Marvel and Netflix are together again for The Punisher, the latest in their ever-expanding TV saga that exists on the fringes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This time, the focus is on Jon Bernthal’s heavily-armed vigilante Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, introduced in Daredevil season 2. While many films have tried to bring the Marvel comic book character to life, none of them have ever hit the mark. Can the Netflix Punisher succeed where the films failed?
To be clear, there are commendable moments in all of the big screen Punisher adaptations: the Dolph Lundgren version from 1989 is enjoyably sleazy in a way only ’80s action movies could be; the 2004 Punisher starring Tom Jane was mostly a wash, but Jane gave a very committed performance; 2008’s Punisher: War Zone was just lurid enough to be entertaining.
Yet as a whole, these films were more miss than hit. Daredevil season 2 apparently found the solution to fixing the character: it gave him a supporting role, rather than a lead. As a secondary character, Frank Castle shined, and Jon Bernthal’s performance was full of raw fury; he seemed to be the first actor to play the part who understood that the Punisher is a man always on the brink of madness. But the key factor to making the Punisher work as a character, it seemed, was to present him in increments.
But can Frank Castle carry his own series? The answer, to be blunt, is no. The Punisher is a drag, and while it’s not the major disappointment Iron Fist was, it’s a misfire for Marvel. Bernthal does the best he can with shoddy material, but he’s unable to elevate The Punisher above its disappointing script. Worse than that, the series comes at the worst possible time, when gun violence is at an all-time high in America, and the last thing we need at the moment is a show that glorifies it.
In the series, Frank Castle concludes (or at least believes he concludes) his killing-spree directed at the criminals responsible for the death of his family. This may sound like a spoiler, but it happens in the first two minutes of the first episode. From there, Frank hangs up his skull-embroidered uniform and drifts into the margins of society. As far as anyone else knows, Frank Castle is a dead man. However, events from his past draw Frank back into the light, and set him on a blood-drenched path as he comes up against a government conspiracy. Much death follows.
We’ll go into more details with a spoiler review next week, but for now, here’s what you need to know.
It’s Marvel’s Most R-Rated Netflix Show Yet
While Logan and Deadpool weren’t sole Marvel Studios productions, their R-rated content seems to have opened the superhero world up to more adult-oriented fare. The Punisher is the first Marvel Netflix show to take advantage of that. While the previous Marvel shows on Netflix have all dabbled in heavier themes and content that the MCU films dare not touch, The Punisher takes it to the extreme.
Since The Punisher’s entire deal is murdering people, there’s a high body count to the series – and it’s not squeamish about showing the gory details. While a large amount of the blood splatter here is clearly added in post via CGI, thus blunting the impact, there’s a lot of it, with an overwhelming amount of point-blank shootings.
The Punisher also doesn’t shy away from sex. While previous Marvel Netflix endeavors have had their share of sex scenes, they’re usually handled in discrete ways, with careful editing cutting around anything that could be deemed too explicit. The Punisher doesn’t take this path, however, and goes all-in on several sex scenes. In other words, this is the most “adult” Marvel show yet. Although curiously enough, the show does shy away from excessive vulgar language. So if you’re a viewer fine with a high-body count and sexual situations, but find potty mouths to be a big no-no, The Punisher is for you!
The Punisher Doesn’t Work Alone
If you don’t know a whole lot about The Punisher as a character, you may assume that he’s a character who always works alone. A lone vigilante, prowling the mean streets on the lookout for criminals to kill. Sort of like Charles Bronson in Death Wish. This is mostly true, but the character has been known to work with others from time to time. One frequent compatriot Frank Castle finds himself working with frequently in the comics is David Lieberman, aka Microchip, aka Micro. Micro is a hacker and weapons expert who has assisted Frank from time to time. We’ve even seen him in a previous Punisher movie before: he was played by Wayne Knight in Punisher: War Zone.
In Netflix’s The Punisher, Micro is more or less the second main character. He’s in the show almost as much as Frank, and even has more of an arc than Frank does. As played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Micro is a former NSA analyst who faked his death and is currently in hiding. After a terse introduction, Frank and Micro begin working together toward a common goal: to blow the lid off a conspiracy involving the military and government contractors. While it makes sense to give Bernthal’s Frank Castle someone to bounce off of, giving him what amounts to a sidekick doesn’t always work and there are times when The Punisher seems much more interested in Micro than it does Frank, almost as if the showrunners could sense that The Punisher isn’t a strong enough character to carry the show on his own.
It’s the Most Secluded of the Marvel Netflix Shows
If you’re hoping The Punisher will have a lot of cross-pollination with the other Marvel Netflix shows, think again. While the other Netflix shows dip into the Marvel pool frequently and cross-reference each other, The Punisher stands alone. The only real connection here – beyond the setting once again being New York City – is Daredevil’s Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), who has a bit of a supporting role. And to all you Frank Castle/Karen Page shippers out there (you know who you are), The Punisher does address their relationship a bit. Just don’t go in expecting fireworks.
Beyond Karen, The Punisher is about as far removed from the rest of the MCU as one can get. Besides one throwaway line about superheroes in the first episode, you could easily forget that The Punisher even exists within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some may not like this detail, but it’s one of the few things The Punisher has going for it. The rest of the Netflix Marvel shows can too often feel like pieces of a bigger puzzle. The Punisher, in contrast, is trying to tell its own story. Of course, the story it’s trying to tell isn’t that great, but hey, at least it’s trying.
This also means The Punisher doesn’t feature the most dependable character of the Marvel Netflix world: Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple. Sorry, Claire fans – she’s MIA here. Claire must’ve been busy patching up some other superheroes during the events of The Punisher.
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