Netflix Marvel Retrospective – Punisher Season 1

With the four major Marvel shows having a season or two under their belts and the Defenders miniseries event premiering, Netflix and Marvel TV took a detour. The Punisher wasn’t initially meant to have a show. Marvel had just gotten the live action rights for Frank Castle back and since Daredevil had his own gritty, ultra-violent show, it made sense to bring in the Punisher. Jon Bernthal was very popular with both Marvel and the fans, so it was quickly decided upon to give him his own show. Interestingly enough, out of all the major characters in this franchise, Punisher had the most live action projects. First, there was the Dolph Lundgren version in 1989, which pretty much felt like every other straight-to-video action flick at the time that it could have just as easily been titled “Big Angry Swedish Man”. The Thomas Jane movie came out in 2004 and is usually considered the best of the initial three films with Jane being in competition with Bernthal as the best live action Frank Castle for most fans. Oh, and Ray Stevenson was in Punisher War Zone which was a box office bomb that had the sleaze of Eli Roth, the pretentious gravitas of Zack Snyder, and the cheese of Paul WS Anderson. The Netflix version was the first TV series as well as the first to be a part of a shared universe. Let’s see what all the hub-bub was about! Oh, and there will be spoilers ahead.

The Cast

Let’s talk about Jon Bernthal first. I know some fans don’t like that he sometimes roared before going into battle, but I look at iconic comic images like this or this or even this and I can’t help but to think the comic version of Frank Castle sometimes roars while going into battle as well. Aside from that, there are probably more instances of Jon shooting people in silence rather than making any sort of sound, but what can you do. People like to complain. Some fans also whine that Jon often emoted and showed sadness over the loss of his family as they preferred the cold and dead-on-the-inside killer often depicted in Garth Ennis comics. I get it. Ennis was a great writer for Punisher but there were several writers who came before Ennis such as Steven Grant, Chuck Dixon, Larry Hama, or his creator Gerry Conway. If the series went on for a few more seasons, it likely would have worked its way up to the Ennis version. Jumping right in with an emotionless Frank Castle got us the Ray Stevenson movie, which, once again, was a box office bomb for a reason. Now, one might argue that a good filmmaker would have made that work, but when it comes to an ongoing live action TV show, you need a proper build up. Bernthal showed the right amount of grit and rage, intermingled with signs of a family man who could have been a pretty decent guy to have a beer with under better circumstances. It should also be mentioned that Bernthal is great at playing angry, violent men as evidence by his roles in Walking Dead, The Wolf of Wall Street, Fury, The Accountant, Shot Caller, Baby Driver, etc. I mean, the guy has worked with Martin Scorsese and if he’s good enough for the director of Goodfellas but not good enough for some comic fans, I don’t know what to say.

Anyway, let’s talk about the supporting cast. In this season, we were introduced to David Lieberman, aka Microchip/Micro (and Netflix actually let him use the name, which was unique in that live action Marvel projects don’t like to use codenames and that goes double for the Netflix shows). Micro and Frank had one of the best bromances in a comic show. With them partnering up and also living together at their HQ, they had the good cop/bad cop thing happening along with an Odd Couple vibe. It made for a lot of good drama as well as some funny moments such as the sandwich scene. I also really liked their first encounters with one another where they play cat-and-mouse before they eventually team up as well as a scene later in the season where they get drunk together. Rounding out the cast are three characters that appear in both seasons: Curtis Hoyle, Dinah Madani, and Karen Page returning from the Daredevil series. Hoyle was a vet, like Frank, and was sort of the Foggy Nelson of the show as he was Frank’s best friend and didn’t approve of Frank’s actions. Madani was the Misty Knight to Punisher’s Luke Cage : a DHS agent initially in charge of bringing Frank in but ends up as an ally. They are both great characters who have interesting storyarcs with Billy Russo, which brings us to…

The Villains

He’s so dreamy. I’d hate to see that handsome face get horribly maimed by glass shards somehow.

As a comic fan, I knew very well that Billy Russo was gonna turn on everyone and inevitably become the villain Jigsaw, so the twist wasn’t all that surprising for me (especially since the Netflix shows like having the hero’s best friend turn evil, come to think of it). Still, Ben Barnes did a wonderful job portraying a manipulating sonuvabitch. Shortly after his reveal as a bad guy, he killed Madani’s partner without her realizing it. At that point, he was in a romantic relationship with Madani, so shortly after killing her partner, he returned home and comforted her in the bath as she washed her partner’s blood off her. It was a really creepy scene that made him one of the more intense villains in the franchise. As the series explored Russo’s character, he showed that he honestly wanted to feel emotions like sympathy and regret but just couldn’t. This was illustrated further in a scene where Russo explained his involvement in the death of Frank’s family by saying he didn’t take part out of duty to Frank but he didn’t do anything to stop it out of duty to his boss, yet he couldn’t understand why Frank might feel a certain way about it. It somehow humanized and dehumanized him at the same time and was a realistic depiction of a psychopath that isn’t commonly seen in fiction. And that final confrontation with Frank was horrifying. I mean, it’s hard to feel sorry for a guy like Russo but I can still hear those screams as Frank grinds his face across a broken mirror.

