I’ve previously had several opportunities to extol the virtues of Jon Bernthal’s Punisher. The former Shane from The Walking Dead (who also scored a few of the funniest scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street) has the perfect mix of seething intensity and brooding vulnerability to bring Marvel’s legendary vigilante to outstanding life. When news came after his star-making turn as direct support in the second season of Daredevil that Bernthal’s Frank was poised for the solo spotlight, I don’t think there was caution in anyone’s optimism. This was a series that fans new and old were foaming at the mouth for, just like Castle himself on the trail of his family’s murderers, and after the decent Luke Cage, downright unwatchable Iron Fist and good but not great Defenders, Netflix once again sticks the landing and gives us a flawless realization of the MCU’s dark corners just as revelatory as the acting work of the man who punishes those who prey on the innocent himself.
So everyone knew The Punisher would be great, and The Punisher is great, but the most surprising aspect of the presentation is exactly why. Just like how the life and death concerns of the devil of Hell’s Kitchen were elevated by the plight of his fantastic supporting cast, The Punisher is buoyed by what I initially feared would be its weakest casting decision. Anyone who’s seen HBO’s Girls has wished they could pull some kind of Last Action Hero magic ticket bullshit and jump inside the screen to beat the hell out of Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Desi, add in that the character he was cast as, Micro, Frank Castle’s stalwart “guy in the chair” has typically been portrayed as an overweight fellow (for example, Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight took the role in 2008’s Punisher War Zone, one of the few positive things about that epic misfire), and you can understand my consternation.
Bachrach’s performance here may be even stronger than Bernthal’s though, the true heart and soul of this series. The minds behind this iteration of Micro have truly made him the yin to Castle’s yang, a man whose family soldiers on and grieves his apparent loss at the hands of the same shady government operators that took metaphorically Castle’s life away from him. The shadowy conspiracies that engulf the two characters form the crux of both their relationship and also the plot, Micro, the sensitive, intelligent type and Frank the brutal instrument of retribution. Their unlikely friendship and connection to Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Rivah) and her own web of loss and deceit make Castle’s motivations that much more believable and sympathetic.
Going the 24/Homeland route with a Punisher adaptation isn’t completely out of left field given the geopolitical underpinnings of human trafficking and state sanctioned executions that permeated so much of Garth Ennis’ now classic Punisher MAX run in the comics, but tying Frank’s origin specifically to these type of underhanded dealings is a particular grace note, keeping Castle’s morality still somewhat black and white while also saving the viewer from witnessing endless scenes of Bernthal taking out the same room full of central casting mobsters over and over again.
But don’t worry, there’s that too. Without explicitly spoiling anything the violence at the series’ apex is almost difficult to watch, but this is a Punisher story after all, and unspeakable deeds should come with the territory. And in that vein, what’s a driven, sympathetic hero without a slimy, duplicitous narcissist of a villain. Enter Ben Barnes as Billy Russo, one of Castle’s black ops special forces partners turned crooked military contractor. Confession time: Jigsaw in the comics is lame as fuck, so just like Bachrach, I wasn’t expecting much from Barnes, even though I was a big fan of his work in Westworld. Barnes ratchets that character’s asshole factor to 11 as Russo, his gross opportunism, greed and materialistic tendencies the perfect foil for Castle’s bare bones brutality, making his ultimate fate all the more satisfying, ironic and well deserved.
Is Frank Castle’s initial Netflix solo outing perfect? The best Marvel project yet from the streaming giant? Many have bemoaned the early going of the series’ somewhat methodical pace and the realistically downbeat portrayal of veterans and PTSD as something they “weren’t looking for” from “their Punisher series”. For an IP that had its origins in the grueling 70’s aftermath of the Vietnam war and the subsequent rise of Grindhouse revenge/exploitation films I’d say the pragmatic nihilism of Netflix’s The Punisher hits the nail right on the goddamned head, and moves the character’s seedy milieu into contemporary times with the type of skill and care not typically reserved for mature storytelling with its beginnings in sequential art. The Punisher is a timeless exploration of heartache, betrayal, and redemption that seems constantly just beyond our grasp.