Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Most Consistently Wonderful Component Of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Is . . . The Punisher Season 1!

The Good: Impressive acting, Good themes, Engaging characters, Surprisingly smart plot and character development, Artful direction
The Bad: Problematic set-up. Moments of predictability.
The Basics: Netflix manages to create a work of surprising genius and greatness for the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the first season of The Punisher!

For all of its creativity and its high production values and the caliber of performers drawn to it, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become unfortunately stale. The general concept of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has steadily developed from a few fantastic characters existing within a familiar and realistic world to an expansive setting populated by aliens, gods, and artifacts of virtually unlimited power. The plots have become something of a repetitive epic: the hero story played out with varying degrees of power and personality with familiar villains each equipped with their fatal flaw. In the blockbuster film portion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are very few surprises left to be had; the films now tread toward the safe and familiar as opposed to the audacious and groundbreaking.

But in the television section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are still some surprises to be had. And the greatest surprise of the franchise is the overwhelming quality of The Punisher Season 1.

Netflix has a pretty strong record with creating great television and its contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been erratic - like the blockbuster film section they started amazing and became unfortunately more predictable and familiar. Netflix made a safe bet when it began developing Daredevil and it showed took an impressive risk with Jessica Jones Season 1 (reviewed here!) - which I, admittedly, probably underrated and has become the element of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I have returned to more than any other. With the success of Daredevil Season 1 (reviewed here!), Netflix fast-tracked the development of The Punisher Season 1 and the truth is I did not care when it was first announced.

I had no interest in The Punisher Season 1; I have no real interest in the comic book source material. In the Marvel Comic books that I've read in which The Punisher has made a guest appearance, he was a gun-toting maniac with no real depth or character. Daredevil Season 2 did a fine job of making Frank Castle into an interesting-enough character who was not monolithic, but the show seemed to burn out almost the entire significant story for Frank Castle - including having Castle encounter and defeat his most significant adversary. So, when The Punisher Season 1 was announced, it seemed like there would be remarkably little they could actually do with the character that was intriguing or worthwhile.

And yet, Netflix found a way.

The Punisher Season 1 is most hampered by its set-up; Daredevil Season 2 illustrated Frank Castle's backstory, gave him a clear direction, and found him murdering his biggest adversary. Castle was a U.S. Marine who returned home from Afghanistan and was with his wife and children in the park when they were gunned down in front of him. Castle himself took a bullet to the skull which left him emotionally trapped in the moment of his wife and kid's murder. Castle has since been on a quest for vengeance and at the climax of his tenure on Daredevil, The Punisher found the person most directly responsible for the slaughter and killed him. The Punisher has to strain just a little bit to make itself relevant following all that.

The Punisher Season 1 opens with Frank Castle completing his mission for vengeance. Having taken out the people directly responsible for the death of his family, Castle hunts down the three criminal organizations that were involved in killing his family. With them exterminated, Castle assumes an alias (Pete), gets a construction job and lays low for several months doing his own thing. But, from his home, he took a CD marked MICRO and on it is a video of an Afghan police officer who was working with the U.S. being tortured and killed in Kandahar. After Castle helps one of his coworkers at the construction site out of a life or death situation and slaughters a bunch of mobsters, Castle is contacted by the man who made the MICRO disc: David Lieberman.

Like Frank Castle, David Lieberman is a man presumed dead by the world; unlike Castle, Lieberman is a technical and computer expert who understands that the execution is evidence of war crimes and that Frank Castle - who is on the video - knows the people involved in committing the crimes. Lieberman connects the dots for Castle; ultimately the death of his family was the result of the people on the MICRO video attempting to silence Castle and make sure their crimes never came to light. So, Lieberman and Castle work to identify the people involved with Project Cerberus who as still alive and who called the shots - and committed war crimes - and bring them to justice. While they investigate using their leads and prior knowledge, Dinah Madani from the Department Of Homeland Security investigates to try to get justice for her murdered partner (the police officer who was killed in the video). Rapidly promoted at Homeland Security, Madani reluctantly starts to trust Sam Stein and she gets close to private contractor and former member of Project Cerberus, Billy Russo. As both teams try to learn the identity of the man giving the orders in the MICRO video, they come into conflict and Madani realizes that Frank Castle is both alive and her best chance to get the justice she desires!

The set-up, then, is a little bit of a stretch: Frank Castle, the man who has spent years hunting down and murdering everyone even peripherally involved in the death of his family just happened to miss a pretty significant group of responsible parties. But the MICRO conceit being directly related to the quest for vengeance that he apparently succeeded at executing aside, The Punisher Season 1 manages to do some great things.

The first is that The Punisher is riveting television because it is at least as much talking as it is action sequences. The Punisher Season 1 features characters in therapy, investigators tirelessly following leads without super powers (following a chain of evidence) and telling stories to one another. The show does not hinge on the cheap reversals; one of the biggest character revelations is spoiled by anyone with a brain by a name that is thrown around and when it is made explicit in the show, it is not treated as a shocking cliffhanger - the characters who have not put it together before now are too busy surviving at the time to stop to feel betrayed! Most of the dialogue in The Punisher is organic, emotive and smacks of realism.

