Netflix’s The Punisher takes superhero TV to the next level

Review by C.J. Bunce

Superhero adaptations seemed to experience a coming of age this year.  After one appearance after another as a Wolverine fans all expected to see, Hugh Jackman finally gave us something entirely new.  Gritty and real, Jackman’s swan song as the ageless superhero in Logan took comic book movies into an incredible new place–a modern classic, a drama with depth and an unparalleled fierceness.  The DC Universe continues its consistently entertaining productions on the CW Network.  And although this year’s new FX series Legion succeeded in telling a different kind of superhero story, its convoluted and frenetic storytelling and visuals often felt like an indecipherable muddle, and the eagerly awaited Marvel team-up Defenders just didn’t gel.  Then comes Netflix’s unlikely comic book adaptation series The Punisher.

It may be less of a trick to take a lesser known character and make him or her approachable, and easier to foul up a well-known commodity, but The Punisher provides engaging drama and compelling storytelling for TV watchers whether or not you’re familiar with its source material.  And its one of the finest examples of the new wave of superhero TV–not that The Punisher aka Frank Castle portrayed by the craggy Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead) has any superpowers.  He is somewhere near the Batman or Green Arrow superhero type, an on-again, off-again anti-hero with special forces–and MacGyver-esque–mad skills, he is a vigilante bent on avenging his wife and kids’ murders (refer to his origin in the Daredevil series) and eliminating those that ruined his life.  Or sometimes those that just get in his way.  Bernthal possessed the mystique of Roddy Piper’s put-upon everyman construction worker in They Live.  Bernthal’s Castle is brutal, angry, tormented, tortured, unrelenting.

He was counterbalanced in the series’ first season by soldier/opportunist-turned-CEO Billy Russo, played convincingly by Ben Barnes (Westworld, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian), who rises to the top of his list, a painful result for Castle since they were practically brothers in the squad where Castle’s life was turned upside down.  Castle is practically a walking dead man, he has nothing to live for, nothing good to look forward to, no purpose left that he can discern.  He’s believed to be dead, living a miserable life of PTSD flashbacks and recurring dreams of his lost family.  His methods of revenge break all societal mores, yet actor Jon Berthal’s phenomenal portrayal of grit and resolve make his character easy to root for.  Even despite the real-world violence he dishes up along the way.

Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Fringe, Medium) was a great casting choice as former NSA analyst David Lieberman aka Micro, an information technology guru who has also faked his death, but to protect his family from the secrets that tie back to Castle’s covert squad back in Afghanistan.  Lieberman’s story is a nicely constructed mirror to Castle’s story, and the series adds a next layer when Lieberman’s wife (played by genre favorite Jaime Ray Newman) meets and falls for Castle, as Lieberman watches through hidden CCTV.

A solid supporting cast includes Clancy Brown as a Major in charge of his unit in Afghanistan, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as a federal official, Jason R. Moore (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) as Curtis Hoyle, an ex-soldier who saved Castle’s life and Castle confidante, Amber Rose Revah (Emerald City) as DHS agent Dinah Madani, who acts as the audience’s guide as she tries to take down Castle, C. Thomas Howell as her smarmy, corrupt boss, Tony Plana (24, Deep Space Nine, Barnaby Jones, Quincy, M.E.) as his boss, and Grimm and Star Trek Beyond’s Shohreh Aghdashloo as Madani’s mother.  Plus the one connection to the other Netflix Marvel series, Deborah Ann Woll appeared as reporter Karen Page.  The result is a welcome surprise for the Marvel universe on par with last year’s Luke Cage.  

Of all the superhero series on television this year, don’t miss The Punisher.  It’s a great addition to the Marvel Universe on film.

The Punisher, Season One, is streaming now on Netflix.

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