TV Review

Television Review: Punisher – Season 1

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Episodes: 13

Showrunner: Steve Lightfoot

It shouldn’t be a surprise that, in the current climate, Netflix’s spin on The Punisher (a gun-toting vigilante hell-bent on avenging his murdered family) has garnered its fair share of controversy. Since the cornerstone of the main character’s arc rests on his ability to use a myriad of weapons to eliminate his targets swiftly and effectively, many have discounted the series as pornography for Second Amendment enthusiasts. It is almost disorientating that Netflix’s Punisher boasts a tiny red ‘Marvel’ logo atop its title—in this outing, there are no capes, no spandex, and no powers. In fact, despite the show’s roots,  Punisher distances itself from its superhero kin, making the series’ approach to its titular character more nuanced than its harshest critics might let on.

Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), as a character, has never really fit in the scope of Marvel’s roster, and this series cleverly keeps his solo outing free of any men in tights. Netflix didn’t just make another ‘Marvel’ show—they made a political action/thriller. Castle is often cited as one of comics’ greatest anti-heroes. Our protagonist is a man who casually slaughters countless enemies, but works by an internal code admirable enough to make his viewers believe, even for a moment, that what he is doing is ethically sound. Netflix’s adaptation of Castle doesn’t shy away from these ethical discussions—it encourages them. We get long, lingering discussions about the morality of a murderous Robin Hood, juxtaposed with our journey with Castle himself. It would be easy for the character to slip into whiny/dark and broody territory (a land that Batman sometimes likes to vacation in), becoming hard to watch and even harder to sympathise with. Instead, Bernthal gives the character a depth of personality that keeps you caring about his plight, while not necessarily requiring you to agree with it. The key to any good anti-hero is the feeling of having to ‘check yourself’ when watching them; the Tony Sopranos of the world can lull audiences into adoration before reminding them of the hues of right and wrong. Punisher definitely achieves this.

Plot-wise, the main thread isn’t anything we haven’t seen in every other action film. Ex-marine with a ‘certain set of skills’ goes against a secret organisation who have abused their immense power, uncovering a covert political plot on the side. This part of the narrative isn’t mind-blowing in originality, but it moves the series along at a decent pace. Really, Punisher excels when it tackles issues too complex for concrete answers. Portrayals of the troops can, for me, fall into two categories: propaganda-level glorification, or crippling nihilism. Throughout the thirteen episodes, we spend time with a multitude of veterans, all with distinct personalities, motivations, and experiences. We are shown that soldiers aren’t merely just ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’, but they are people. We see them not as war-machines, but as human beings thrust into something much bigger, and more horrific than any civilian could imagine. The series doesn’t pretend to answer the larger questions regarding enlistments, military privatisation, or war as a whole; instead, it tries to highlight the complexity of America’s post-war climate and the frustrations of those living in the country they fought for.

If you have watched any of the other Marvel/Netflix ventures be faced with some of the same problems in Punisher. Sometimes the episodes feel a little too long, lingering on encounters that could have been handled just as well in a shorter timespan. Twists and surprises are a little more predictable than they probably should be, but their payoff isn’t too skewed. The supporting characters are all extremely engaging, and the relationship between Castle and his hacker-friend/partner Micro is a definite highlight. The series even attempts to address the concept it has been most criticised for—the glorification of gun violence and its impact on America. Sometimes the show has something very poignant to say about this topic, and other times… well, The Punisher needs to shoot people up with a flare of badassery and sweet justice. At the end of the day, Punisher could have been a straight shoot-em-up action flick, but instead aims to be something more. For the most part, it definitely pulls that off. With the current state of the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if some decided that this show isn’t for them. However, for those who miss the ethical quandaries of the likes of Dexter or Breaking Bad, this will definitely hit the spot.

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