Second, The Punisher has genuinely well-developed themes and characters who act like real people. Curtis Hoyle is a former Marine who now runs group therapy sessions for Marines and soldiers who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. And The Punisher Season 1 gives the characters and the show enough time to talk about their feelings and express a sense of loss. War is hell and it doesn't end when the soldiers come home; the show illustrates that military personnel are often haunted by their own actions. That is incredibly well-developed in the first season of The Punisher. Also well-portrayed is the idea that not everyone can be saved, as tragic as that is.

Finally, The Punisher seems to quickly realize that there is very little left that the show could do that is new and imaginative in the field of action sequences and violence. The other Netflix contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe have pretty well mined hand-to-hand combat, gun violence and martial arts. So, rather early on directors in the first season of The Punisher stop glorifying the violence with gore. The shots are quick and when they are bloody, they are not frequently lingered upon. The artistry of some of the sequences is impressive and the net result is that when the biggest sequences come at the season's climax, they are all the more horrific and surprising. In other words, while there is a bit of violence in The Punisher, the show seldom glorifies it, lingers upon it, or makes the entertainment value of the episodes hinge upon it.

What is arguably the most impressive aspect of The Punisher Season 1 is that it manages to keep a good tension going throughout the entire season. There is the sense that, at any moment, any of the characters could actually be killed and that leads to some interesting dramatic surprises in the first season. Characters who appear in the first couple episodes are set up as if they would be the traditional sidekick and primary adversary for Frank Castle, but the show moves beyond them quickly and in interesting ways.

As well, because Frank Castle was so well-defined in Daredevil, rather than (poorly) redefine or retcon Castle, The Punisher Season 1 uses the well-established Frank Castle and surrounds him with new, interesting characters who are able to hold their own on screen with the grunting ex-Marine. In the first season of The Punisher, the essential characters are:

Frank Castle - The Punisher, the ex-Marine who is constantly haunted by the death of his wife and children. He goes into hiding with David Lieberman and begins a quest to get revenge upon the people who ordered and orchestrated the attempt upon his life that led to his family being slaughtered. He is resilient, focused, and willing to do almost anything to accomplish his goals. Karen Page reaches out to him and he, in turn, reaches out to Curtis Hoyle. Using his alias, Pete, he continually visits David's wife Sarah and her family,

David Lieberman - Once an analyst for the government, he came across the recording of a civilian being killed by the U.S. and attempted to whistleblow. When he sent Madani a copy of the video, he was hunted by agents and shot at. Having faked his own death, he went into hiding to protect his wife and two children. When Frank Castle resurfaces, Lieberman is able to identify him and he works with Castle to bring the guilty parties to justice so that he can return to his wife,

Dinah Madani - Newly promoted to the Department Of Homeland Security, she immediately uses her position to begin a personal investigation: the murder of her former partner in Afghanistan. She is promoted again quickly and she designs an operation to capture heavy weapons going to known criminals. Unfortunately for her, Castle and Lieberman steal the weapons before Homeland can and Madani becomes aware that Castle is still alive. She gets close to Billy Russo to try to learn all she can about Project Cerberus and Castle,

Sarah Lieberman - David's "widow," she has been mourning David's death for a year when Pete comes into her life. Pete starts helping around the house and is nice to her children. While she is monitored by David without her knowledge, Pete comes to her aid when her children start acting up and others begin sniffing around,

Sam Stein - A competent, but underappreciated Homeland officer, he starts working with Madani and risks his career to help her with her pet project. After showing her the ropes in the office, he becomes Madani's most trusted confidant in the intelligence community, helping her piece together the identity of the people on the MICRO video,

Billy Russo - A private contractor who runs the military/security company Anvil, he used to work with Frank Castle. His military ties run deep and his livelihood depend upon those connections, which makes him very appealing to Madani. Like most of the world, he believes Frank Castle is dead and he defends Castle's legacy to Madani at every opportunity,

Curtis Hoyle - One of the few people who knows that Castle is alive, he is a distinguished veteran who now provides group therapy for other veterans. He tries to counsel Lewis Wilson and he protects Castle's secrets, but he soon becomes the target of those who want to find Castle,

Lewis Wilson - A combat veteran who quickly becomes influenced by a right-wing fanatic, he finds life in New York after his wartime experiences untenable. He tries to use his voice to make change, but steps over the line to become a terrorist himself. When he targets Karen Page, Frank Castle is put on a collision course with him,

and Rawlins - The man pulling the strings, he is about to get promoted in the CIA when Castle starts to hunt for him. He becomes a liability to the CIA when deploys agents on U.S. soil against Castle and another member of Project Cerberus and it backfires.

The Punisher Season 1 is well performed by all of the actors involved and the overall quality of the thirteen episode season is enough to be utterly unsurprised that it has already been renewed for a second season by Netflix.

For a better understanding of what this season is like, please visit my reviews of the individual episodes at::
"3 AM"
"Two Dead Men"
"The Judas Goat"
"Cold Steel"
"Front Toward Enemy"
"Virtue Of The Vicious"
"Danger Close"
"Memento Mori"

For other works from the 2017 - 2018 television season, please check out my reviews of:
"Crisis On Earth-X, Part 2" - Arrow
"A Life Spent" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Inhumans - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 2
Rick And Morty - Season 3
"Beebo The God Of War" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"Don't Run" - The Flash
"Reign" - Supergirl
"Into The Forest I Go" - Star Trek: Discovery
Twin Peaks - Season 3 ("The Return")
Game Of Thrones - Season 7
The Defenders - Season 1
Friends From College - Season 1


For other television season and episode reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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