Hello! Welcome to a new era of the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the first spinoff. When Marvel announced their partnership with Netflix, they outlined their plan for four interlinking shows starring individual characters that would culminate with the team-up miniseries, The Defenders, which I reviewed for you earlier this year. Now, the streaming giant and the pop-culture giant have reunited for a 13-episode series that puts the spotlight on the best element of Daredevil's second season and one of my favorite Marvel Comics' characters, the Punisher.
I'll take a look at the similarities and differences between the show and the comics that inspired it, offer my opinion on the episodes, and clue you in on some Easter Eggs for longtime Punisher fans, like me, that you may have missed. Today, we begin with a look at the show's first four episodes: “3 A.M.”; “Two Dead Men”; “Kandahar”; and “Resupply.”
So make sure you're wearing your vest, we're about to go in hot!
I discovered the Punisher back in 1986 with his first starring series. Since then, I've seen him in a variety of stories. Some stayed gritty and realistic, some dipped their toes in the fantastic reality of Marvel's comic book universe, and some took a deep plunge into the fantastic.
I understand the Punisher is a character that can be tackled a number of different ways, so it was easy for me to set my expectations aside and let this television adaptation be its own thing. Unfortunately, those who only know the character from the previous three film adaptations or who were expecting a slam, bang, action thriller might have wanted the show to be something else—something it's not.
In these first four episodes of The Punisher, there is action but not a lot of it. The show really is a slow burn, and with these first four episodes, Showrunner Steve Lightfoot, the writers, production staff, and actors have put together a story that's one part meditation on grief, trauma, and violence and one part conspiracy thriller. I thought that combination really worked, and part of the reason it did was the reason any story works: solid characters.
The second season of Daredevil made it clear that Jon Bernthal is the best actor to play the Punisher so far. He absolutely nails the character's rage, grief, and unstoppable momentum. When he's on his mission, he's electric.
In these first four episodes, though, we get to see a different side of Frank Castle—a more vulnerable one. He completes his original mission and then succumbs to the crushing grief over the loss of his family, haunted by his personal demons and afflicted with severe PTSD from his time as a Marine. He also wrestles with having to trust and care about other people again—specifically when NSA Hacker David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) forces his way into Frank's life and gives him an excuse to become the Punisher again.
Bernthal and Moss-Bachrach get a lot of powerful scenes together in Episodes 2-3 as we learn more about their backgrounds, but for me, their relationship really starts to gel in Episodes 3 and 4 when you see them start working together and trusting one another. I love that Frank has an almost parental vibe about him when he interacts with Micro, especially when he scolds him about cleaning his gun and playing the guitar.
In Micro, the producers and writers made the right call by taking a classic Punisher character and making him their own. In the comics, Micro has a different build than Moss-Bachrach (Wayne Knight, who played Newman from Seinfeld, portrayed a more faithful comic-looking version of the character in the 2008 film Punisher War Zone) and is more a combination of a computer hacker and James Bond's Q. I like that this iteration of Micro still retained the original character's computer hacking skills but was portrayed as more of an Eric Snowden type. It grounded the character and made him more relatable.
However, when Micro finds Frank, he's not totally alone. There are a few people who still know he's alive. One such person is Karen Page (Deborah Anne Woll), whom we get to spend some time with in Episode 2. It's great to see her come into her own as a journalist, and her interplay with her boss, Ellison, is fun to watch. But where Karen really shines is in her interactions with Frank.
Some felt there may have been some romantic feelings and chemistry in Karen's scenes with Frank, but I think Karen is still haunted by the ghost of Matt Murdock, who is believed to have died at the end of The Defenders. The thought of Karen still grieving for Matt makes her scenes a lot more interesting for me, and Woll played them to perfection. It brought some connective tissue in from The Defenders and fit with the larger themes of this show.
The other person in Frank's life in these early episodes is a new character, Curtis Hoyle (Jason R Moore), who shares a name with an obscure character from early Punisher comics but not much else. Like the comic version of Hoyle, Moore's served with Frank Castle overseas. But this version of Curtis is more heroic and kind than the villainous comic incarnation.
What I love about this Curtis is the almost superhuman level of likability and charisma Moore brought to the character. Curtis is just a great guy, and I kind of feel he deserves more than to be drawn into Frank Castle's twisted and violent world. Somewhere, there's a parallel reality where Moore's Curtis befriends Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson and Chris Evans's Steve Rogers.
These episodes also begin to draw another character back into Frank's orbit: his best friend and former war buddy, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes). In the comics, Billy Russo is the real name of the Punisher's one real recurring foe, a heavily scarred former mobster who goes by the name of Jigsaw. (The Wire's Dominic West played Jigsaw in Punisher War Zone.) In Episode 3, they even reveal that this version of Billy shares the nickname his comic counterpart had before the Punisher threw him through a window and gave him his heavily scarred countenance: Billy the Beaut.
This doesn't necessarily mean that Barnes's Billy will become his comic-book counterpart, but if these first few episodes are any indication, I think he's on the road to becoming Frank's archenemy. Based on the things he's said and done, it feels like he and his company, Anvil, have to be connected to the drug pipeline out of Afghanistan—but they've also given Billy some humanity in his scenes with Curtis and Frank in the flashbacks. I think we're in for a treat in watching Barnes's Billy Russo descend into villainy. If played right—and so far Barnes has been great—it could lead to some powerful and highly satisfying scenes.
The one definite villain of which we know—and who is still alive at the end of these first four episodes—is Agent Orange (Paul Schulze), a C.I.A. agent with the last name Rawlins. We've only seen a little bit of him so far, but he's delightfully weaselly. He seems to be a pretty close adaptation of William Rawlins, a corrupt C.I.A. agent who appears a number of times in writer Garth Ennis's highly acclaimed Punisher: MAX series. I'm very interested to see what they do with the character in further episodes.
Other fun Easter Eggs and nods to the Punisher comics include Frank Castle's alias, Pete Castiglione, which was the original surname of the Punisher in the comics; Frank's father, Mario Castiglione, Americanizedzed his last name to Castle after emigrating to America from Italy. The Gnucci family also appears in these first few episodes. In Garth Ennis's very first Punisher story, “Welcome Back Frank,” he pitted Castle against the Gnucci family and their vicious matriarch, Ma. Micro's line of “Welcome Back Frank” at the end of Episode 1 is a tip of the hat to that story.
These first four episodes of The Punisher introduced some original characters as well, like Homeland Security Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah). In a lot of ways, Madani is a classic crime- and Punisher-story archetype in that she's a haunted law enforcer with doubts—but as a woman and second-generation American with Muslim parents, she's a cool new take on the character that we don't often get to see. However, she doesn’t go it alone; Madani has some great supporting characters surrounding her, like her partner, Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson), and her mother, Farah Adani, played by the always awesome Shohreh Aghdashloo.
Ultimately, I was very pleased with these first four episodes of The Punisher. The pacing was a little slow, but the characters, themes, interactions, and violent action that we did get made the wait highly rewarding. I'm really excited for what happens next, and if future episodes continue with this quality, there's a chance this show could equal—and maybe even surpass—Jessica Jones in quality.
I'm off to watch some more episodes. Check back next Wednesday for my intel report on Episodes 5-7.
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