The Punisher Spoiler Review

(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: the second season Netflix’s latest Marvel series, The Punisher.)

Why is The Punisher so hard to get right? First appearing in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, was birthed from the same two-fisted pulp sensibilities that created angry, well-armed lone nuts like Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish and Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry. He was less a human being and more of a walking armory; an emotionally stunted anti-hero brandishing killer phallic symbols, living and dying by his own morally compromised code. There’s plenty of entertainment there, but there’s not a lot of substance.

Yet film adaptations of the character have never quite hit the target. The 1989 film The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren as the eponymous gunman has its charms: it’s insanely sleazy, unapologetically violent, and bathed in enough neon to make John Wick blush. Yet no one would call it a “good” film, really. In 2004, Tom Jane gave The Punisher some dignity in a film that transported Frank Castle from the crime-ridden streets of New York to sun-dappled Tampa. The plotline borrowed heavily from Garth Ennis’ acclaimed Welcome Back Frank storyline, yet it never quite functioned properly, despite Jane’s commitment to the role. Lexi Alexander’s stylish, hyper-violent Punisher: War Zone brought the character back to his pulpy roots, and added a supremely hammy villain in the process. Yet it, too, was missing something critical to make it fully functional. All the Punisher films ended up being like well calibrated weapons that are missing their firing pins.

It seemed Frank Castle was doomed to forever be a one-note character until season 2 of Daredevil gave him exciting new life. For the first time in forever, the character was working in live-action, and working well. So what happened? What changed? For starters, Daredevil nailed the casting, hiring Jon Bernthal to play the part. Bernthal, with his busted nose, guttural grunts, and bruiser mentality, seemed to be the first actor to get Frank Castle. Lundgren played him as a bit of a prick, Jane brought a wounded yet ultimately good soul to the part, and War Zone’s Ray Stevenson played the characters as Frankenstein’s Monster with some guns, Bernthal seemed to be the first actor who understood that Frank Castle was none of those things. He wasn’t a hero; he wasn’t an anti-hero. What he was was dangerous. He’s the bad guy, essentially. The bad guy who happens to kill other bad guys, but still a bad guy. Wracked with PTSD and unrepentant about the carnage he causes, Bernthal’s Punisher was kind of terrifying, and that’s exactly what the character needed to be.

The other key ingredient that made Frank Castle work on Daredevil: he was a supporting character. While The Punisher can be entertaining, and he’s had several excellent comic runs (Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX series is a treat), it’s hard to argue that the character is anything more than one-note. And that doesn’t necessarily make for the most compelling lead character. But stick him in a supporting role and you might be onto something.

Which makes giving the character his own spin-off series on Netflix slightly dubious. Having finally found the right way to present Frank Castle as a supporting player, Marvel then went ahead and decided to make him the lead again. So how does The Punisher stack-up? Does the show hit its mark, or is it a misfire? The Punisher spoiler review will tell the tale.

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Welcome Back Frank: The Set-Up

By now, the Marvel Netflix universe has established itself as the grungy, low-key, darker cousin to the big budget Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the MCU goes global in attempts to save the entire world, the Netflix shows tend to stick to the same few square blocks in New York City, and deal with more grounded threats. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always good. While the idea of smaller, more intimate settings for Marvel characters is appealing, the Marvel Netflix shows have had their fair share of problems. Only Jessica Jones has seemed to be able to be completely successful, grafting a story of dealing with trauma and abuse onto a superhero narrative.

The Punisher continues this tradition of tackling darker subject matter. Frank Castle begins the series by killing off the few remaining people responsible for the death of his wife and children. Having concluded his business as The Punisher, he burns his skull-adorned Kevlar, grows a big, fake beard and sets about turning his back on the world.

Easier said than done.

Frank takes a job in construction, channeling his never-ending rage into his work as he knocks down walls with a sledgehammer. All he wants is to be left the hell alone, but his stock villain coworkers keep mocking and goading him. This is bad enough, but they make it worse after they rob a poker game and then try to bump off the only coworker who took the time to be nice to Frank. Frank proceeds to murder everyone except the nice guy, and his old people-killing skills seem to be rearing their ugly heads.

Before Frank has a chance to drift into the background again, he’s found-out by the mysterious Micro, aka David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Like Frank, Micro is believed to be dead. Also like Frank, he has a score to settle. Micro was an NSA analyst who faked his death, and soon he and Frank are working together to blow the lid off of a big government conspiracy involving military contractors and heroin smugglers. When Frank and Micro aren’t investigating, they’re spying on Micro’s wife and kids. Micro has inserted a hidden camera in his family home, and he keeps watch over them. It’s creepy, and the show doesn’t delve into how creepy it is nearly enough. Oh, and since the show apparently thinks Frank needs to make every battle personal, it turns out the murder of his family is involved in all of this as well.

Elsewhere, Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) is trying to get to the bottom of a video tape showing masked U.S. military soldiers executing a prisoner. She thinks Frank Castle is involved somehow, but she’s not sure of the connection yet. Madani soon becomes romantically involved with Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), who used to be Frank’s best buddy in the Special Forces. Billy runs a Blackwater-like government contract agency, and even though the series keeps trying again and again to paint him as a nice guy, it’s painfully obvious he’s going to turn out to be evil. (Which he does).

Other characters include Curtis (Jason R. Moore), another old war buddy of Frank’s, and one of the few people who knows Frank is still alive. Curtis runs a support group for veterans, and in that group is Lewis (Daniel Webber), a young vet clearly suffering from PTSD. Lewis eventually goes off the deep-end and becomes a right wing extremist, staging bombings and terrorist acts that he considers to be patriotic. He eventually blows himself up, because the show runs out of ideas.

Oh, and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) is here too! She doesn’t have a whole lot to do, save for a few scenes where it seems like she and Frank are finally going to hook up and then don’t. Beyond that, it’s nice to see the character again.

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