Jon Bernthal stars in Netflix's latest superhero binge.
How could The Punisher be such a snooze? Offensive, ultraviolent, morally bankrupt: That comes with the territory. Frank Castle is a man with a skull shirt who fires big guns at bad guys. So 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?
Anyhow, I’m not the one to moralize. I was maybe 7 years old when I was reading my older brother’s copies of all three monthly Punisher comics. There was a fourth comic Marvel published back then, The Punisher: Armory, which was plotless gun porn with prose-printed information on all of Frank’s exciting weapons. I read all that stuff, loved it, and now I’m a grown man who knows that guns are pointless death machines. Reading The Punisher didn’t make me violent, but watching The Punisher sure made me bored.
Carrying on from the character’s arc on Daredevil, we pick up with Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) finishing his mission of vengeance. His family was killed, do you remember? If not, you’ll be reminded about his dead family every 15 minutes. (I tried counting the dead-wife flashbacks, and lost track at 417.) The series begins with Frank on the move chasing after the Castle family killers. He’s crushing heads in Alabama, sniping long-distance on the southern border, getting all strangly in a restroom in JFK. It’s a riotous high note that the series won’t ever hit again. Immediately, Frank throws his Punisher shirt in a fire. No, Virginia, The Punisher Doesn’t Want To Punish Anymore.
Months later, Frank’s grown a beard, and he’s working at a construction yard under an assumed name. Some of the construction workers are mean to him, and they’re plotting a criminal operation, because it’s inconceivable that the Punisher could find a second career with fellow employees who respect the law. He meets up with his war buddy Curtis (Jason R. Moore), who runs an AA-style meeting for veterans. “What is it going to take to make you happy?” Curtis asks his murderous pal. Finally, someone cares about the Punisher’s feelings!
You can see the strategy here. Creator Steve Lightfoot co-wrote much of Hannibal, an incredible reconsideration of a character long descended into parody. That series extrapolated from the idea that cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter was a psychiatrist, and turned its most profound showdowns into couch-chatter brain-battles between Mads Mikkelsen’s charming madman and Hugh Dancy’s half-sane hero. They didn’t want to get each other; they wanted to get to know each other.
So asking “What Makes The Punisher Happy?” is another way of asking “What Makes Him Tick?” And the Netflix series wants to dig deep into the character’s psychology. The plot’s heavy on wartime trauma, the PTSD of our soldier generation. When he served in Afghanistan, Frank was involved in something, something so bad that the government is involved, so involved that maybe Frank’s hobby of killing bad guys for a living is the lesser of two evils. And there is a supporting cast, full of sane people who don’t just go around punishing people! Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) is a Homeland Security agent with her own questions about What Happened In Afghanistan. Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is the callsign of a former NSA analyst on the run from the law — saaayyyyy is this topical? Daredevil‘s Deborah Ann Woll is back as Karen Page, an endearing person who certainly wouldn’t hang around with a murderous maniac, no no no, the man has a soft side, did we mention his murdered family?
There’s a problem here. The Punisher didn’t descend into parody. He started as a parody, a hyperbolized version of every Death Wish-era vigilante. Decades of comic book history never deepened the character, because there’s no depth there. (Bang Bang! Get it?) Simplicity isn’t a bad thing, and there have been brilliant stories about this maniac. The best Punisher writer of my life, Garth Ennis, spent years ramping up the character’s absurdity (there was a nuclear explosion!) before going Full Dark with a series of bleak stories casting Frank Castle as some kind of American Death God.
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.
An equivalent version of that scene appeared in Lexi Alexander’s wonderfully deranged Punisher: War Zone, in hindsight the Ragnarok of Punisher movies. But the problem here isn’t unoriginality; it’s the halfhearted execution. The whole season’s like that first episode, with padded storytelling eventually broken up by action just interesting enough to keep you watching.
Cards on the table: I don’t think anyone who works on The Punisher really wants to make a show about a dude who spends his whole life shooting people. So they start their show with the Punisher deciding not to punish anymore, and then they airdrop in various explanatory excuses about why he simply has to do this punishing thing he does, he simply has to, Martha. There’s the bad government, and mean coworkers, and when in doubt pull the dead-family lever. The Punisher always had a murdered family, but there were comic books that didn’t need to mention that every five pages. And the way the show keeps bringing out those flashbacks feels like a con job, a way to avoid any potentially difficult (or interesting) questions about Frank’s motivations. I admire how the show situates its Punisher within the greater realities of Middle East conflict veterans, but that’s another bluff, another way to self-justify the inevitable insane bloodshed. The Deer Hunter can’t be Rambo: First Blood, Part 2, you know?
It doesn’t help that the military-corruption plotline feels beamed in from a lesser season of 24, except with longer torture scenes. You wonder if it really serves this character to spend a Bourne trilogy of screentime gradually uncovering a government conspiracy. By way of corrupt-government comparison, there was a riotous sequence in an Ennis Punisher comic book where Frank threatens a corrupt POTUS (in the Oval Office!), the kind of goofy scene you can get away with in truly acid pulp. The Netflix Punisher is too safe for stuff like that. There is a parade of bad-guy suits, one of whom refers to Frank Castle as “The Frickin’ Punisher.” (I treasure the odd ratings system Marvel has self-imposed with these shows: Lots of headshot sprayblood but no actual gore, thrust-y sex scenes with little nudity, a bad guy who says things like “The Frickin’ Punisher.”)
Bernthal’s a good performer, no doubt. His eyes dart around like a soldier who never learned to stop checking his six. He’s not the kind of actor who defaults to a frowning “tough” face in action scenes. When he runs into conflict, he looks a bit scared and a bit confused, which just means he’s really thinking through his movements. And my favorite shot of the whole season comes early, with Frank alone in his cruddy apartment, reading Moby Dick. Bernthal gets cast as bad-dude uniformed types, because he looks like he’s been where Tom Hollands fear to tread. But his presence radiates curiosity, intelligence, dark humor. You want to see him play Philip Marlowe, and instead we gave him a submachine gun.
So of course the Punisher is going to wind up killing people in unique ways, a remotely-detonated bomb here, a Jack Bauer neck-snap there. And there is honor in that! The best Punisher stories of yore had a cartoonish velocity, a willingness to take the most fourth-grade ideas about badassery and run with them. The Punisher is trapped in a skyscraper full of murderous gangsters; the Punisher fights a bear and skins it for warmth; The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe: And those are just three stories I remember off the top of my head. Trying to ground this character is one thing; burying him six feet under turgid moral justifications is something else. The show has a gray color palette and wants to lean into some notion of morality deeper than “Guy Shoots Bad Guys.” But it can’t ever get away from that last part, and by the time it finally embraces it, you’ll wonder where the hours went.
The Marvel Netflix universe has had a strange year. I tried The Defenders, but then I watched the first scene and decided life’s too short for bad fight choreography. I suspect anyone who sat through all of the brand’s 2017 output will appreciate The Punisher as “A Thing That Is Better Than Iron Fist.” But set aside the occasional bullet-ballet flourishes and the whiff of government paranoia, and you’re left with something that feels like a melancholy riff on some CBSy procedural like Seal Team. Which isn’t bad. But it ain’t frickin’ good. C+