'Punisher' is a shoot-by-numbers revenge fantasy
Warning: Review contains minor spoilers
MANILA, Philippines – There’s a spoiler warning above this article, but the truth is the first season of Netflix’s Punisher is unspoilable. The show doesn’t have a lot of room for twists, and sometimes goes so far as to outright telegraph what little surprises it has. In his second Netflix appearance (the first being in the sophomore season of Daredevil), Frank Castle, aka The Punisher (Jon Bernthal) spends 13 episodes unraveling a government conspiracy while attempting to avenge the death of his family. All the tropey alliances, betrayals, and plot points are present, and it all resolves as one would expect: with lots of grunting and spent ammo shells. There are frequent, and often downright beautiful, bursts of violence, but it’s ironic that a show with this much carnage can maintain so little tension.
We find Castle finishing off the remaining drug lords responsible for killing his family. He corners one final mobster who pleadingly asks, “What does it change if I’m dead?” Castle mutters “Nothing” before crushing the man’s esophagus. After burning his iconic skull vest, Frank settles into an uncomfortable routine of smashing walls at his construction job by day and reliving his family’s murder by night.
Or at least, nothing’s changed until Castle is tracked down by a mysterious oddball hacker who calls himself Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Micro was the one who gave Castle a video showing his unit interrogating, and later executing, an Afghan prisoner. Micro tries to arrange a meeting with Castle, but Castle isn’t exactly looking for a phone pal. Instead, Castle does some digging of his own. Thanks to intel provided by reporter Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), he learns that Micro is David Lieberman, an ex-intelligence agent who went into hiding after supposedly being killed by Homeland Security for possessing the video and sending it to Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah).
To gain leverage on Leiberman, Castle befriends the Lieberman family using his Pete Castiglione alias. This, of course, does not sit well with Lieberman. Holed up in his basement hideout surrounded by computer and surveillance gear, he can only watch as “Pete” interacts-and almost charms-his widow Sarah (Jaime Ray Newman). He eventually agrees to meeting Castle on his own terms- except in this case, that means being pulled around on a city-wide wild goose chase. But Castle flakes out at the very last moment (or at least seems to do so). Lieberman drives back to his hideout not knowing that there’s a volatile bit of cargo in his truck – Frank Castle himself, who must have snuck in during one of the stops. Castle pops out of the trunk like a vicious jack in the box, subdues Lieberman, and proceeds to interrogate him. We use the term “interrogate” loosely here because what Castle does is more akin to torture. When Castle doesn’t get the answers he expects to hear, he drives his fist into Lieberman like that would change reality. Hasn’t it been proven that torture produces bad intel? It doesn’t matter to Castle. Driven by rage or grief or both, he expects the world to relent to his brutality.
Lieberman manages to sedate Castle. When Castle wakes up, shaky but unrestrained, Lieberman repeats his story. There was a ring of military heroin traffickers operating in Kandahar. An elite, off-the-books unit called Operation Cerberus, of which Castle was a member, was assembled to capture, interrogate, and neutralize high value targets. Most members, including Castle, don’t realize they were being used as an armed front of the trafficking ring. It’s not their role to know or question. As their leader, CIA agent William Rawlins (Paul Schulze) says, “I’m the only authority you will need. I point, you shoot.” Castle’s most crushing realization is that all the mobsters he hit were just the tip of the iceberg. The very institution he dedicated himself to was responsible for the deaths of his loved ones.
Three of Netflix’s Marvel characters – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, had to assume – albeit reluctantly – the role of hero. Castle, on the other hand, is unburdened by any conscious desire to be anything other than an avenging psychopath. Kill my family, I rake your face across a shattered mirror. Simple as that. Castle’s moral compass is a crosshair.
With the realization that his work isn’t done, Castle forges an uneasy alliance with the hacker. Lieberman becomes his guy in the chair, the guidance system to Castle’s missile. Violence erupts, and often. But the best scenes of the show are the quieter, more introspective moments between the fighting. The book-loving Castle is capable of dishing some deep truths, as seen in the excellent “She brought the pain” scene in Daredevil. Castle and Lieberman build a tenuous bond held together by their shared sense of loss – or rather, Castle’s loss, and Lieberman’s being lost.
Perhaps as an attempt to downplay its obvious fetishization of guns, the show tacks on commentaries on gun control and America’s treatment of its veterans. The former plays out through Page’s debates with a gun-control activist senator. It’s well-meaning but largely intelligible and comes across as utterly forced. The latter, thankfully, is better realized. One of Castle’s war buddies Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) holds group therapy sessions for veterans. One of the group’s regulars, Lewis Wilson (Daniel Webber), is a young combat vet and perhaps worse off than the other members. Wilson is at once fragile and volatile. He eventually snaps and bombs several buildings in a misguided attempt to combat the US government’s overstep on civil liberties. In a later encounter, Wilson beats Curtis with his own prosthetic leg. I mentioned that the show had its fair share of beautiful action sequences. The isn’t one of those scenes. It wasn’t meant to be.
As a character, Wilson exists as a moral foil to Castle. Why is one man’s pursuit of personal vengeance supposed to be more noble than another’s pursuit of social justice? And it’s not like Castle is completely innocent, either. Many of the soldiers and private military operators he kills were probably just jarheads like him. Maybe what sets them apart is that when you peel away the layers of Castle’s vendetta baggage, his questionable actions were done out of a sincere desire to protect others. Castle was trained to defend, and old habits die hard.
These instincts are most apparent when working with Lieberman. Castle eventually switches mission priority from avenging his family to saving and reuniting the Liebermans. Of course, this being a revenge fantasy, Castle gets his bullet-ridden cake and eats it too. It took us thirteen long and sometimes dragging episodes to get here. But by this point we’ve become invested enough in the characters to overlook the show’s length and pacing flaws.
All 13 episodes of Punisher are now available on Netflix. – Rappler.com