Meanwhile, William “Agent Orange” Rawlins was a gloriously slimey big bad that you loved to hate. There was also a subplot about a young soldier suffering from PTSD who eventually became a domestic terrorist. While topics such as mental issues, mistreatment of war veterans, and gun control was brought up a lot in both seasons, this character probably incapsulated these issues the most. It was obvious that he was a dangerous and unhinged man that needed to be stopped but there were a number of ways that his rampage could have been avoided if proper care was given. That’s something else that should be commented upon, probably.

It’s Not All About PEW! PEW! PEW!

The Punisher series, as well as the comics, often addressed some tough issues and wasn’t just “Punisher shoots bad guys a lot” (that’s not to say that we don’t get a lot of good action scenes where he does just that). Some of these issues were explored through the character of Frank Castle himself and any good writer will make it a point to show that Frank Castle is no hero. He’s a morally ambiguous character even if some people sadly don’t get that. Obviously, no one should appoint themselves as judge, jury, and executioner. We have a system for a reason. And yet, when Frank Castle beats a man to death with a baseball bat for selling child porn, there’s a part of us that is kinda okay with that. It’s a complex character that, unfortunately, many fans and critics don’t always get. Season two explored the consequences of Frank’s actions a lot more so I’ll come back to this at a later date. There’s not a good segue for this, so um… music!

I didn’t think we would be talking about the music in a Punisher show but here we are.

I previously mentioned that Luke Cage had the best soundtrack of any of the Marvel Netflix shows. Well, this is the runner-up, surprisingly. The show’s theme song sounded very creepy and dark, fitting Frank Castle’s mental state. Then you had the song “Frank’s Choice” that played after a violent torture scene (NSFW); the music reflected the tragedy and the raw, violent nature of Frank beautifully as he made a decision to inflict vengeance on Rawlins instead of “going home”. Aside from the original music, the show used Tom Waits’ Hell Broke Loose during a scene in which Frank killed some guys with a hammer (also NSFW) and during a flashback to Afghanistan (still NSFW), the song Wish It Was True by White Buffalo played. Both songs are rare modern day anti-war anthems that fit the themes of the show and are just nice to listen to.

But That Netflix Problem…

This show doesn’t escape from the problem of spreading stories too thin, however. I haven’t talked about the main plot yet, but it dealt with the death of Frank Castle’s family. Now, if you recall, Daredevil season 2 revealed that Castle’s family died as a result of a multi-layered conspiracy. This season… explained that their deaths were really a part of a multi-layered conspiracy on top of the previous multi-layered conspiracy. It really didn’t need to do that. In most versions of the story, Frank’s family died either in the crossfire of a gang war or as a target from someone with a grudge against him. Simple and to the point. Going by the Netflix version, the deaths were more than a little complicated.

So it starts off with the CIA getting the Marines to smuggle heroin out of Afghanistan with the aid of the DHS, which leads to a gang war in Hell’s Kitchen, which was infiltrated by an undercover cop that died so the DA had to cover up the whole thing, but really it was about making sure Frank was eliminated but it had to look like an accident so the whole family had to go due to war crimes his unit committed, then Micro learned about it and had to fake his death because…. Wait, where was I?

A lot of it seemed like filler for a 13 episode season when it could have been wrapped up a bit neater in a few episodes. Or they could have focused on an entirely different story and left the origin alone.

There were a few other issues as well. For instances, while I liked that some scenes were devoted to Micro’s family as a parallel to Frank, I didn’t care that his wife was attracted to Frank, nor did I need to see his son’s issues at school. We also got two different episodes in which Frank had to recover from injuries. Now, all the Netflix Marvel shows had at least one episode per season where they had to get patched up by Claire Temple which gave her a chance to shine while also allowing the hero some character development as they had a flashback or something while they recuperated. After The Defenders, Rosario Dawson was no longer available for the Netflix shows (final season of Luke Cage not withstanding) so she never popped up in the Punisher series. Other characters had to step in and help Frank and there didn’t seem to be much importance in these sequences in regards to anyone’s arc. Again, it seemed like filler.

Final Verdict

Typical Netflix issues and an overly complicated origin story aside, I thought it was a solid season with good action, interesting characters, and an impressive score. On the whole, I think the Punisher series was behind the Daredevil series as the second best Marvel Netflix show. I think Bernthal is probably the best Frank Castle we’ve had in live action so far and I wouldn’t mind seeing him again. Now that we’ve been introduced to all the Marvel Netflix shows, it’s sadly time to get into what I like to call “Phase Two” which consists of all the shows coming to an end. Jessica Jones season two is coming up next.

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