Welcome Back, Frank.
Frank Castle, skull emblem proudly stamped on his chest, hunts a biker gang through rural Alabama. As he guns them down and rolls over their barely breathing bodies with his murder van, Frank’s deceased family stares back at him from the photograph on the dashboard. In Juarez, Mexico, The Punisher fires a bullet into a cartel member’s noggin while a woman goes down on him. Back at JFK airport, a squealing suit gets chocked out with his own necktie. On a rooftop, Frank tosses the skull Kevlar on a fire. Mission accomplished. Every scumbag responsible for his family’s murder is dead. Hey superhero, we hardly knew you.
Of course, The Punisher is no hero. He’s a maniac. A killer of killers. Where more righteous vigilantes like Batman or Daredevil rise above their grief in their stalking of the night, The Punisher rains bullets upon his victims to drown out his own. His death wish avenger act is not something to applaud. Frank Castle is a walking, talking, festering wound. We watch because we understand, but the best adaptations of Marvel’s most mental comic book character never allow Frank Castle to rise to hero status.
Six months later, he’s just Frank Castle working construction. Or boy loves the hammer, lost behind a beard and the demolition of concrete. Trying to kick the habit of murdering fools, the laughter of his dead children haunts his waking nightmares. Jon Bernthal excels in the quiet, brooding moments. Grief has bought a permanent residence on his face. His stare as deadly as any one of his firearms. Leave the beast alone, and he’ll probably just toss him off that in-process high-rise they’re working on.
His late to bed, early to rise attitude is upsetting the balance amongst his coworkers. These knuckleheads are plotting to rob a late-night, mob-run poker game and drag the newbie who’s taken a shine to Frank into their wannabe thug routine. You’ve seen the result in a dozen noirs. A bunch of dolts foul up and bring wrath upon themselves. It’s all an excuse to unleash the beast. Hammer time. The Punisher returns to Frank Castle with the screaming wails of Tom Waits’ “Hell Broke Luce.” It’s a seriously satisfying act of violence that feeds off our own bloodlust. But the show won’t let us revel in it for long.
Across the city, Homeland Security gets a new recruit in Amber Rose Revah’s Dinah Madani. Back from Afghanistan, she’s looking to connect the dots surrounding an unsanctioned military execution. Despite interference from her misogynist, asshole boss (C. Thomas Howell), Madani’s determined to follow the breadcrumbs all the way to the supposedly extinct Punisher. Here we find our righteous hero. She’s destined to be disappointed in a show that champions the cynical and the fallen.
In the second episode, our first connection to the outside Netflix Marvel universe comes in the form of Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page. When Frank needs help to track down a former NSA spook, he turns to the most sympathetic woman in all of New York. She puts the journalistic screws to the mysterious shadow man codenamed Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and uncovers a potential partner for The Punisher. This series appears to be the least one interested in placating fanboy references, but the Micro character is a necessary addition to the mythology. If we’re going to back a psychopath, we’ll need a slightly less bent human being for him to share his perverse tactics. As he tells Frank, “Every missile needs a guidance system.”
Daredevil season two packed a lot of The Punisher’s origin into the back half, and I was hopeful that this series would move straight into the next logical step in his narrative. Family avenged, but that addiction to retribution unsatiated. When you remove vengeance from the hero, what do you have left? A maniac. Yet, Jon Bernthal’s Castle is more Thomas Jane than Ray Stevenson.
Episode three spends most of its time trapped in a war-torn flashback. Clancy Brown returns as the diabolical platoon leader in charge of Operation Cerberus. We witness Frank lose his soul as the morality gets blurry in Afghanistan and his skill at killing results in a shower of blood. The retching aftermath is certainly revolting, but it’s filler we really didn’t need. What will The Punisher be when those responsible for his birth are gone? Will each season find a new puppet master hiding under a rock?
“It’s a two-man job, so you don’t have a choice.” Episode four has a lot of fun with the Frank and Micro relationship. Their love/hate chemistry will hopefully be as close as we get to any romance on this show. Micro agrees to Frank’s all bad guys gotta die philosophy, and the action of the show revs into high gear. Looking to resupply themselves with military artillery, they need to get The Punisher back to his one-man army status. This operation finally brings Frank face to face with his pursuer, Agent Madani. Not quite The Defenders, but it looks like it’s going to take equally the amount of time to bring this trilogy together.
The first batch of episodes of The Punisher is a lot of setup. It’s definitely a Netflix franchise. Besides rehashing the origins of Frank Castle, and uniting a group of ethically gray protagonists, there’s a side-story involving a PTSD traumatized vet (Daniel Webber) trying to get his life back together by throwing himself back into the fight. Not sure where that’s going, but I’m hoping to see some of that Jessica Jones Nuke before all is said and done. Yet, I don’t want this to wallow in Easter eggs.
Jon Bernthal remains the sole reason to push on. He’s an endlessly watchable actor, and very few wear tortured quite as gnarly as him. I never truly want to root for The Punisher, and if the show’s smart then they’ll subvert our attraction to his vengeance at the next possible opportunity. Just when you want to high-five his Hannibal Lecter heroism, you should feel a little guilty if not downright nauseous. He’s more monster than man.