The Punisher Advanced Review
Created By: Steve Lightfoot
Starring: Jon Bernthal, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Ben Barnes, Amber Rose Revah, Deborah Ann Woll
A review by Reed DeLuca
Netflix’s long-awaited adaptation of The Punisher drops at the end of the week. I think you should watch it.
Let me be upfront here: I’m a Punisher fan through and through. I’ve been biting my nails waiting for the show to drop. Re-watching season two of Daredevil and re-reading Punisher MAX was only doing so much. Netflix’s highly secretive marketing campaign left me in a state of hyper-vigilance. Would a sort of cryptid Frank Castle appear in my Instagram stories, killing men in the woods? Would a trailer drop while I was in class? I didn’t know. I felt… afraid.
It was amazing.
If there’s an emotion The Punisher is supposed to inspire, it’s dread. And fellow Punisher fans, if you’re anything like me, Netflix delaying the release after the Las Vegas shooting only heightened the encroaching anxiety. Would it be good on a ‘this is a TV show I’m interested in’ level? Would it be good on an ‘I love Frank Castle more than life itself’ level? Would it be good on a ‘The Punisher can be grossly misinterpreted as a paragon of male violence and I really hope Netflix didn’t do that’ level?
Well, I’ve come out the other side of The Punisher‘s 13-episode-long first season to say it blew every single expectation I had out of the water and I want to have its babies.
The Punisher takes the best out of Netflix’s previous Marvel shows. The Punisher absorbs Dardevil’s knack for stunning visual language by utilizing a liberal application of center-framed shots and a focus on fine details, such as book titles coming into focus at just the right time. The Punisher borrows a note from Luke Cage and uses a wide arsenal of music, not just the traditional scoring that appears in Daredevil and Jessica Jones – all while avoiding the anachronistic pitfalls of Iron Fist and The Defenders’ hip-hop soundtracks. Music is an organic thing in The Punisher. Frank plays the guitar intermittently throughout the show – both in memories and in the present. There’s a jaw-dropping sequence set to a Tom Waits song. The opening titles feature the steel and twang of old-fashioned, frightening folk music.
(An additional shout out to The Punisher for having an opening title sequence I don’t even want to skip. Not only is the music fantastic, but it contains a reference to Michael Murphy’s “Gun Country” that isn’t subtle at all and I live for it.)
But The Punisher is more than just excellent visuals and scoring. The Punisher is a haunting meditation on grief and survival. Frank is trapped between death and life. He told Karen Page in Daredevil, “I’m already dead.” He’s arguably the Netflix MCU’s loneliest character. His entire family is dead and he’s stuck, forever living in a record scratch where the deaths of his wife and children repeat over and over in his mind. The Punisher creates a beautiful liminal space for these intrusive memories. They punctuate the emotional beats of the show. Visually, these moments are gorgeous. Jon Bernthal’s physicality is striking. Somehow, even the most subtle expressions are magnified on his face. Bernthal communicates horror of being Frank Castle with a simple inability to sit still. Kelli Barrett holds her own against Bernthal, point to his counterpoint in the flashbacks and hallucinations that plague Frank.
Yet, there’s more good The Punisher has to offer. The show is supported by an excellent ensemble cast, taking a note from the very best Punisher comics. While Frank is – arguably – the loneliest of Marvel’s canon, he is never truly alone in The Punisher.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Micro has perfect on-screen chemistry with Bernthal’s Castle. The two bicker like an old married couple, care for each other, drink together, and become the begrudging found-family of my dreams. Micro and Frank serve as wonderful foils to each other representing alternative paths of masculinity: Micro’s chattiness to Frank’s stoicism; Frank’s willingness to enact violence to Micro’s removal from it, as a hacker. The Punisher uses both of their skillsets equally and effectively. And they’re just fun to watch play off each other.
Frank’s entanglement with the Liberman family doesn’t end with Micro, however. It’s a delight to watch different sides of Frank reveal themselves as he interacts with Micro and then Sarah Liberman and their children, Zack and Leo. It’s something straight out of my favorite issues of The Punisher – Frank interacting with children. It’s the perfect note of sorrow and tenderness that counteracts the liberal helpings of violence offered by The Punisher.
We also get to see new figures from Frank’s past. We meet men that served with Frank and we watch them wrestle with the Frank they knew and the Frank that exists now. Ben Barnes as Billy Russo, Frank’s best friend in the Corps., is arguably the show’s only weak point. For any Punisher fans reading this review whose hackles have raised reading the name Billy Russo in the same sentence as Frank’s best friend – trust me, okay? I was sick to my stomach anxious about it too. But the payoff is worth it. It’s not how Billy’s written or Billy’s inclusion that’s weak. It’s Barnes’ accent, which comes off like he’s doing a character voice. He sounds like a 1920s bareknuckle boxing referee. That’s literally my only complaint. Take that for what you will.
Then there’s Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), who makes a perfect not-quite antagonist for Frank. The Punisher comics have a wealth of incredible (flawed and complex) female characters and Dinah only adds to the existing canon. She’s tough as nails and highly competent as one of the highest ranking agents at the New York Homeland office and when she’s rebuffed by her superior for her gender or her race (she’s the daughter of Iranian immigrants), she doesn’t let it slide. I love her and I’d die for her.
In fact, The Punisher outshines the rest of the male-led Netflix Marvel shows where it concerns women. Aside from Jessica Jones, Netflix has floundered with Marvel’s wealth of female secondary and tertiary characters. But not in The Punisher. Women are Frank’s allies and Frank treats them with well-deserved respect. Deborah Ann Woll is finally given all the freedom to shine as Karen Page. She’s not limited to her position as a love interest. In fact, the show acknowledges and expands upon the magnetism Page and Castle have towards each other, it’s not a focal point of the show. Instead, moments of affection between them are subtle, gentle commas in the narrative – they’re brief pauses, only momentary, and add quietly to the show without touching the main conflict.
Karen gets to have conversations with other women; she’s shown at work – shown being good at her job, respected at her job – holding her own effectively in every field she’s placed into. Woll’s performance is just as transcendent as Bernthal’s. Their on-screen chemistry led to Woll joining The Punisher‘s cast and the two deliver in ways I literally cannot describe to you.
The breakout star of The Punisher, however, might just be Daniel Webber, who gives an incredibly moving and nuanced performance as Lewis, a young veteran. I won’t say much about him for now (you’ll be hearing from me about him next week, when the show’s out, I promise), but I’m extremely impressed with his acting chops and the writing team behind The Punisher.
I have been wracking my mind, trying to figured out how to write this review, or at the least, how to finish it. What do I discuss that’s not a spoiler? How do I keep from just writing “!!!“? The thing is, I don’t know that I can.
As a Punisher fan, this show is everything I could have ever wanted and then some. It’s beautifully shot, with a fine attention to detail that makes me salivate as a Film Fan. There’s a wealth of highly specific Niche Me things that I can’t believe made it into the film. It feels like Steve Lightfoot (whose previous work on Hannibal seems to have only been but a prologue to The Punisher) plugged into my own brain and plucked out minute details and dreams I’ve had to create this show.
BINGE IT. Seriously, whatever plans you have for November 17th – cancel them. Immediately. This is something you aren’t going to want to miss. If you love The Punisher, if you hate him, if you’ve never even heard of him – it doesn’t matter. You’re going to want to watch this. It’s an incredible show, and once with the right kind of nuance for 2017. And it’s got Deborah Ann Woll in it.