Adapting The Punisher to the screen has always been problematic across, but in 2017 it’s a political nightmare. For all of the brilliant comic book takes on Frank Castle over the years, from Garth Ennis to Greg Rucka, he remains a character who has chosen to bring his brand of justice down the pointy end of a gun. So it’s mostly a relief to see that Marvel’s Netflix series isn’t all guns and glory: at least not at first.
Last seen in Daredevil‘s second series, Frank (Jon Bernthal) has finished his business with the cartels and attempts to keep a low profile as a construction worker. However, when the mysterious ‘Micro’ (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) sends Frank a video with ties to his past, he must once again wage his one-man war on the government and the crooks alike. With homeland security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) on his tail, and old Special Forces friend Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) in the mix, the path of Frank’s bullets don’t always run straight.
THE PUNISHER must contend with many of the same issues that Luke Cage and Iron Fist faced: there is an ill-defined villain, and there isn’t quite enough story to cover the mandatory 13-episode format. Yet its also got the most well-rounded lead of the series to date. Thanks to the previous appearance, Bernthal’s Castle comes fully-formed but stands at a crossroads of where to point his loaded emotions next.
Showrunner Steve Lightfoot allows his series writers and directors the liberty of playing with the format. Much of the initial arc is spent bringing Micro and Frank together, and while a sidebar involving Micro’s family gives us a lull in the middle, there’s also an episode that gives a Rashomon-style retelling of an explosive moment for maximum impact.
This gets to the heart of THE PUNISHER as one of the first post-Trump series from the studio. Tackling everything from PTSD to forgotten troops, it’s to Marvel’s credit they don’t avoid trying to pay some attention to the gun control debate. Guest star Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) appears to come down on the side of concealed carry, with an anti-gun senator seemingly unable to sustain the courage of his own convictions. If it’s not actively saying that people like Frank will “make America great again,” it’s at the very least giving additional voice to the disaffected.
By itself this is a good thing: a conversation on such a high-profile show is not only admirable but necessary in the wake of the high-profile gun violence of the months leading up the release of the series. Yet it’s also sandwiched between the extreme actions of Castle, some of the most extreme bloodletting in a Netflix series to date, and that’s saying something. As Matt Lampert commented at Sequart, it’s the case of another anti-hero that “succumbs to the same dilemma faced by every post-deconstruction superhero…Either crypto-fascist super-cop, or crypto-fascist criminal; either way, the political choice is clear.” The show might want to be centrist, but Frank’s actions say otherwise.
Yet as an adaptation, this is precisely what one would expect, and on this level THE PUNISHER is an unquestionable success. Bernthal’s performance remains the best screen Punisher to date, and Amber Rose Revah is every bit his equal. Moss-Bachrach skirts a fine line of being comical, but remains a wonderful (albeit desperate) foil to Castle. Barnes has a difficult to define character to work with, but there are enough references to his pretty face in the dialogue for existing fans to know where his arc might lead.
Which leaves us in a rhubarb of a pickle of a jam. THE PUNISHER gives us a version of the character who is doing exactly what he was designed to do. Yet those specs go back to the 1980s, when he was Cord Scott described in Comics through Time as a “representative of Reagan-era retribution and vigilante justice.” Does he represent the same for Trump-era America? Who the villain of this saga is will ultimately depend on which side of the political divide you fall on.