Frank Castle would make a shitty dinner party guest.
The man better known as the Punisher is a traumatized, monomaniacal sadist bent on revenge. Yes, he may be out to get the bad guys, which gives him a code of ethics that separates him from being a bad guy himself, but he's basically Batman without the patina of respectability afforded to Bruce Wayne by his wealth. He's a mumbling, grunting, wiry jolt of bloody, uncompromising vengeance.
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.
Adapted by Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal), The Punisher begins with Frank Castle (Bernthal) seemingly completing his mission for revenge against the mobsters who killed his family and hanging up his costume. Six months later everybody thinks Frank Castle is dead and, having grown a prodigious beard, he's taken a new name and landed a job on a construction crew where even though more modern equipment is available, he's able to take a sledgehammer to concrete walls. It's a metaphor, just like all of the time he spends standing in front of his bathroom mirror staring into his reflection and his soul, something that happens so frequently here that the fastest way to trim an hour from the show might be cutting mirror scenes in half. (The mirror stuff is actually hilarious, stretching into the dialogue as well. The only thing stopping me from saying it could all be cut out entirely is that it has an over-the-top payoff.)
Anyway, Frank is about to discover that he did a lot of punishing for nothing, or at least that his punishing was only partial, because it turns out that the death of his family relates to his black ops military service in Afghanistan and he's gonna have to start punishing again. This time, he has an ally in a former NSA analyst (Ebon Moss-Bachrach's Micro, who I only called "Desi" in my notes because of Moss-Bachrach's Girls role), whose family thinks that he's dead, too. Frank, who works better alone, finds himself in an unlikely partnership and almost a friendship. Castle has to reconnect with former brothers-in-arms Curtis (Jason R. Moore), now working to support soldiers suffering from PTSD, and Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), now the slick head of a private security concern. Meanwhile, the bad stuff that happened in Kandahar has attracted the attention of Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani, a child of Iranian refugees. Also involved, and providing continuity, is Daredevil regular Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), whose status as compassionate, frequently endangered Marvel TV interloper remains intact.
The revised conspiracy isn't all that complicated, but it's elongated and made to seem like it is. The identities of the different villains are obvious very early on, and then the process of four or five different characters each having to be shocked by those nefarious reveals becomes boring and redundant — and that's on top of the overall redundancy of Castle's whole story here, once again avenging his family.
It's a needlessly long journey to the season's 12th and 13th episodes, which are as filled with stabbing, gouging, bloodletting, torture, screaming, crying, pummeling and mayhem as fans of the character are hoping for. Those last two episodes are utterly unpleasant to watch, but they're unpleasant in a way that fits with Lightfoot and company's approach to the deadening effects of violence. Basically, if those last two episodes don't feel excessive, perhaps you've become as lost and desensitized as the characters in the story. Or else you probably shouldn't have watched 11 hours of a show called The Punisher to get there. (More so than the other Netflix shows, this is Marvel for adults, complete with the most graphic sex yet shown in this version of the universe. Marvel does not seem comfortable with sex.)
Another downside to this protraction is that what Frank Castle does or can do isn't all that fascinating, just a lot of stabbing and shooting and occasional improvised bombing, making his skill set tough to diversify in the same way Luke Cage never quite conquered the "When Luke has a problem, he just punches people hard" monotony. They're both blunt tools who lack the adversity-defying elegance of Daredevil or the size-defying might of Jessica Jones.
Micro adds a tiny bit of humor to an otherwise bleak tale and his dynamic with Frank blissfully breaks the grinding grimness of Bernthal's performance. The longer we spend with Barnes' Russo, the less believable the British actor is as a former blue-collar ruffian. I liked the conflicts built into Revah's character — Muslim, patriotic, sexual — and her family's backstory much more than its execution. And man, the more these Netflix shows do with Karen Page, the more it feels like she's become a substitute for three or four separate and incompatible characters.
Failure to tell its story with any economy at all gets in the way of what should be an opportunity to hail The Punisher as a Marvel bounce-back after the disaster that was Iron Fist, improving on that fizzle on nearly every level. With a strong team of directors including Kevin Hooks, Andy Goddard and Dearbhla Walsh, The Punisher has a distinctive, chilly visual scheme and sets a consistent mood, even if that mood is too often "impending death." In the early episodes, The Punisher suffers from that all-too-familiar absence of a clear adversary and after seven episodes I was still telling people the big bad was "the military industrial complex," but eventually not only does the nemesis clarify, but it becomes clear that the season is actually less of a Punisher story and more of an origin story for one of the brand's best-known villains.
And unlike the vapid Iron Fist, The Punisher has things on its mind, including that side-eyed glance at the depersonalized military industrial complex, how it turns boys into killing machines and then too often doesn't help them assimilate back into society, leaving them weaponized and unguided. A subplot involving a troubled young veteran played well by Daniel Webber begins with nuance, then disappears in the cacophony of the season's homestretch.
It's the show's relationship with guns that's sure to cause the most unease for anybody who has sat in sadness in front of a news broadcast in recent years. Watching Frank Castle storming around in all black wearing the trademark Punisher skull while reports were breaking about a shooter in black killing 26 people in Texas was unsettling. Listening to pundits bemoan the lack of movement on sensible gun control while watching a show in which the opening credits are two minutes of loving close-ups of rifles forming into the Punisher skull made me flinch every time. I'm sure all involved would want to point out that The Punisher goes to great lengths to show the damage guns can do, but at the same time it's a show that treats every expelled cartridge, every smoking gun barrel and every sniper sight as nearly sexual. Take it as you will that this is a show that makes strong Second Amendment arguments and that treats its one liberal politician as a spineless and oblivious stooge when he isn't speaking in hollow platitudes about unenforceable policy. Having a show this turned-on about its firearms use in this particular moment is going to make The Punisher very popular in some circles and infuriating in others. Take that as knowledge, not as a pro or con. For me, it was a distraction, not a detraction per se; it wasn't the thing that kept me from getting completely involved in The Punisher.
The Punisher has moments of excitement, moments of bracing violence and a well-cast star at the center. It's also tedious for long stretches, and when it comes to plot details, astoundingly forgettable. The gun stuff is just an unpleasant capper.
Cast: Jon Bernthal, Ben Barnes, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Amber Rose Revah, Deborah Ann Woll, Daniel Webber, Jason R. Moore, Paul Schulze, Jaime Ray Newman, Michael Nathanson
Showrunner: Steve Lightfoot
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)