Photo: The Punisher (Netflix)

I went on a real journey with Frank Castle a.k.a “the Punisher” while watching and reviewing Daredevil’s second season. In fact, I literally titled one of my late-season reviews, “Your binge-reviewer changed her mind, the Punisher just might be Daredevil’s best character.” With his standard issue tragic backstory, penchant for gory violence, and brooding stoicism, it was hard for me to give the series the benefit of the doubt that it could do something original with all the well-trod male antihero building blocks baked into Frank Castle’s character. But in the end, I think the series did—especially by exploring Frank as a father and a father figure. Now the question is, can Frank Castle be equally compelling as the lead in his own series? So far the jury is still out.

One of the tricky things about reviewing a TV show episodically is that you don’t have the benefit of knowing where things are going. Pieces that seem cliché, pointless, or flat out problematic can be can transformed into something powerful with additional context. On the other hand, given that TV shows (even bingeable ones like The Punisher) are explicitly designed to be consumed in chunks, I also don’t think it’s fair to expect an audience to withhold judgment until they’ve seen an entire season (or multiple seasons) of a series. On the other other hand, given that I’ve underestimated the nuances of the Punisher once before, I’m wary of making that same mistake again.

If it sounds like I’m conflicted, it’s because I am. And that’s down to the fact that I had two very different responses to the two very different tones this episode strikes. Since what I didn’t like is much shorter than what I did, let’s get that out of the way first: Ooh boy, those last 10 minutes. As a rule, I’m not against the idea of violent superheroes, but it’s hard for me to imagine rooting for Frank Castle after what he does to those construction workers in this episode’s climax. That’s because onscreen violence is a weird thing. To be able to swallow it as an audience member, I either need antagonists who are entirely depersonalized (the Orcs in Lord Of The Rings, the faceless ninjas in Daredevil) or I need justification as to why the protagonist feels murder is a reasonable option. That doesn’t have to be a justification I’d agree with in a real-world context (in fact, it almost never is), but it has to have some core of relatability, even if just in a heightened sense. Maybe the protagonist is killing in self-defense or only murdering truly heinous people or getting the closure I understand he desperately needs.

“I hope this conversation doesn’t come back to haunt us in an unforeseen way.”

But this episode doesn’t offer any of those narrative justifications to soften Frank’s construction zone attack. Instead he escalates a situation that could’ve been resolved relatively peacefully into an all-out bloodbath. Look, I’m not trying to argue that robbery and attempted murder are good things. But they’re exactly the sort of crimes we have a legal system to punish. And considering Lance and co. don’t exactly seem like high-level criminals who could use mob connections to avoid being punished for their crimes or something, Frank could’ve easily saved too-pure-for-this-world Donny and left Donny’s would-be murderers injured but alive for the police to deal with. The fact that he summarily executes them all is deeply, deeply disturbing.

I get that killing is the Punisher’s “thing,” and perhaps I’m just splitting hairs here (the mobster deaths bothered me far less than the construction worker ones). But if the show wants me to root for Frank, it needed to make the construction workers’ crimes far worse. And if it doesn’t want me to root for Frank, it needed to make his construction showdown feel less like a “fuck yeah!” moment. Given that I’m assuming the rest of the season will be about interrogating Frank’s morality, I’m hesitant to pass too much judgment on how those last 10 minutes play out. I’m assuming (or at least hoping) that the season will ask the questions I’m raising here. My fear, however, is that the episode thinks that it making the construction workers douche-y and making Donnie sweet, it doesn’t need to.

The other reason I’m hesitant to judge this episode too harshly based on those last 10 minutes is that, for the most part, I was pretty impressed with what came before. Yes, the story of Donny getting sucked into a life of crime is completely clichéd, but the episode also sets up a lot of fascinating themes and ideas for the show to explore this season, the most interesting of which centers on the military.

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“Our community theater production of Captain America: Winter Solider is coming along great!”

Outside of the Captain America franchise, there’s a surprising lack of live action superhero properties that feature protagonists with actual military experience. That means The Punisher has the opportunity to chart new territory in that arena, which is clearly a responsibility the show is taking seriously. You just don’t see a ton of shows—superhero or otherwise—that take time to depict a military support group. And The Punisher directly acknowledges a lot of the criticism that’s been preemptively lodged against it by having one veteran spout off the kind of anti-establishment, pro-gun rhetoric many people fear will be at the heart of this series. But his views are not the show’s views, as is made clear by the fact that most of the other veterans roll their eyes at his speech. Instead, the series seems far more interested in exploring the psychological burden soldiers face as they transition back into civilian life—particularly those vets who feel that the violence they were asked to commit overseas didn’t actually do much to protect life back home.

Like all of these Marvel Netflix series, The Punisher is in no rush to tell its story. This premiere quickly wraps up the threads of Daredevil season two (Frank wipes out the remaining criminals with ties to the death of his wife and kids before burning his Punisher costume) in order to bring its protagonist back to square one. It then sets about creating its own slow-burning arc charting Frank’s reluctant (well, not that reluctant) return to violence. Elsewhere, we get brief introductions to the show’s supporting cast, which includes military support group leader Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) as the angel on Frank’s soldier. There’s also Iranian-American Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), whose desire to investigate the death of an Afghan police officer causes her to butt heads with her superiors. Both characters allow the show’s exploration of the military to expand beyond just Frank’s perspective and lay intriguing groundwork for the show’s season-long storytelling.

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Starsky & Hutch: 2017

Smart ideas and all-around solid performances elevate The Punisher’s promising but imperfect premiere. Jon Bernthal, in particular, is doing stellar work I’m excited to talk more about in future reviews. I’m just hoping the rest of the season is a little more thoughtful about its use of violence than this episode is.


Stray observations

  • Just to clarify my thoughts about movie violence: I don’t necessarily think it’s good that I’m able to hand wave away violence when the villains are depersonalized hordes. But that’s definitely the reality of the situation.
  • I really enjoyed the scene between Dinah and her mom (the always wonderful Shohreh Aghdashloo). I’m glad Dinah gets to have a life outside her job.
  • The “running gait recognition” software made me laugh so hard I had to pause the episode.
  • Before Donny flees town with that money, I hope he does something about all the concrete that’s about to HARDEN ON HIS SKIN.
  • Why do all the widowed action heroes have such bland, angelic visions of their wives? Don’t any of them have nice memories of their wives, like, telling a joke or something?
  • I’d highly recommend Jon Bernthal’s episode of The Nerdist podcast. Dude has led an interesting life.
  • I probably would’ve been more moved by Curtis’ hole parable if I hadn’t already heard it done better in one of my all-time favorite West Wing episodes:

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