by Adam M. Wilcox
I don’t review a lot of TV series. This will be my first, so I will take a shot at The Punisher! (See what I did there?)
I didn’t read a ton of comic books as a kid. I mean I had a lot of them. I didn’t collect them in sequence. People usually bought them for me, I would read them, and maybe forget about them. When I was 13, I hung out with a pair of twins that were very much into comic books. As a Friday ritual, they would walk to a local candy store that also sold comics, and let me tag along. It was pretty magical. The place smelled of fresh fudge, and the comics would smell like fresh candy also. My mom didn’t mind giving me a few bucks for comics, and candy, and she figured I was keeping out of trouble. My only known way to judge a comic book was to look at the art. In the mid 80s I was very much into action movies that stared Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Chuck Norris. That was the wave of 80s action, big muscles, big guns! The covers of The Punisher comics in the 80s totally reflected this. So I bought The Punisher volume 1. Had a big guy with a bazooka and a machine gun hiding outside of an apartment window wearing black and white spandex, with a giant white skull on his chest, decked out in belts of ammo, knives and grenades. This would be my comic book character I would follow. And that suck for years. I can’t say I collected every single issue of Punisher, but I still have a few that I am proud to own. My point of all of this boring nonsense is to tell you that I am an extremely biased Punisher fan. I know a lot about the character, so I have expectations.
Movies have not been especially kind to The Punisher. There have been 3 attempts. Funny thing, I don’t hate any of them. I like aspects of each, but none of them seem to be complete. 1989’s “The Punisher”, had a wisecracking Dolph Lundgren wearing grease paint which was supposed to pass for whiskers. It had a porno budget, and couldn’t even use the iconic skull because of some licensing snafu, and only got the green light because Tim Burton’s Batman movie was making furious money at the time. It was also made in during that late 80s early 90s time where all comic book movies had to have some sort of goofy vibe like it was actually mandated by Hollywood to not take comic book characters seriously. Like not ever. 2004’s “The Punisher” was a very decent attempt, but there were some tonal imbalances and some rather strange choices that kept it from being great. For one, the entire thing takes place in Tampa, rather than New York, but that is pretty minor…but bizarre. John Travolta, as money launderer/gangster villain was a poor choice by design. Also there are times when the movie switches from dark and dramatic to comedy slapstick so often, that it becomes exhausting by the third act. Tom Jane did a fantastic job in the role, but he seemed to be the only one in the movie that was committed to his role. The second act involves a series of goofy characters, and cartoonish attacks from assassins who’s names and costumes are too comic bookish for even the die hard of comic book fans. It’s still worth a look, and if you can manage to find a copy of the DVD only extended cut, which features a ton of scenes that were cut, and an opening sequence that was animated, it’s pretty awesome. 2008’s Punisher War Zone which is sort of a sequel/soft reboots starring Ray Stevenson in the title role, and Dominick West as Jigsaw. Now the opening of War Zone looks and feels like it was ripped right out of The Punisher Max series made popular by Garth Ennis and Tim Bradstreet. The second and third acts are where I have some serious problems with this movie. As much as I LOVE Dominick West in The Wire, and The 300, here he is playing Jigsaw with cringe inducing camp that feels like it belongs in a Tim Burton movie. Doug Hutchison as Loony Bin Jim ruins every scene he is in. The movie is violent, and rated R, but the goofy tone is even worse than the last Punisher movie.
So when Jon Bernthal was announced he would be playing The Punisher in the insanely popular Daredevil series on Netflix, I was very excited. I loved his role on the Walking Dead. He instantly became a fan favorite, and as I expected he stole every seen. In fact he nailed the character so well, that you could say he exceeded my expectations.
So now…if you are looking for The Punisher…AKA Frank Castle, to not be played like a goofy Tim Burton movie, then Netflix’s Punisher series is worth checking out. There is no goofy Burton stuff going on in this series. Bernthal’s Punisher is very much a combat veteran whose only source of stability is coming home to his family. See, killing does not seem to bother Frank Castle. He is good at it. Good at his job. What separates him from being a monster is his wife and kids. Now when Castle’s family is gunned down in front of him, and he is left for dead….only to survive and somehow come back, Frank decides to take the fight to the enemy with literally nothing or no one to stop him from completing his mission.
The only problem I have with this series is pacing. There is a great story, that I feel could be summed up in fewer episodes. There are many characters that are boring, or just dull because of sub par acting. Two in particular is antagonist Billy Russo played by Ben Barnes, and Dinah Madani played by Amber Rose Rivah. I do with a lot less from these two, but both seasons of Punisher will bore you to death with these characters, and that is unfortunate. What I really want is to see more Frank. There are other interesting characters along the way. David Lieberman/Micro was played by Even Moss Bacharach. An analyst that has seen some things he shouldn’t, and is now on the run becomes a reluctant ally to Frank. Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), amputee, veteran counselor and pretty much only living friend left to Frank. There is also one interesting villain in Season 2. John Pilgrim, a former white supremacist turned Christian zealot, makes for a compelling villain, but he seems to take a back seat to another character who I don’t want to reveal because of possible spoilers. Giorgia Whigham’s character Amy is annoying as hell, and even though she ultimately won me over in the end, I could have used less of her in the series. Also I feel like season 2 would have been better at 10 episodes rather than 13. That is the main problem of The Punisher series. The action is absolutely FANTASTIC but then it slows down again, and crawls so slowly that at times it feels like time is going so slow it might be actually going backwards. I also have a minor gripe: actors, and actresses…I am not a professional actor, but I studied enough drama in high school to know that if you are going to use a coffee cup prop, at least pretend like it has hot coffee in it. If you are going to talk with your hands and make insane gestures with that coffee cup in your hands not even five seconds after taking the cup from a barista, you are telling your audience that the cup is empty, because if it was full, coffee would probably spill out on your hands and it would burn, just saying.
Otherwise the story is actually pretty good in the first season. Not quite as good in the second season, but not bad either. The interesting thing about the show is how in spite of multiple murders, Frank seems to wind up the anti-hero who has multiple people defending and protecting him from various forms of law enforcement. Bernthal has an animalistic approach to this role. When enraged, he can be just as affective with a sharp stick and rock, or his bare fists, as he is with a Heckler and Koch G36C.
Sadly, there will no longer be anymore Punisher shows on Netflix due the Disney licensing fiasco, but I honestly think that Bernthal has more than deserved a fair shot at a movie attempt with a budget that doesn’t play up the goofy Tim Burton cartoon aspect of comic book movies. This series despite all of its flaws has earned the respect of veterans and comic book fans. That alone might be just enough to sell it to a wider audience, just please don’t make it PG-13. The Punisher wins four out of five cheese curds from yours truly.