The Punisher could have easily been an all around action gore fest with its title character brutally killing people in his own path of revenge. While that does happen, it is a smaller part of a much bigger story that the Marvel Netflix team have chosen to tell. This is a story about soldiers coming home from war and the various ramifications that it has on an individual. It is the post traumatic stress characters deal with that makes The Punisher stands out as not only a great superhero show, but a great character drama as well. All though there are some things that don’t work, Marvel’s The Punisher succeeds in the character study it sets out to accomplish and deliver a well rounded look at individuals with post traumatic stress.
In the wake of the death of his family Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) has exacted revenge on those responsible, brutally killing anyone who got in his way. Trying to move on from the trauma of both war and death, Frank has hung up his role as The Punisher and yearns for a quiet life outside. When the government starts to pick up on a trail that has Frank in the middle, he must fight his way through a conspiracy he was involved with and take down those responsible to escape from the noise.
Right out the gate, it’s clear that Jon Bernthal was the perfect choice for this iteration of Frank Castle. First showcased in the Daredevil series as a powerful killer, he also has a strict moral code due to the tragedy he experienced with his family. That same range of emotions is translated to this show. Bernthal is able to portray an intimidating person to come up against, but also a man with a heavy burden on his heart. We still see the pain that he deals with in losing his family and how that motivates him throughout the show. Frank Castle is a deeply layered character and the show takes its time to fully peel back the layers and show you this broken warrior.
The show also succeeds in Frank’s relationship with other people specifically with the character David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Lieberman and Frank are two polar opposite people with the same goal, and it is entertaining to see them interact with each other. It is an interesting relationship they have but it is one that works and holds the series together. They need each other, but do not necessarily want to help each other in the way the other sees fit. The differences in morals and opinions and the progression of those differences throughout the show makes for great character growth in the both of them that is well paid-off.
Almost every performance is exceptional in this show and it really adds to the pain and suffering the character’s deal with. Lewis Walcott (David Webber) is a character who is recently out of war and trying to deal with life outside of battles and blood. To see that stress take over him is interesting and provides new perspectives on PTSD. Frank’s good friend Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) is also a surprisingly dynamic character who is equal parts debonair yet lethal. It takes a while for his character to fully develop, but seeing his relationship with Frank is well worth the wait with the common struggles they both face.
Those struggles that each character is faced with all revolve around PTSD, and that is where The Punisher excels in its narrative. Most of the characters in the show are either war veterans or have recently been struck with a traumatic event. They all are afflicted with PTSD, but no two individuals are alike in how they deal with it. One character may have small breathing exercises while we see that Frank feels an urge to kill. This adds to the authenticity of the show providing a well rounded look at the different effects of PTSD. It is different for each individual, and seeing how they deal and cope with it is what carries the character arcs.
While there is a lot of violence in the show, it is showing a different perspective on how violence affects an individual. Yes Frank kills a lot of people, but what kind of toll does that take on him? Where does he draw the line? These are questions that the show aims to answer in its look at PTSD. Even looking at the other war veterans and trauma stricken characters, there are questions that are posed in the way they look at their lives following the events. How does one deal with the pain and continue to live with it? These are all hard questions that make for sometimes an emotional watch, but its payoff is well worth the time.
Clipping in at thirteen episodes, The Punisher moves along at a nice pace for about the first seven episodes. The drama is engaging, the action is tense, and the stakes are palpable keeping you binging the show to see what happens next. However, there are a few “filler” episodes that do not necessarily address the main plot but side step to finish out some small subplots before the big finale. The subplots are interesting but they could be wrapped up in one episode instead of taking up 3 episodes from the main story. Again they are analyzing different perspectives on characters, but I feel there was a better way to integrate the narratives together with a reduced episode count of ten.
While an excellent character study is the forefront of the story, the subplots involving the Homeland Security bogs down the show. The characters involved in the subplot are always reacting to something Frank does instead of onsite with the action. It causes the show to slow down since you are seeing or hearing about the same event twice where you just want to move on to the next interesting drama that could unfold.
There are also moments in the show where they try to be too real in their depiction of certain things. Specifically, the show gets a bit too political in terms of a gun control debate. It never takes a firm stance on the issue, and feels like the show is trying to be in your face about real life issues. It does a much better job at showing the subtleties of the PTSD than it does with its political issues, and that sadly hurts the show.
However, the errors in pacing can be easily overlooked with a show that provides depth to its characters so well. Seeing the diversity in the individuals with PTSD is where the show finds its foundation making for excellent drama and heartbreaking events to occur. The Punisher does not necessarily glorify violence, but shows us the dangerous effects of violence in a realistic way. The post traumatic stress in these characters feels real and that is all accomplished beautifully by the performances these actors take on. Frank Castle’s journey may have seemed like a hard one to tell, but it is definitely an interesting one and well worth the thirteen hour binge on Netflix.