Like many of the comic adaptations before it, Netflix’s The Punisher had previously been brought to the screen. Three films featuring the grizzled ex-marine, Frank Castle, who would go on to become the Punisher, have been made. Even though the character did have its own comic book title back in the mid-eighties, The Punisher was never a major Marvel title, unlike say, Daredevil in its Frank Miller run.
Like most of Netflix’s Marvel series, The Punisher is well executed. Unlike the other series, it is able to jump straight into the story, with the character having been introduced, backstory and all, in the second season of Daredevil. Having not seen any of the earlier versions of The Punisher, it would be unfair of me to compare the different versions. What I will say is if there is a better Frank Castle than Jon Bernthal’s I need to see it!
Bernthal is so completely born to play this character, bringing an intensity and feral believability to a character that is capable of extreme violence. Bernthal’s taciturn turn is compelling and gruesomely attractive, portraying an admirable monster of a being. Frank Castle is a killing machine, out of place in the touchy-feely, let’s-mediate, millennial generation. The liberal espousing of every person having some redeeming qualities is something he knows, all too painfully, not to be true.
The story begins with all but a select few believing Castle to be dead. He has taken on work on a building site, keeping himself to himself, whilst taking out his rage on masonry. Some of the other labourers take a dislike to him and try to intimidate him. He does not rise to the bait. Another young labourer is friendly to him, but Frank tells him that he prefers to be left alone. The young guy, waiting to fit in and looking for friends, latches on to the bullies. One of the bullies is indebted to a loan shark and needs to get some money. He tells one of the others, who tells him of a mob poker game they can hit. The bullies decide to rob the mob poker game and bring the new kid along.
During the robbery, the youngster drops his wallet, revealing his driver’s license. Afraid that his mistake will expose them all, the gang take him to the building site to kill him. Unfortunately for them Frank, who is on the site still, hears about the whole episode and goes full Punisher on them. After giving the mob loot to the kid and telling him to disappear, he goes and wipes out the mob poker players, inadvertently revealing the probability of him still being alive.
Had The Punisher decided to follow the John Wick route and have him fighting and killing mobsters, forced to come out of ‘retirement’ because they are after him and then having various affiliations coming after him – CIA, Homeland, FBI – as they realise he is not dead, The Punisher could have been brilliant instead of just good.
It could have gone the way of the fantastic Jessica Jones, the little known super-powered private eye in the comics, brilliantly realised in her own Netflix series, utilising characters from the comics but bringing a compelling story.
With the exception of the poorly written lead character portrayed by a GOT popular Finn Jones in Iron Fist, all the acting and performances in Netflix’s Marvel fare have been universally excellent, central and supporting characters alike. It is in the area of story, something that was so strong in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, to a lesser extent in Luke Cage, where Marvel has begun to falter.
The Iron Fist story and central character were an unholy mess, making the decision to have The Defenders have it as a launch pad an odd one. In The Punisher, the writers decided to use the death of his family and an ‘off-the-books’ covert mission, that was recorded (of course), when the squad he was part of executed a prisoner, as the premise for the series. The fact that they decided to put Ben Barnes’ (excellent) Billy Russo character in the trailer doing something nefarious was a spoiler of the worst kind.
With its top-shelf acting and first-rate fight choreography, not to mention the excellent editing, The Punisher is somewhat redeemed, though not wholly, allowing the cliched story to chug along nicely. The real issue with the story is not that it is bad, it is that it is too familiar. There are no surprises at all. Every cliche and stereotype box is ticked; a despicable drug smuggle? Tick. A powerfully positioned ‘secret’ overlord? Tick. A slick, but deadly, an old friend who swaps sides and becomes a fearsome adversary? Tick. Innocents in danger? Tick. It is all in there. There really was not enough story to sustain a thirteen episode arc, with some of the middle episodes akin to a more exciting episode of Homeland.
It is a pity that the overall arc is so tiresome because, as I never tire of saying, the performances are first class. No doubt The Punisher will get a second outing, one can only hope that Frank Castle can be found in a more interesting and challenging situation.