Netflix’s latest Marvel mini-series, The Punisher, is more of a drama than a super-hero series. It’s also a more brutal look at Frank Castle, a vigilante who goes to any lengths to expose people who made him do horrible things in Afghanistan. It’s also about what happens when a soldier is sent home, but they neglect to help him deal with what happens when the mission is done
At the center is Jon Bernthal as Castle, who was introduced in the second season of Daredevil. He’s shown as a vigilante willing to exact justice when the law is not enough. When the show begins, he is busy getting rid of criminals. It includes the classic shot of him killing a drug dealer in Mexico by firing his rifle on the US side of the border. Afterwards, it seems he is willing to leave that part of his life behind.
He is toiling away at a construction site when he suddenly gets a DVD that has footage of him torturing and killing someone named Zubair, who was supposed to investigate reports of a heroin smuggling ring. However, he winds up being tortured and killed by a special CIA mission called Cerberus. Besides that, he is killed by Frank. He suspects that what he did in Kandahar may have been related to whoever killed his family at that merry-go-round in Central Park years ago.
He’s also approached by former NSA analyst David Lieberman, aka Micro. He has been forced to fake his death, and is trying to uncover Cerberus and its crimes. He’s got a big computer layout, and even spies on his family thanks to hidden cameras. Frank and Micro make an interesting team, even though they do have problems with their new mission.
Meanwhile, Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) is in New York after working in Kandahar with Zubair investigating the drug ring. The deeper she gets, the more she is threatened. She thinks that somehow Frank Castle is involved, but doesn’t know he’s alive. She also gets involved in Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), who was also with Frank in Kandahar and now runs a private security company.
Thanks to a great performance by Ben Barnes, Russo is the perfect mix of slickness and evil, able to avoid getting his name and suits stained by blood. Eventually he meets a very violent end at the place where Frank’s family was killed, and it’s hinted Russo’s story may continue when he becomes a new villain, Jigsaw.
Russo’s also involved with Agent Orange, the man behind Project Cerberus. He’s later identified as William Rawlins (Paul Schulze), head of covert operations for the CIA and maybe future deputy director. He’s one of those guys who thinks everything he’s done, legal or not, was done to make America safe.
It’s not long before Madani and Frank literally run into each other, especially when he tries to buy some guns. They crash into each other, but he saves her and also threatens to expose the fact he’s still alive. From there, the clashes between Frank, Rawlins, Russo and Madani wind up being an extension of the war they all tried to leave behind.
If there’s an MVP for this show, it’s Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Micro. His tech skills come in handy, although he is a reluctant assistant when they have to go on the field. He really shines when he spies on his family thanks to those hidden cameras. He feels guilty for deserting them for a year, and his pain really shows. It gets even worse when Frank visits Micro’s wife Sarah to help her out with family problems. Micro wishes he could be there, but doing that may threaten his family. Eventually, he does reveal himself when the family is threatened, and winds up the only one who comes out of this battle better than he entered it.
Madani may be determined to avenge Zubair, and later her other partner Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson) when he gets killed in a battle that goes wrong. However, for much of the series, she’s being played, mostly by Russo. This is especially true in episode eight, “Cold Steel”. It opens with Russo visiting his mom at a hospital, dealing with her drug addiction. He talks about how she deserted him and left him to the foster care system, and how he managed to rise above that. This is where Stein gets killed by Russo in front of Madani, and she doesn’t even know it’s him. It ends with Russo wiping the blood off her body, while she sits in a tub, catatonic. However, when she finally figures it out in the next episode, and eventually gets help from Frank and Micro, she has to do dirty things for justice, too.
Some critics have said the story was a little bloated. They could have cut three episodes from the show if they cut out a poker game robbery that went wrong, and at least 25 percent of Madani trying to get to the truth and Russo trying to hide it. Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) from Daredevil was brought in as a sounding board and conscience for Frank. She was brought in to interview a pro-gun control senator, and she almost gets killed in an assassination attempt. After that, she’s not heard from again.
However, a plotline involving another vet named Lewis (Daniel Webber) is more effective. He is trying to shake off Kandahar, but is unsuccessful. He even makes a foxhole at his backyard. Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), who has a vet’s group, tries to help him, but he soon writes a threatening letter to Page claiming she and her paper is part of the problem. He is inspired by a complaining vet named O’Connor, who actually didn’t serve in Vietnam. Lewis eventually bombs an ATF office and nearly kills the senator that Page interviews. He winds up killing himself with a bomb.
The fight scenes in this series are brutal and very bloody, especially in the last two episodes when Frank confronts Rawlins and Russo. It may be justice for past sins, but fans have to remember Frank was part of it, too. The sex scenes are also a bit more explicit compared to other Marvel shows, too.
There were also impressive performances by C. Thomas Howell as Carson Wolf, who was also involved in Cerebus, Shohreh Aghdashloo as Madani’s mom, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as CIA Deputy Director Lewis (who gets caught in Rawlins’ web of deceit).
The Punisher is a change from the usual Marvel series featured on Netflix. There’s no super powers here, but a guy who wants to find peace after losing his family, and nearly his mind and his life. Next year on Netflix, Jessica Jones will try to find peace after her battle with Kilgrave, Luke Cage considers his next move, and Daredevil may return from the dead.