Recurring Cast: Jon Bernthal, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Ben Barnes, Amber Rose Revah, Jaime Ray Newman, Jason R. Moore and Deborah Ann Woll
Jon Bernthal as the Punisher is the best casting choice made for a superhero movie in a long time. Frank Castle is one of the hardest Marvel heroes to get right, mainly because he is sitting on a very fine line between hero and villain. In popular culture, the character is subject to a lot of false starts. There is nothing particularly wrong with Thomas Jane’s early take on the character and Ray Stevenson’s critically-panned sequel has its fair fan base. The main issue is that the character is miles away from the explosive, light-hearted content of the other Marvel heroes. Even DC’s gloomy Batman has more spectacle than Castle’s scowling, vengeful vigilante. However, there has always been that burning desire to see Castle done right. That time finally came from Netflix using the Punisher as the ideal foil for Daredevil’s story. Jon Bernthal fit the role like a glove, the actor coming across as the actor for those that hate actors. He fills the role with a gritty toughness that seems more fluid and honest than any performance could maintain. He is not Thomas Jane playing a tough guy, but a tough guy stepping onto camera. The joy of the casting is that, not only is Bernthal respected as the alternative actor, the man is also an excellent actor. Making his Castle a ticking time bomb, barely holding it together and stirring with the desire to unleash the anger he has for the world, Bernthal is simply phenomenal in the role. After amazing audiences in the second season of Daredevil, he easily got his own show, fuelled by a fanbase in a frenzy for more Castle. And Bernthal doesn’t disappoint in his own season. Castle is just as brutal, just as violent and just as mentally distraught as ever. We are re-introduced to the character, like a drifting lifeless soul. His fight is over, but the anger hasn’t died. He cuts a tragic figure, taking out his frustration of lumps of concrete at a construction site, the only way he can control the fire inside of him. When the season takes hold and he is spurred into action again, Bernthal doesn’t make Castle a clear-cut hero. He never was. There are times when he is the perfect tool for the job, extracting a marine friend from a shoot-out in the forest or launching into action to save his friend’s family. But there are several point in this season that sees Castle horrendously mismatched with the job at hand. A side-plot introduces a marine-turned-terrorist who can be saved from his road of destruction with negotiation, but The Punisher only knows how to kill. You are actually praying that one of the side-heroes can get to the confused kid before Frank does. And then there is the emotional side to the actor. While never anything less than a hard-as-nails tough guy, Bernthal is unafraid to show the emotional side. Bernthal’s Castle is a man who doesn’t hide how hurt he is, launching into passionate monologues about his dead family, doing the right thing and the country that betrayed him, with a manly tear in his eye. This is a show where you just sit back and watch a brilliant fictional character in the hands of a superb performer.
Alas, if only the story could keep up. Netflix’s Marvel series was once the best thing that had ever happened to TV. But the dip in quality has been unavoidable. It seems that Netflix has a method for adapting shows and sometimes that one method doesn’t work. The Punisher is a hero we want to see ripping into enemy lines, but this is a slow-burning plot about a corrupt government covering its tracks, meaning that for the first half of the season, Bernthal is trapped in a bunker, monitoring computers and spying on the right people. This is not the Punisher show we want. There are one too many side characters we do not care about. Amber Rose Devah is a cop bound by red tape, stopping her from doing the right thing – seen it before, as recently as Luke Cage. Ben Barnes is a friend from Castle’s marine days, too long spent developing his charismatic persona. And while there is an interesting dynamic between the government hacker who faked his own death to protect his family and his spying on a wife, grieving over his death, too much time is spent on that strand of narrative. Netflix is so intent on trying to write good drama that they have missed the point in what makes a good Punisher show. There are breaths of fresh air tucked in. When the show gets to the good bits, it delivers with fine effect. There is a great episode where Karen, the lawyer from Daredevil who stood up for Frank, is captured by a terrorist. The whole episode sees the Punisher fight his way to save her, going through homeland security, thugs and a murderous traitor. By the time he gets to the terrorist, he is a bloody mess, yet no less badass. There are also moments where Castle lives up to his gruesome name, with scenes so violent you will squirm watching the TV. Then again, there is joy to be had in the quieter moments, Frank retreating to a happy memory during torture. Sadly, these beautiful scenes are weighed down with a monotonous plot. It makes for a bittersweet watch, as the series we want is just inches from our fingertips, but just out of our grasp.
Final Verdict: Bernthal is incredible, but this is a weak story for the actor to work with, diluting the stronger moments.