Critics are divided on the real-life parallels of Netflix's latest superhero offering
Is The Punisher, the new Marvel/Netflix series focusing on violent veteran-turned-vigilante Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), well-attuned to the heaviest trends in current pop culture, or the exact wrong show at the exact wrong time? Early reviews are divided. Many of these initial takes note, for example, how similar The Punisher‘s gun-toting black-clad protagonist seems to the descriptions of men who recently gunned down dozens of Americans in mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas. These parallels already caused Netflix to delay the release of the show and cancel a planned appearance at New York Comic Con.
Given the social climate in America right now, maybe such parallels are unavoidable. As EW’s Darren Franich wrote in his own C+ review of the new series, “you could say the new Netflix Punisher show is ill-timed — but when is the right moment to release a TV series about a heroic mass shooter?” Like Franich, Uproxx critic Alan Sepinwall is a longtime reader of Punisher comics, and notes that any unfortunate real-life parallels are likely inevitable given the subject matter: “It is what it is, and delaying it yet again would simply mean it would be associated with the next massacre we’re all upset about instead of the one that just happened.” Nevertheless, critics like Variety‘s Sonia Saraiya still found redeeming features in the show, particularly its appreciation of veteran struggles and its interrogation of the morals of violence.
Check out a selection of The Punisher reviews below.
Daniel Fienberg (The Hollywood Reporter)
“As portrayed by the always watchable and compelling Jon Bernthal and introduced in the early episodes of the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil, Netflix’s version of the Punisher is a man tormented and haunted, ruthlessly efficient and largely impervious to pain. Bernthal’s Punisher is a perfect character for a four- to six-hour miniseries and then maybe to occasionally weave into other parts of Netflix’s Marvel Universe. Unfortunately, whether the fault lies with Marvel or Netflix, this is a partnership that violates all of Netflix’s “Tell your story the way it needs to be told” rules for other shows. With the exception of The Defenders, which was always announced as a miniseries, each and every one of the Marvel/Netflix shows has been 13 episodes and they’ve all had comparable lags in pacing and stumbles in storytelling to reach that number. But Marvel’s The Punisher is the first one that feels at least twice the length it should be.”
Alan Sepinwall (Uproxx)
“Frank Castle is always going to be a guy who has a lot of guns and little compunction about using them, and the show’s opening credits sequence is a slow-motion parade of fetishistic images of weapons and bullets, climaxing in the skull logo being comprised of a bunch of assault rifles. In the series’ opening sequence, we see Frank kill people with a sniper rifle, a pickup truck, and a necktie (the last one played as a joke about two earwitnesses who think Frank and his victim are having rough sex in a men’s room stall). It is what it is, and delaying it yet again would simply mean it would be associated with the next massacre we’re all upset about instead of the one that just happened. The thought of that is more wearying than The Punisher itself is, though for the most part the series — created by Hannibal veteran Steve Lightfoot — trends towards the weaker, duller end of the Marvel/Netflix spectrum, possessing most of the common sins of its predecessors, good and bad, and fewer virtues than the good ones have.”
Sonia Saraiya (Variety)
“But above all what The Punisher is cynical about is the use of force: This is a series where a man who was asked to senselessly kill by his government goes rogue and ends up hunting down members of that same government — because they made him kill people. The show is wary of guns, wary of blind patriotism, wary of unquestioned service; it sides only and always with veterans. (The affection that military veterans have for the character of the Punisher is a long-documented one. The character was originally a veteran of the Vietnam War when introduced in 1974; in the Netflix series, he’s a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Bernthal’s Frank Castle seems to have wrapped himself in these forces because he doesn’t trust anyone else to have the power to wield them — and at the same time, because he is so broken by his own tragedy, he is a protagonist who commits violence while understanding how that violence creates trauma. It makes for a charged, destabilizing dynamic, and one that Bernthal inhabits with skillful aplomb.”
Liz Shannon Miller (IndieWire)
“The Punisher should have premiered on Veterans Day. The series, while technically existing in the worlds of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the rest of the Marvel universe, is far less violent than you might expect, and instead is far more invested in its characters and their lives, especially the experiences of former soldiers returning from war. This leads to a far more soulful 13 episodes than anticipated, as Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) seeks some semblance of peace following the death of his family. It’s also, unfortunately, not quite the romp you might hope for from a Marvel series, even one featuring a character as grounded as Frank, and lacks any real dynamism as a result.”
Susana Polo (Polygon)
“And The Punisher is certainly about a lone gunman — but in its first six episodes it’s much more about America’s intelligence ecosystem in the era of the War on Terror, and the lives of soldiers once they return to our shores. What I remember most from those episodes isn’t the blowout fights or the car chases, it’s the spycraft and intrigue of trained intelligence professionals who can’t afford to trust anyone figuring out how to work together toward common goals, and the clever positioning of Frank Castle and a government agent as opposing figures investigating the same corruption.”
Darren Franich (Entertainment Weekly)
“So this show wants to be different, wants to be a thoughtful version of the Punisher story? It wants to ground him, take seriously the idea of this man as one emotionally bruised veteran among many? Interesting! But you have to actually take him seriously. The show spends a lot of time with Micro and Dinah, giving them families, backstories, relatable reasons for seeking justice. (Revah is especially good, in a part that calls for her to play The Toughest Person Onscreen Who Can’t Ever Be As Tough As The Guy With The Skull Shirt.) But you start to notice a pattern. The show’s playing this sensitive game just long enough to absolve the inevitable punishing. Frank spends the whole first episode looking sad — and then he visits an underground bad-guy hideout to pull the old “lights cut off so the ensuing massacre can begin” trick.”