The Punisher, Marvel Comics’ one-man execution squad, simply cannot be real.
Sure, Frank Castle is a fictional character after all.
But The Punisher, a borderline psychopath on a mission of revenge after his family’s murder, works best as a larger-than-life slab of mayhem – a solemn, implacable mass murderer of the wicked.
He has to be, to compete in a universe of thunder gods, iron men, super-soldiers and young scientific geniuses with the proportionate speed and strength of a spider.
Putting him in the “real” world of actions and consequences, order and (post-traumatic stress) disorder, context and politics, can only yield mixed results.
That should be the takeaway for Netflix and Marvel from the first season of this mostly intense, ambitious and (possibly) well-intentioned series, which is ultimately more hit-or-miss than double-tap.
Even when The Punisher showed up on Season Two of Daredevil, he was shown as an unstoppable force of nature who went to places that the main character of the show would not go. (Remember that disdainful “I think you’re a half-measure” he hissed at Matthew Murdock/Daredevil?)
The Punisher is such an exaggeration of a character that the best Punisher stories – printed or filmed – are those that emphasise over-the-top insanity and downplay emo-laden introspection.
But for his new solo series, Marvel/Netflix have put Castle (a fantastic Jon Bernthal, returning to the role after his well-regarded stint on Daredevil) somewhere in between the two.
And the results? Decidedly mixed.
There is OTT violence, for sure – some of it possibly the most stomach-turning brutality ever seen on a Marvel show. The capper of the first episode even made me wince.
But then, that gets followed up by a whole lot of backstory-building for Castle, to explain why his family was murdered and show us the terrible things he did before that made him such a haunted man (as if watching his entire family murdered was not enough).
And we also have to watch (or endure, in some cases) the parallel stories to his journey: that of Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a former National Security Agency analyst who had to fake his own death and becomes Castle’s sidekick of sorts; Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah), a Homeland Security agent whose obsession with a colleague’s murder leads her to cross paths with the Punisher; and Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), Frank’s former army buddy, who now runs a private security firm with sinister connections.
(Fans of the comics will note Russo’s significance in the Punisher mythos. Suffice to say this season is also that character’s “origin story” in a way.)
And there’s also Lewis Walcott (Daniel Webber), an initially sympathetic young war veteran whose struggle to find purpose in his life pushes him down the path of vigilantism.
So many plot lines, just because there is … so much time.
The Punisher’s first season stretches most of these threads across its full 13 episodes, resulting in the middle portion tiptoeing into tedium.
IMHO, this would have worked much better as a cluster of four-episode story arcs, or “limited series”, to use comic-book parlance.
Resolve one arc, sow the seeds for the next, move on, repeat.
Additionally, the show feels the need to make itself relevant by touching on gun violence and the plight of America’s war (on terror) veterans.
It is somewhat telling of the showrunners’ politics that the only character on the show in favour of gun control – a US Senator – is (small spoiler here) portrayed as a snivelling and lying coward.
The show is much kinder, in fact, to Lewis as he deteriorates from wayward veteran to murderer and then, mass murderer.
Although the characters – including Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) from Daredevil, appearing here in her journalist’s capacity – call him out on his actions, the resolution of Lewis’s story seems way more dignified than the series’ depiction of the one character asking for stricter background checks on gun buyers.
The whole Lewis subplot seems unnecessary because it feels shoehorned into the show and only distracts from the main story.
And where that main plot is concerned, again, the show spends more time than needed to drive home the fact that its villains are despicable and eminently worthy of punishment. We kind of got the point after the first torture-murder flashback.
When the punishing does get started, though, it is – if I may use such a word – glorious; a satisfying payoff to the patience shown by loyal fans in wading through the dialogue-heavy stretches.
Sure, we don’t want a show that is nothing but violence. There needs to be a balance of action and substance.
For the second season, the showrunners should be able to strike a better one now that Castle’s character has been fleshed out.
After all, the guilty must be punished, and the line never ends.
All 13 episodes of Marvel’s The Punisher are available on Netflix.