.
By James Lambert