It’s easy to forget, given some of Marvel and Netflix’s recent joint output, what the two studios are capable of when they’re at their best. All the Marvel/Netflix shows exist on a subjective spectrum, but it’s generally accepted that The Defenders, Iron Fist, and Daredevil Season 2 weren’t the greatest, while Daredevil Season 1, Jessica Jones, and (depending who you ask) Luke Cage were much better. Luckily for Marvel fans–and fans of good TV everywhere–The Punisher is with the latter group.
That’s based on the first six episodes of The Punisher‘s 13-episode Season 1, which Netflix made available to press ahead of the show’s Nov. 17 premiere. But even in just its first half, The Punisher Season 1 is confident, well-made television. The show could still blow it in the season’s second half, but that remains to be seen.
The Punisher, of course, follows Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), the titular anti-hero, who perpetually mourns his family by murdering the people responsible for their deaths. Despite doing this for a while now–during Daredevil Season 2, presumably through the events that took place in The Defenders, and now on his standalone show–he never seems to run out of “the people responsible” to murder. The web always expands, the rabbit hole goes deeper, and the conspiracy reaches its blood-soaked tendrils higher and higher into government organizations like the CIA. And the Punisher punishes them all–by murdering them good–while enjoying endless flashbacks of his once-happy family.
That basic framework might seem a little tired, and it is–a little. But if John Wick taught us anything, it’s that revenge flicks done well will never get old. And make no mistake, if you’re looking for another superhero jam: The Punisher has more in common with John Wick than with most of Marvel’s other movies and shows.
That’s a good thing. The Punisher is grounded in the way that Jessica Jones and Daredevil‘s first season were; these aren’t superhumans or gods, and there’s no magic or alternate dimensions. There’s not even a shadowy organization pulling the strings behind the scenes, waiting to be unmasked and defeated in an epic team-up (at least, not in the first six episodes). There’s only Frank, and the military, CIA, and other government operatives who screwed him over and murdered his family. (It only helps these connected shows that The Hand is–hopefully–gone for good.)
In this season’s initial half, Frank isn’t even really Punishing, in the capital “P” sense of the word. He burns his skull-adorned get-up after an opening montage in which–he believes–he puts down all “the people responsible” for good. Of course, there are more layers to uncover, as Frank learns when an NSA analyst-turned-hacker, Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), gets in touch with some new intel. The two make a fun odd couple, first butting heads, then grudgingly cooperating. It’s nothing revolutionary, but there’s plenty of humor and drama to be mined from their pairing, which the season’s second half will likely explore further.
In supporting roles are homeland security agents Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) and Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson), as well as two of Castle’s former squadmates in a Clandestine military outfit known as Cerberus–Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) and Billy Russo (Westworld’s Ben Barnes).
Through these characters The Punisher manages to explore some pretty topical subject matter. Take Curtis’s PTSD support group, which Billy, who now runs a private military company, provides funding for. The veterans who attend feel let down by their country, and they channel their anger in various ways, including some seemingly meant to stir debate among viewers (although never in an unrealistic way).
There’s been some worry that The Punisher would feel tone deaf, given the character’s inclination for shooting lots of people with very big guns, and the many tragic shootings that have taken place in the real world recently. Netflix and Marvel even acknowledged as much when they pulled out of New York Comic Con in October.
But besides an indulgent title credits sequence where a massive arsenal swirls and coalesces to form the iconic skull logo, The Punisher doesn’t feel overly worshipful of the many guns that grace its scenes. Frank uses guns simply as a tool, just as he uses knives, grenades, and anything else in arm’s reach. He doesn’t obsess over them, besides occasional cleanings.
And he spends much of The Punisher Season 1’s first half trying to put it all behind him anyway. Bernthal once again proves himself a fantastic actor, with a simply ridiculous range between emotional drama and rage-fueled action, and he more than carries the show. Just as in Daredevil Season 2, Frank Castle is one of the best-cast characters in all the Marvel universe.
There are seven more episodes of The Punisher to watch, and even Marvel and Netflix’s best shows have begun to drag in their second halves. Some might even complain that the first six are a little slow. They probably could have squeezed this story down to fewer episodes if they didn’t show us the exact same flashbacks of Frank’s doomed family so many times. But each episode picks up by the end, ensuring many will suffer from “just one more” syndrome, until we’ve binged way past our bedtimes, and, maybe, finished them all. At least, I know what I’m doing this Friday.