The first reviews are in for Marvel's The Punisher, the latest addition to the Netflix corner of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Punisher is the third brand-new Marvel/Netflix title to premiere this year - following Iron Fist's launch back in the spring and The Defenders' debut this past summer - but the first installment that wasn't part of the originally-announced Marvel/Netflix TV show lineup (which, in addition to the aforementioned small screen series, included Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage).
Created by Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal), The Punisher is another gritty, New York based, "street-level superhero" Marvel/Netflix series, albeit with fewer connections to The Defenders' overarching narrative. Following his MCU debut as the title character during Daredevil season 2, Jon Bernthal stars in The Punisher as Frank Castle - the former marine who became a violent vigilante, following the shocking murder of his family. Having unraveled part of the conspiracy that resulted in the brutal deaths of his wife and daughter back in Daredevil season 2, Frank is moving on to uncover even more of the government/military's dirty secrets - "injustices that affect more than his family alone," as The Punisher's official synopsis puts it.
The first wave of reviews for The Punisher are now online and, much like opinion about Frank Castle himself, critics appear to be somewhat split on whether the show is a mold-breaker for the Marvel/Netflix corner of the MCU, a bit of a Marvel TV misfire in the vein of Iron Fist and/or ABC's Inhumans, or something in-between. For more on that, read the following spoiler-free Punisher review excerpts, with corresponding links to the full reviews. [UPDATE: Additional review excerpts have been incorporated since this article was first published.]
Variety - Sonia Saraiya
In all, “The Punisher” is not just satisfying but surprising - an interpretation of Netflix and Marvel’s tried-and-true partnership that offers more depth and challenges to the audience than even the gritty world of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones.” Free from superpowers and superheroes, the Marvel universe is more forgiving - and more interesting. Of course, the slightly cartoony Marvel Cinematic Universe is still a world where people named Carson Wolf show up and act as if they are not obviously villains. But “The Punisher’s” place in it is a welcome morass of thorny questions and unresolvable answers. At least in this part of the television landscape, there is room for another antihero.
Comic Book - Kofi Outlaw
The Punisher may seem like the latest in the assembly line of Marvel Netflix series, but it definitely breaks the usual mold to offer fans a surprisingly deep and nuanced tale of violence and the trauma it leaves in its wake. It's unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and ranks up there with the best of the Marvel Netflix brand (Daredevil season 1, Jessica Jones)... For those worried about previous Marvel Netflix series problems coming into play, there are definitely two that do. First: The Punisher is as formulaic in structure as any Marvel Netflix series... In that same vein, this first arc ends with some equally obligatory twists, which could send the second half of The Punisher into some very Luke Cage-ish territory.
IndieWire - Liz Shannon Miller
Honestly, the worst aspect of “The Punisher” is that there’s not too much to say about it. It’s competently made, decently written, but never pushes any boundaries or challenges any big ideas. For a show which seemed, given the timing of its launch, to be so controversial, its most controversial element is its lack of controversy. Frank Castle does some bad things, but nothing as bad as what happens in America on a regular basis. As a narrative about veterans trying to find their place in the world, “The Punisher” has something to say. But it could have been so much shorter, and its placement in the Marvel universe feels tangential at best.
THR - Daniel Fienberg
Far better than 'Iron Fist,' Marvel's latest Netflix standalone is a tight, brutal six-episode story of revenge stretched exhaustingly and inexcusably over 13 hours... The Punisher has moments of excitement, moments of bracing violence and a well-cast star at the center. It's also tedious for long stretches and, when it comes to plot details, astoundingly forgettable. The gun stuff is just an unpleasant capper.
Forbes - Merrill Barr
The Punisher is the best Marvel series to date set within the fictional MCU. Why? Because it does its own thing. Since 2015, we’ve watched a “Defenders” world get built within the confines of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. The Punisher has nothing to do with any of that. While the show relies on some prior knowledge obtained from Daredevil season 2, from the moment we pick up with Frank we’re on a completely different side-quest that serves the show well. In addition to being the best, The Punisher is also the most violent, unhinged series ever produced by the house Feige (or in this case Jeph Loeb) built.
Polygon - Susana Polo
Reviewing Netflix’s Marvel shows before release always comes with some risk, as the company only offers the first half of the season to press. Still, it seems fair to judge a show based on those episodes alone, and update once the rest become available. But here, again, The Punisher feels like a different beast... The Punisher’s first episode is sleepy and repetitive; nothing in it is anything we didn’t see in the second season of Daredevil. Along those same lines, The fifth and sixth episodes already drag more than the others, an indication of the usual mid-season Netflix slump. But at least Punisher’s repetitive beginning is part of the first narratively necessary step in the show’s plot: moving the goalpost on Frank’s revenge.
Uproxx - Alan Sepinwall
But - as was the case with both Iron Fist and ABC’s disastrous Inhumans - nobody seems to have had anything but the most superficial take on how to write [The Punisher] and build an entire show around him... It’s a conundrum: The Punisher is most effective when its title character is indiscriminately slaughtering his foes, but that’s also when it most consistently evokes the kinds of real-life horrors that pushed the premiere back once, and could have kept pushing it back indefinitely. There may hopefully be a time when Frank’s actions don’t instantly recall horrors from our world, but that version of his story will still need to be told much more compellingly than this.
Collider - Chris Cabin
This is incredibly serious material, and it’s a testament to the ambition of The Punisher that the show’s creator, Steve Lightfoot, does not shy away from the isolationism and inner torment that veterans live with on a daily basis... The series is nothing if not timely, and when the focus is on these matters, The Punisher is more challenging and captivating than anything the MCU or Marvel TV programs have produced thus far. When the series moves away from this stuff, however, the show ranges from fascinating to bland to ridiculous.
Reactions to The Punisher are positive, if split thus far - with some critics comparing the series to Marvel TV's previous critical darlings - specifically, Jessica Jones and its own grounded exploration of psychological trauma through the more fantastical lens of the MCU - while others name-drop Marvel TV's most heavily-derided offerings thus far in their critiques. At the same time, most every critic seems to agree that Bernathal delivers another powerhouse performance as Frank Castle in his spinoff series, matching the intensity of his breakout turn on Daredevil season 2 (which helped to land the Castle character his own TV show in the first place).
Another thing that critics appear to agree on is that The Punisher, like every other Marvel/Netflix series before it, takes too long to get going and probably would have benefitted from telling its story over fewer episodes. That's a recurring criticism that Marvel TV is now taking steps to address, based on the reports that the new seasons of Daredevil and Iron Fist will have fewer episodes combined than the 13-episode count of seasons past.
As for the mixed reactions to The Punisher - Frank Castle himself, as mentioned earlier, is no stranger to generating such controversy (depending on who you ask and the context, Frank is either an antihero, an aggressive vigilante, or a flat-out villain), so it's only natural that his television show would follow suit. Bernthal has expressed his hope that The Punisher will spur on debates about the Frank Castle character's ethical/moral code and how that reflects on real world concerns, and it sounds as though his Netflix series will succeed at doing just that, based on the initial response.
The Punisher premieres Friday, November 17 on Netflix. Premiere dates for the new seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist have not yet been announced.
Source: Various [see the links above]