In the second season of Daredevil, Jon Bernthal took over the role of Frank Castle, the Marvel anti-hero The Punisher. After a number of failed attempts to bring the character to life on the silver screen, it seemed as if they finally got him right with combination of the character serving in a supporting role and Bernthal’s grizzled performance. Naturally, expectations would be high for the standalone series The Punisher. Going into the series, I worried that the show would feature some moments of graphic violence that might seem tone deaf considering the recent mass shootings that have taken place in America. But as The Punisher progressed with little of intrigue happening, I began wanting to revel in a misguided bloodbath. At least a tone deaf massacre would be more interesting than the sluggishly paced lethargic series that just trudges along. While not as dreadful as Iron Fist, The Punisher is a punishing experience that makes me wonder if the creative team in Marvel’s television division are even trying anymore.
What’s especially galling about The Punisher is the fact that the series opens up with what fans of the characters want. Frank Castle (Bernthal) is finishing up his bloody revenge spree, taking out the scumbags that killed his family. Then he’s done with that, burning his bulletproof vest with the faded white skull on the chest. Frank Castle then grows a grizzly man beard, adopts a new identity, and works in construction. The first episode of The Punisher features more scenes of Castle attacking a wall with a sledgehammer than violently dispatching criminals. It concludes with a violent fight with some criminal coworkers, leaving me with a tinge of optimism that the show would soon kick into gear.
I kept waiting for the show to kick into gear over the next couple of episodes, which establishes a shadowy conspiracy that may provide the reason why Castle’s family was targeted for execution. Now working as a journalist, Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) provides Castle with valuable information to piece together this nefarious web of secrets, as the weathered warrior reluctantly teams up with David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a computer expert with a similar plight who goes by the name Micro. Meanwhile, the FBI led by Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) is investigating some of the strange happenings involving Castle. At the same time, two former associates of Frank Castle are moving on with their lives. Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) is leading a support group for veterans and Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) is spearheading a private military unit. How all of these pieces come together in The Punisher is unclear after the show’s first five episodes, as the series created by Steve Lightfoot painstakingly spins its wheels without establishing much over the course of five hours.
Had I not been reviewing The Punisher, I’d have likely stopped watching the series after about the third episode. The plotting is too concerned with a central mystery that isn’t interesting and the show fails to grip the audience. The trajectory of most Marvel series on Netflix is that they start strong and have slow stretches in the middle before concluding strongly. The Punisher doesn’t even start strong. Much of the events handled in the first five episodes could’ve been conveyed much more concisely over the course of two one-hour installments, if not a single episode. There’s just no forward momentum to the show. The villain isn’t clearly defined, and there’s never a sense of danger or stakes established to escalate the events and actually make them the least bit interesting.
As The Punisher struggles to build an interesting foundation for its action to build upon, it’s compounded by the ridiculous number of flashbacks throughout each and every episode. Did you know Frank Castle is tormented by the memory of his murdered family? If not, don’t worry. There’s a flashback for that. And then another flashback. And then another flashback. And one more flashback for good measure. But that’s not even the extent of the flashbacks, as a number of characters’ backstories are explored in past events. It all feels like a lazy storytelling cheat rooted in an unwillingness to allow characters to be defined by their actions. Worst of all, these excessive flashbacks stop the show in its tracks in the rare instances it seems that it’s building towards something.
Making matters worse, The Punisher doesn’t have that moment to grip the audience, like the infamous hallway fight in the first season of Daredevil. The action is as underwhelming as the writing. The show seems like it was written and directed for audiences to be half-watching as they fiddle on their phones as its plays in the background. It says a lot about the ineptitude of the show that I’m completely unmoved by a violent fight set to Tom Waits’ “Hell Broke Luce.” What should be a badass moment lands with a thud because we already know that Frank Castle is a total badass and it’s simply a scene reestablishing what was already apparent.
What really makes The Punisher such a crushing disappointment is that Jon Bernthal is the perfect actor to play Frank Castle. He’s got the rough exterior and the ability to convey that emotional vulnerability that lies beneath the grizzled façade. Bernthal can be menacing and tender in equal measure, the perfect ingredients for a morally complex anti-hero. However, the writing and direction of the show prevents these crucial character elements from ever effectively coming to the surface.
The Marvel shows on Netflix represented a darker corner of the Marvel Universe than its cinematic counterparts, and that was okay at first. As we’ve been presented with more and more of the dimly lit, street level heroes of the Marvel world the lazier and less interesting the results have been. Once again, here’s a Marvel series on Netflix that never comes close to warranting its 13-episode season. The Punisher can’t even warrant the existence of its own series after five episodes. Maybe the character is just ideally a supporting player. It’s crushing to this particular Marvel fan because Jon Bernthal is the best actor to ever take up the role of Frank Castle, and I really believe he could bring fresh life to the character if given the right material. That material isn’t present in The Punisher, and the fact that show is so dull and lifeless hints that Marvel’s television division is in need of a serious shakeup.