Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Punisher: Season 1

Frank Castle, the infamous "Punisher", has hunted down and killed everyone involved in the murder of his wife and children. He thinks he can move on to another life, working construction in New York, but it's not long before the past comes back to haunt him...and he discovers that there may have been more behind his family's murder than he first thought. It's time for the Punisher to return.

Jon Bernthal's tortured, intense portrayal of the Punisher was the highlight of the second season of Daredevil, with a hugely positive viewer reception, so it's not surprising that Netflix and Marvel quickly moved to commission a dedicated series for the character. The Punisher, as a character, has always been a hard sell for a mass audience, as he is an ultra-violent vigilante willing to dispense lethal force to punish criminals rather than bring them in for trial and incarceration. After three mostly weak action movies featuring the character, Netflix seem to have found a way of depicting and humanising the character by seeing him through the eyes of other characters: Daredevil and his allies on that show and a new collection of characters on the new series.

The arrival of The Punisher comes at an awkward moment. In corporate terms, the previous two Netflix shows - Iron Fist and Luke Cage - both suffered serious problems writing, pacing and characterisation. The team-up show The Defenders, which united Iron Fist and Luke Cage with Daredevil and Jessica Jones, was fun but a bit lightweight, with a fairly underwhelming set of villains. More politically, the arrival of a series which could be said to glorify firearms and violence at a moment in the United States history when gun violence is, once again, squarely in the news could have been deemed insensitive.

On the first point, The Punisher can relax. It's the best-paced and best-characterised series in the Netflix roster since the first season of Jessica Jones, effortlessly outpacing Iron Fist, Luke Cage and The Defenders in quality (as well as the second season of Daredevil). The Punisher has a murky story to tell about black ops, illegal activities in the CIA, power politics in Homeland Security and the morality of using violence to answer such crimes, but it does so in a methodical, logical manner. It's not afraid to spend an entire episode setting up a character's backstory and dedicates one episode to a series of flashbacks to American military operations in Afghanistan. Another is based around Frank and another character, David Lieberman (aka "Micro"), trying to work out if they can trust one another, which is difficult as they are both paranoid loners. In fact, the relationship between the two characters is the centrepiece of the season and is extremely effective, light-years from the gimmicky, "the Punisher gets his radio guy" story it could have been. A superb touch is that Micro's family is still alive (although they think he's dead) and Frank sees a way through them of redeeming himself by saving them so Micro can - eventually - do what Frank cannot and go home.

The Punisher's other characters are equally excellent. Amber Rose Revah is outstanding as Homeland Security Agent Dinah Midani whose prominent side-story could have gone in one of two equally cheesy directions (an unwitting thorn in the Punisher's side or an outright ally) and instead steers a more interesting and nuanced path between the two options. The Expanse's Shohreh Aghdashloo is also very good in a small supporting role as Dinah's mother, and the casting is outstanding as they look like they could easily be mother and daughter. Deborah Ann Woll returns as Karen Page from Daredevil and The Defenders, albeit with significantly less screentime, and is as great as usual, combining toughness, intelligence and resourcefulness behind an apparently vulnerable facade. Ben Barnes is also great as the military vet turned corporate security expert Billy Russo, combining a smooth businessman's spiel with more raw moments of genuine anger from his past experiences.

These characters and the story advance with an ease and depth that most of the other Netflix Marvel shows (which come nowhere near filling their thirteen-episode runs with interesting stories) can only envy. More debatable is the show's relationship with violence and the stance it takes with regards to the issues of gun control in the United States. It's a very gory show, easily the most graphically violence series in the Marvel/Netflix canon, despite the fact that Castle goes surprisingly long periods without massacring lots of bad guys. The violence is handled very matter-of-factly, with less emphasis on "cool" shots and action scenes (well, one "cool guys don't look at explosions" shot excepted) and more on combat being ugly, quick and painful. So the show does a reasonable job of not glorifying violence, even when it does have quite a lot of it. The gun control issue is more interesting, as Karen Page is - despite being a card-carrying liberal social justice advocate on every other front - a firm believer in her right to carry a concealed weapon (after her experiences in previous shows, unsurprisingly) and puts this point across forcefully several times. The show seems to want to get into this debate but ultimately dodges the issue.

The other main thematic debate carried through the show revolves around military veterans. The US treatment of its vets is a hot political issue (as it is in the UK for that matter) and the show manages to avoid grandstanding instead of showing the reality for the returning soldiers on the ground: variable levels of support in how they readjust to civilian life. Russo finds a way of adapting his battlefield skills to (apparently) honest employment back home, Curtis Hoyle becomes an insurance salesman and a mentor to younger soldiers suffering from PTSD, O'Connor is a boastful blowhard and Lewis Wilson's early attempts to find a way of readjusting to life back home gradually deteriorate until he becomes a menace to society and those around him. This storyline has been controversial, with Wilson becoming a homegrown terrorist, but the series does enough to show that his choices and his way out is not the right one and could have been averted with more support and understanding.

The first season of The Punisher is not flawless. Castle's solution to absolutely every problem being the deployment of ludicrous amounts of firepower is true to the character, but risks becoming a bit one-note, and there is as an at times comical disparity between how much damage our heroes can take in combat and keep trucking, and bad guy goons who go down with a single hit. But these problems are relatively minor.

The first season of The Punisher (****) is a surprisingly nuanced story that tackles a number of important issues, from veteran rights to gun violence, whilst delivering a well-paced (if maybe more slow-burning than most were expecting) story through the eyes of a number of well-drawn characters. Freed from the baggage of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Punisher shines, and hopefully this will be the model for the Netflix shows going forwards. The series is on general release on Netflix worldwide.

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