(The following contains spoilers for the first season of the Netflix Original show, The Punisher.)
While fans of MCU and lore-gurus on the Internet would like to connect all the pieces together, enjoying The Punisher (created by Steve Lightfoot, based on the comic book character of the same name) stipulates that those notions be left at the door. How we got here, to this spin-off to the second season of Daredevil, was just a means to an end.
Yes, the story resumes from where we left off, and we follow sullen-faced Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle a.k.a. The Punisher’s story from that point on, but that’s all there is to it.
Kids ought to get out of the pool for this one, it’s a bit of an adult swim.
Post-traumatic stress order, displayed in all shapes and sizes, is a major theme of the show and its characters. It’s all very shockingly real, and not over-played where it doesn’t have to be. Such a mature take on a sensitive topic involving soldiers returning from Obama and W. Bush-era Middle Eastern wars is not what I was expecting, but I was beyond glad to see it.
While the origins of the comic book character were originally based in the Vietnam War-era, and a big part of me would’ve loved to have seen Frank Castle get bloody in the grimy 80s’ streets of NYC, the story told in the show does a beautiful and fair job of representing the solider that lives and dies today.
Shell-shocked soldiers sit in circles expressing their frustrations for a system that gave them a place and purpose, only to leave them unskilled to deal with the domestic world once wars were over. Haunted by what they had to do in name of their country, many now feel a phantom limb in place of what was once their place in the world.
Some feel let down by a conspirator government only interested in them as disposable tools of war, while others have little opinions outside of feeling ill-placed for the modern, existing country that they feel they served to protect.
As a result, a character like Frank Castle is seen in a forgiving, tragic light, but his actions as The Punisher are never justified. In fact, to take a side in a story like this one would be foolish. It’s a series of tragic events happening as a result of actions beyond the control of the daily man.
Frank Castle is humanized, just as any other typical vigilante in a modern story, but empathy does not come with forgiveness. You never feel the need to forgive Frank Castle for his actions, nor condone them, but you do understand the messed up, mental cage he has trapped himself within.
It’s the kind of empathy, even in our real world, we can use more of. On that note, a major side-story focus of the show, that also highlights the dangerous potential outcomes of PTSD, is the plight of the disturbed, out-of-reach Lewis Wilson (played by Daniel Webber); a now-empty shell of a person who only found himself to be truly alive and in love with life in the midst of a war.
His tragic story runs parallel to Frank’s, mirroring the similarities of their situations, and how different men cope with the same kind of demons. The thematical sister-story culminates within the main story as a sort of an intentional fizzle as far as Lewis’s individuality goes.
Throughout his story line, Lewis seems like a desperate man who still has the capacity to listen to reason and perhaps be stopped from escalating to violence. Several missed opportunities later, however, and he unfortunately evaporates into just another domestic terrorist devoid of humanity.
People like Lewis come and go, and that is the tragedy that the show successfully punctuates. To understand where such characters came from and feel a human connection to their plight does not mean you forgive or agree with their actions; their fates are a sad fact of life that the show features to remind its viewers that very few people are born killers, but rather the circumstances of a vulnerable human’s life can facilitate the transformation into one.
There are many other stories in this show’s mix that provide context for how people deal with loss and trauma, but some stand out more than others. The show’s version of Micro is a modern hack-style whistleblower; another tragic figure who has to play the role of a ghost to protect his family; and a character whose relationship with Frank becomes one of the highlights of the show.
Characters like DHS agent Dinah Madani (played by Amber Rose Revah) and the world that follows them around, however, is wholly boring and cartoonishly written. This is unfortunate because the majority of the 13 episodes (too long), are meandering sub-plots regarding her place as one of the good guys in the government. Her story is interesting (in a very basic way), but we didn’t need so many hours of characters talking and essentially telling us how they feel when those feelings would’ve been more powerful if they were simply acted out.
The show doesn’t have that many mandatory-crossover characters from other Netflix MCU shows, aside from Karen Page (played again by Deborah Ann Woll) serving as a major recurring character, and an extended guest role/cameo by Rob Morgan’s Turk which serves as a one-off reference to the events of Daredevil season 2.
Karen Page initially seem shoe-horned in due to a corporate-mandated, contractually-obligated mess that is the MCU, but even though the show has to clumsily add in the apparently only reporter who exists in all of NYC, once her position is set, it’s utilized in a way better than perhaps any other occurrence of this character.
Due to her stance on carrying a gun as a symbol of self-reliance and refusing to back off from the danger of a suicidal domestic terrorist based on her principles, she ends up becoming a stronger female character than ever before.
Having gone through the ringer in both seasons of Daredevil, when Karen Page almost jokingly punctuates a certain sentence with “as a woman”, it rings truer than it might have ever before.
With Karen in place, the show puts its foot down (and through) a well-crafted Second Amendment debate by cutting the talk short, and displaying the hypocrisy of an anti-SA stance in the modern world in which we live by not just blabbing about it, but by enacting the winning side of the debate as a series of actions.
(I’d like to point out though, again, for a show taking place in the MCU, hearing the more real-world arguments in support or against are a bit funny. I dunno, in a world where alien robot things jump out of every street corner, maybe you should be packing some heat, yeah? Again, to enjoy this show, it’s best to pretend the MCU does not exist).
Finally, of course, the show’s primary antagonist, Billy Russo, cuts into it all in an interesting fashion. His angle is played in more of a “I thought you was my friend” trope-y way, but it’s not without its charm and emotional contributions to Frank’s drive.
A betrayal by a war buddy is an easy plot device, but within the context of the show, it’s a good way to visualize just another causality of war. Instead of wallowing in pain, Russo has turned his failings (and agony) from the war into a successful business by existing both inside and outside the corrupt system that the Punisher has waged a personal war against.
If you are a fan of the comics and knew of his fate before watching, anxiously waiting for him to become “Jigsaw” had its payoff, but god damn, I did not expect something that gnarly.
All in all, it has its flaws, but I think The Punisher is as good of a truly thought-provoking, intelligent one can hope for in the comic book movie and show atmosphere prevalent today. It deals with real-world anti-war sentiments by actually dicing into the drawbacks of what the actions of a few can do to the many. Sure, it falls into modern TV-tropes more than I would like, which results in a disjointed experience, but I would rather take away the things that it does right when conveying its certain, emotional themes.
Such a real, mature insight triumphs over anything else put out under the Disney/Marvel label, and as far as I can tell, it won’t happen again. Though, such speculation might not even be needed considering how Disney has possibly pulled the plug on the whole operation anyway.
Even if we were to ignore the possibility of that happening, unfortunately, knowing the target audience for the MCU and the conservative (i.e. the actual word, not the political stance) nature of Disney as a primary overseer, I’m surprised and glad The Punisher was able to accomplish as much as it was.
I really can’t see this show being renewed on its merits. It simply does not belong, and thank God for that.