Marvel's meditation on what it means to be a soldier.

 

And lo! The downward quality trend of Marvel's Netflix offerings did decease. 

Alright, so The Defenders was pretty airless and limp...but inoffensively so. And that shit was a glass of delicious Dasani after Luke Cage's increasingly murky tap water gave way to the straight-up bilge that was Iron Fist. Instead, The Punisher is at this point about on par with the season of TV that birthed it: it doesn't quite make its way to the thematic complexity of Jessica Jones, but it's certainly as engaging and sufficiently character driven as the first two seasons of the mostly good Daredevil.

The first four episodes of The Punisher get the season off to a pretty good start, even if its relatively relaxed pace starts threatening to become a problem down the line (incidentally, The Defenders is the only Marvel Netflix property to not suffer from being about three to four hours too long). The season's plot takes its time establishing itself, and waits until the third episode to fully take shape. On the one hand, this means that scenes are allowed to breathe in a refreshing way, and the result is a quickly drawn familiarity with the characters. We obviously know Frank from our time spent with him during Daredevil's second outing, but Punisher gets us close to supporting characters like Micro and Madani with a marked efficiency. On the other hand, one can't help but wonder if this relatively leisurely unspooling of the plot will lead to patience-strain down the line.

The season's first episode is "3AM," which essentially sets up Frank's status quo in the time since we last checked in with him. Having legit murdered everyone that he thought needed murdering, Frank has more or less walked away from the Punisher mantle. A whole big family sized bucket of extra crispy killing doesn't seem to have been enough to settle the fire that burns down in Frank's soul, though, because now he basically just spends his days rage-hammering a concrete wall at the construction job he works under an assumed identity.

When coworker Donnie — pretty much the only other construction worker who doesn't throw rocks at Frank's head and call him a "retard" — takes part in a heist that goes awry, Frank stops his partners in crime from killing him. Donnie is told to get the fuck out of Dodge, never to return, and by keeping this little mini-plot more or less self-contained the episode largely functions as a way to introduce us to Frank's continued thirst for violence and establish that his moral compass is as solid as ever: He's not about to let the little guy take a beating, even if the little guy happens to be a petty thief. (It's probably safe enough to assume Donnie will be coming back at some point, though.)

In the background, the real plot starts to poke itself up out of the dirt. DHS agent Dinah Madani (a wonderful Amber Rose Revah) squares off against the not-even-all-that-lowkey racism and sexism of C. Thomas Howell's Agent Carson Wolf. He — and eventually those above him — does his best to dissuade Dinah from looking deeper into Frank's old unit and how they might be connected to the torture and murder of a cop named Ahmad Zubair who was investigating drugs being run by US troops in the area. Wolf's efforts are stymied when Castle murders the everloving fuck out of him, as he is wont to do.

Frank, as it turns out, has gutted Wolf for information about Micro, a hacker who has been reaching out to Castle in regards to the same case that Dinah's been trying so hard to investigate. Micro was the NSA analyst who wound up with the tape of Zubair's torture and murder, putting him in the crosshairs of the government's coverup squad when he tries to release it outside the chain of command.

Honestly, recasting Micro into a Snowden-type leaker/hacker character makes way more sense than it sounds like it does on paper, and it definitely helps that Ebon Moss-Bachrach brings a good amount of depth to the role. He and Frank both wrestle with whether or not their version of doing the right thing is actually the right right thing, and seeing the two of them work to outsmart each other in "Kandahar" gave us some of the season's very best moments so far. Frank is obviously more or less unstoppable when it comes to raw combat, but what's nice is that he's no dumbshit, either. Frank reads, he knows things, and maybe he's a man of few words, but the ones he picks certainly aren't wasted. To this end, Frank usually has the tactical upper hand when he needs it, too, which is what makes it so much fun to see Micro basically playing him like a cheap fiddle at every turn.

What starts as a wild goose chase all over New York City winds up being an intricate chess match between two dudes who have spent so much time living underground and looking over their shoulders that it's anyone guess as to which has gotten to the point where they're thinking more moves ahead than the other. Obviously the two wind up joining forces, and their first mission is to gun up by hitting a weapons cache that Dinah and her team were just about to bust as it comes in from overseas. The end result? A pretty thrilling car chase that culminates in a shockingly-ended game of chicken.

The Punisher might not be the most complex entry in the Marvel Netflix library, but it certainly boasts the best work in terms of action sequences. While Jessica Jones busied itself with thematic richness and Daredevil was more focused on close combat, The Punisher gets to stretch its wings a bit, engaging in all kinds of violent mischief. There are car chases. There are brutal fistfights. There's intricate, almost John Wick-level gun combat. Some dudes get properly fucked up with a sledgehammer. The Punisher is making use of the fact that, in terms of genre, it's operating in "action movie" territory, which means it has decidedly more options about what colors it wants to paint with than some of its more generically specific counterparts.

Most importantly, though, it all serves a point. None of the action reads as superfluous or self-indulgent because in the end, it all sits in service of plot and — much more importantly — theme. So far, The Punisher is shaping up to be a story of men and women utilized in the truest sense of the word. War has stripped so much away from men like Frank and angry vet Lewis Wilson. Having given everything they were able to give in service of their countries, both men now find themselves unable to figure out how to stop being soldiers.

In Frank's case, this means vigilante justice and a whole, whole lotta righteous killin.' In Lewis' case, this means digging a foxhole in his backyard and almost shooting his dad, before freaking out when he gets rejected from the PMC he tried to join. The character is clearly a ticking time bomb, and it's my hope that this storyline doesn't dive into exploitative territory (we've already seen a big dude in an NRA shirt hand him a pamphlet that literally just said "GUNS" on the cover). Fellow veteran Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) is certainly right to not really think Wilson will be the best fit for the PMC he runs, but I can't imagine that he'd brush off a fellow veteran so brusquely, especially given an awareness of how PTSD can work (and double especially, given what Curtis had just told Billy about Wilson in the previous scene).

Exploring Wilson's sense of betrayal makes sense; it's smart to show us the other side of Frank's coin (and even challenges us to ask the question — which one of them is handling it better?), but Wilson's limited screentime can risk taking him from actual character to exploitative archetype.

But we'll see! There's a lot of The Punisher yet to come. We've got more to learn about Agent Orange and how Project Cerberus was essentially using US Special Forces members as private, black book hitmen. We'll probably learn more about how Cerberus ties into Clancy Brown's The Blacksmith, and his drug running operation, and we'll almost certainly find out more about how Frank's family figures into the whole shitshow. And if The Punisher's first four episodes are any indication, finding all that stuff out is going to be real bloody, real violent...and real fun.

 

Oh, and also...

• To paraphrase Kevin Smith, I could listen to Shohreh Aghdashloo read my death warrant, and I'd be like, "Beautiful."

• Aw, it's great to see Turk getting shaken down again, because of course he's getting shaken down again.

• It'd be kinda cool to see Daredevil pop in for a moment, but I'd be really OK if he didn't. The first third of this series is so tightly focused and it's working so well that I'm happy to just let Frank do his thing.

• Someone please get me a pair of Micro's sunglasses for Christmas.

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