Marvel’s The Punisher: Season 1: a review

Punisher

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I loved the first season of The Punisher.

You might have assumed that I would like it since I am an admitted former comic book geek, even though I’m a couple of decades out of the continuity. While this is true, I was never really a diehard Punisher fan. I remember when he wore white disco boots and shot rubber bullets at Spider-Man. Not exactly the Frank Castle we know from the Marvel’s Daredevil series, or now this one.

I’m pretty sure I watched the Dolph Lundgren movie version of The Punisher back in the late ’80s, but I honestly have no memory of it. It must have been pretty bad. I do recall watching both the Thomas Jane version in 2004, and the Ray Stevenson version in 2008, and I liked both of them, for different reasons. Thomas Jane is just a likeable guy. Ray Stevenson was a scary guy, which I believe may be a more important trait in capturing the character fully.

Jon Bernthal manages to capture this strange duality of Frank Castle. He is likeable enough. He seems like a stand-up guy, someone whose word you can trust and whose support you can depend upon in a clutch. On the other hand, he manages to radiate a terrible menace. His Frank Castle is a violent guy, who perhaps is at his best when he is violent. Bernthal plays that aspect of The Punisher’s personality so well that I almost wonder if some of that comes naturally to the actor. Of course, I knew Jon Bernthal as Shane in The Walking Dead, the guy who slept with his buddy’s wife after telling her he was dead. Bernthal seems comfortable inhabiting the “bad guy” role. Make no mistake about it, The Punisher is a bad guy. He may have justifiable reasons for doing the things he does, but he’s a bad guy just the same. There was a time when our heroes didn’t go around killing people.

But, as much as The Punisher seems to be a lone wolf, a series wouldn’t work without a supporting cast. I suspected that this Daredevil spinoff would rely too much on Frank’s relationship with Karen Page. She does make an obligatory appearance, but Karen isn’t really a regular in this series. And, honestly, I think the season is better for it. Someone else who doesn’t appear is Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, the Night Nurse. As much as I enjoy Ms. Dawson’s work on the Marvel shows, I’m glad she isn’t used here as well.

That means Frank needs his own unique supporting cast. And he gets it. The first is Micro, a computer genius named David Lieberman, who—like Frank Castle—is presumed dead as the series opens. It turns out that he and Frank Castle have enemies in common. The actor, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, is an unknown to me, but I love what he’s done this season. His character, Micro, is a behind-the-scenes guy, not an action hero. And he still looks after his wife and children, even though they believe he is dead for much of the season. He helps to give Frank focus for his rage, and targets for his continuing revenge. Frank has killed a lot of people he blames for the death of his wife and children up to this point, but he’s not done yet.

The next new character we meet is Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah). She is a Homeland Security agent of Persian-descent (her family, at least, speaks Farsi, and may have been Iranian, but I’m not sure that was ever explicitly stated). She is connected to both Micro and Frank Castle. A partner she had in Khandahar was killed by the secret hit squad that Frank was a part of. In fact, we discover, it was Frank who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed her partner. Micro had sent her a copy of the video of the torture killing, which led to him becoming a target and having to fake his own death. Madani hasn’t given up on getting justice for her dead friend.

Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) is an old friend of Frank Castle’s, who was with him in the secret hit squad known as Cerebus (anyone else get a Mass Effect tingle from this?). I know the actor as Logan from the first season of Westworld. Oh, he’s a secret bad guy in this series as well. He is in league with the Big Bad of the season, a CIA bigwig named Rawlins (Paul Schulze), who was once Castle’s commander as well. It seems that Cerebus was smuggling heroin home in the bodies of dead American soldiers, and Rawlins was behind it. He and Frank had a rough parting of the ways, and then Rawlins arranged to have Frank killed along with his family. He didn’t get Frank, however, which was his big mistake. Russo runs his own private paramilitary organization, which is how he becomes acquainted with Dinah Madani. He thinks Frank is dead at the beginning of the season, and is upset when he discovers later that he isn’t.

In the end, this season is about these four characters. There are plenty of other characters on the show who are in the orbits of the main characters. Sarah Lieberman (Jaime Ray Newman) is Micro’s wife, who befriends Frank Castle when she believes he is someone else. Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson) is Madani’s partner. Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) also served with Frank and Russo, and lost his leg while serving; he now runs a support group for veterans. C. Thomas Howell plays a memorable role as Carson Wolf, Madani’s boss at Homeland. Lewis Walcott (Daniel Webber) is a Lee Harvey Oswald-esque character who plays a big role in one subplot during the season, one which ends up with the world knowing Frank Castle is still alive.

The plot may seem complicated at first glance, but it’s really not. Frank wants certain people dead, and they try to kill him first. It becomes necessary for Frank, Micro and Madani to team up to defeat the bad guys.

The violence is over-the-top, and not meant for young children (or any children, perhaps, although they’ve seen worse). While Frank Castle’s nickname may be The Punisher, he has to endure tons of punishment himself, and it can often be difficult to watch.

However, I loved this season, and the emotional payoff at the end was worth all of it.

I think a second season is a foregone conclusion at this point. I’m looking forward to it.

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