Netflix unleashes Marvel's The Punisher; another comic book series burdened by unnecessary supporting characters and way too many episodes.
Marvel’s The Punisher was an unexpected addition to the street-level Marvel line up after Jon Bernthal’s brooding performance in the somewhat disappointing Daredevil season 2 convinced the powers that be that a Frank Castle-led solo program might not be a terrible idea. But in finding a convincing leading man who could help carry another hero’s show, neither Netflix nor Marvel found a compelling enough take on the violent vigilante to entirely justify 13 hours with him.
After the disappointment of Iron Fist and The Defenders, not to mention the utter failure that was Inhumans, it feels as though Marvel TV is simply green lighting new projects because it can, when it should be green lighting new projects based on the strength of the idea around a character and a unique creative vision behind it, one that challenges the audience's perception of what a story about a particular hero (or antihero) can look like. But even though The Punisher is an improvement from what we've seen from Marvel TV of late, it still lacks a truly compelling take on the character.
One of the appealing things about the Punisher is the relative simplicity of the character. Like the skull emblazoned on the chest of his otherwise non-descript costume, the character's ethos is very much black and white: if you're a bad guy, you die. While that kind of straightforward simplicity works well in the two-dimensional world of the comics, it's proven less successful in live-action adaptations. The character has been the star of three separate theatrical releases, and all were films that either failed completely or were simply disappointing.
Part of the problem with Frank Castle is that he's little more than a rage-filled murderer, and one with an arsenal of automatic weapons at his disposal to boot. It's no easy task turning that into an interesting three-dimensional character for two hours, let alone thirteen. And it's even more difficult considering how real-world events recently delayed the release of the series. As such, watching The Punisher, it's challenging to disengage from the depressing frequency with which mass shootings occur in this country, and how often the actions of the series’ hero can feel like an unwelcome reminder of that.
This doesn't mean that The Punisher is an unforgivably bad show or that it shouldn't have been made. For starters, it's miles ahead of Iron Fist in terms of quality and given Bernthal's moody performance that's enhanced by the actor's knack for delivering convincing action sequences –a like a construction site brawl where Frank takes on a trio of gun-toting thugs with nothing more than a sledgehammer – there's plenty of reason to think the show could work.
And while aspects of the show do work well, like the diverting interplay between Bernthal's Castle and Ebon Moss-Bachrach's David 'Micro' Lieberman, The Punisher as a whole is slow, and lacks focus. Series showrunner Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal) might have had an edgy hit on his hands if he could have trimmed up the show's many frayed edges, but as it stands, the series simply lacks a truly gripping story.
Instead, the series spreads itself across a multitude of plot points, the most unnecessary of which is the military conspiracy that rewrites the Punisher's origin and essentially hits the reset button on everything that was already established in Daredevil season 2. It's here that you start to see the Netflix/Marvel series formula come into play, and it does the show no favors. While Frank gets back to punishing at a snail's pace, the series introduces a supporting cast of uninteresting law enforcement characters played admirably by Amber Rose Revah and Michael Nathanson. The characters, Dinah Madani and Sam Stein, are virtually indistinguishable from any other cop on these shows who begins by chasing the hero down, but eventually learns to trust that the vigilante in question is ultimately trying to do the right thing.
Despite some anemic attempts to flesh Madani's character out by focusing on her career and Persian heritage – which opens the door for a welcome appearance by Shohreh Aghdashloo as her mother – and introducing a romance with Ben Barnes' Big Bad Billy Russo, she and Stein mostly serve as a conduit for an extraordinary amount of exposition, a function that's not only unnecessary since the plot isn't exactly challenging, but it also grinds the narrative's already slow-moving gears to a halt.
So much of what happens in the first six episodes feels like padding out a story that desperately needs to be much more concise. Beats are performed repetitiously until they numb those watching. After a while, the attempt to visually express Frank’s emotional turmoil and sense of culpability for his family's tragic deaths fails to resonate at all. Meanwhile, a subplot tackling the treatment of military veterans once they return home doesn't rise above being a commendable effort to address a real-world concern. And a midway-point injury that requires the hero to be out of commission for an hour before making a miraculous recovery smacks so much of the episodic rhythms already seen in Daredevil and Luke Cage, it's like the series is just filling in the blanks on a boilerplate template.
The consistency of Bernthal's performance and the casting of Moss-Bachrach, a talented performer who enjoys terrific chemistry with his co-star and brings a welcome surplus of levity to their scenes together, become the saving grace of the season's first half. The two continually call one another out on their respective nonsense, which is completely necessary in order to make it even remotely possible to root for these characters, considering one is a serial killer and the other is basically a creep in a bathrobe spying on his wife and kids while playing the Man in the Chair.
All in all, so much of the first half of The Punisher season 1 inadvertently revolves around the question: Just how much time do we want to spend with these characters? And in trying to answer that question it becomes clear how the Marvel/Netflix formula and 13-episode mandate does the series absolutely no favors. There's a reason why Garth Ennis' Punisher: MAX series found success by turning Frank Castle into a supporting character in his own series – it's incredibly difficult to make one man's endless homicidal rage into an absorbing television series without fundamentally altering the dynamic of the show or watering down the character to the point that becomes the Reprimander.
This isn't a bad show, but the inherent problems with the character are amplified by the season's excessive length and garden-variety approach to the Punisher's way of doing things. At this point, the methods of operation for both Frank Castle and Neftlix's corner of the MCU could stand to be refreshed.
The Punisher season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.