Critics aren’t prone to sweeping statements, but it seems like The Punisher is on the receiving end of both kinds. The Marvel series starring Jon Bernthal as the gun-toting vigilante who was introduced in Daredevil season 2 is either the best MCU series released on Netflix…or the worst. Take your pick.
The only universally acknowledged elements of The Punisher seem to be the acclaimed performance by Bernthal and the ill timing of the series, which was delayed after the events of the Las Vegas mass shooting. Otherwise, critics seem to be shooting their opinions left and right, without much consensus on whether the series is actually good. Is it an ambitious, grounded TV show that tackles issues of psychological trauma in soldiers? Or is it a sluggish, overly long series with an hollow message?
Read some of the early reviews of The Punisher to find out.
Our review of The Punisher is incoming, but writer Chris Evangelista has some not-too-kind words for the series ahead of his review’s release.
I’ll have a full review up soon, but now that the embargo has lifted: THE PUNISHER is a major misfire. One of Marvel’s worst Netflix shows. Stop making these 13 episodes long, I beg of you. pic.twitter.com/sFdV0LNOFQ
— Chris Evangelista (@cevangelista413) November 13, 2017
The Daily Dot‘s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw also compared the series to the worst-reviewed Marvel-Netflix property, Iron Fist, calling the series “dull and politically flawed”:
The Punisher has more in common with Iron Fist than Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, although I wouldn’t insult Punisher with a direct comparison. Where Iron Fist was painfully incompetent, The Punisher is just slow and overly long, failing to grasp the power of its title character. It also suffers from a recurring problem in Marvel’s Netflix franchise: uninspired crime writing. Madani’s investigation was simple yet hard to follow, often seeming to “discover” something we already knew.
An excess of episodes to tell a dearth of story is an ongoing problem for all of the Marvel-Netflix series, not to mention most Netflix shows in general. But unlike Jessica Jones or Daredevil which start strong only to taper off halfway through, The Punisher suffers from a meandering start, Uproxx‘s Alan Sepinwall says:
As has unfortunately been the case with Daredevil and the Marvel shows that followed it, Punisher has many more episodes than story to fill them with. Though Netflix provided critics with the whole first season in advance, I ran out of patience after six episodes; they featured maybe enough material to justify three episodes, and probably two. Where the early shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage tended to start strong before running out of steam, the last few like this, Iron Fist and Defenders, have simply started slowly and then meandered from there.
Sepinwall was one of the many critics to point out the poor timing of The Punisher, whose glorifying depiction of gun violence comes on the tail of several devastating mass shootings in the U.S. Indiewire‘s Liz Shannon Miller wrote about the show seemed to skirt its controversial trappings as well.
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.
However, an equal amount of reviwers raved about The Punisher‘s grounded tone and secluded corner in the MCU, with Forbes going so far as to call it “the best MCU series” ever made:
By ignoring the craziness that’s gone down in the Netflix corner of the MCU in recent months, Punisher builds a world all its own full of CIA cover-ups, NSA investigations and frenemies who are so ready to go to war with one other. The Punisher is the show Marvel Television needed. It’s the show that proves there might just be hope yet for the studio’s small screen ambitions. And yes, if we’re judging purely on the act of transforming into a character, Bernthal absolutely deserves an Emmy nomination for this one. His performance has been far elevated from the days of Daredevil.
Variety‘s Sonia Saraiya is in agreement, praising the gritty and realistic tone of the series:
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‘s Kofi Outlaw acknowledged that The Punisher falls victims to some of the flaws of the Marvel-Netflix formula, but calls the series the next greatest series after the similarly gritty and psychological Jessica Jones:
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.
Of the positive reviews, Polygon’s Susana Polo seems the most uncertain of whether The Punisher‘s strengths outweigh its flaws:
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.
The Wrap, however, is confident that the various subplots in The Punisher are expertly connected, with the series threatening to dethrone Jessica Jones as the best Marvel Netflix series:
Like all good noir stories, “The Punisher” can be very dense at times, but in a surprising twist for a Marvel show it does all come together in a way that makes sense. It keeps a handle on its various plot threads, paying all of them off — this is nothing like “The Defenders,” a show full of threads that don’t go anywhere, or “Daredevil,” which creates threads all over and never attempts to reconcile them. “The Punisher” actually holds itself together as a thematically cohesive unit.
Collider tells fans to “proceed with cautious optimism” for the series, which is at its strongest when Bernthal is at his most vulnerable and violent:
When these two elements are in alignment, The Punisher is riveting, politically adventurous entertainment, willing to get mired in the complexity of a nation that has come to define itself through the incalculable damage and untold amounts of killings done in the name of peace. When the need to set-up, reiterate, or preempt the plot becomes its more prominent concern, however, it’s emblematic of everything wrong with comic-book adaptations, on TV or elsewhere.
The Punisher is possibly the most polarizing Netflix series we’ve seen yet, with reviewers heaping both effusive praise and criticism for the Marvel show. At least we can count on star Jon Bernthal to reprise his tour-de-force performance that he originated in Daredevil season 2 — and which got him the spin-off in the first place. The uneven plotting and controversial timing of the series is up in the air, however, and may or may not miss its target.
The Punisher is set to hit Netflix on November 17, 2017.
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