Netflix never officially delayed the premiere date for The Punisher, but that was only because the date hadn’t been publicly announced before the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas. As Punisher star Jon Bernthal has admitted, “We put the premiere of this show off because of the tragedy that happened in Las Vegas. We did that out of respect. I think it was the right decision.”
The series will debut this Friday, less than two weeks after another mass shooting, this time at a Texas church where the gunman reportedly wore black tactical gear, like the Punisher, and a mask with a skull on it, like the emblem on the Punisher’s torso. Given the similarities — including the fact that the Punisher, aka Frank Castle, is an unstable man with an arsenal of automatic weapons he uses to vent his rage on the people he blames for his unhappiness — it’s surprising at first blush that Netflix didn’t push back the premiere some more. But as another Netflix show, the great animated comedy BoJack Horseman, pointed out in a biting satirical episode earlier this year — titled, naturally, “Thoughts and Prayers,” and involving a violent movie whose release kept being pushed back due to a rash of eerily similar real-life shootings — our country has reached a sad point where there will never not be a time when a fictional drama like this won’t evoke a painfully recent American nightmare.
Frank Castle is always going to be a guy who has a lot of guns and little compunction about using them, and the show’s opening credits sequence is a slow-motion parade of fetishistic images of weapons and bullets, climaxing in the skull logo being comprised of a bunch of assault rifles. In the series’ opening sequence, we see Frank kill people with a sniper rifle, a pickup truck, and a necktie (the last one played as a joke about two earwitnesses who think Frank and his victim are having rough sex in a men’s room stall). It is what it is, and delaying it yet again would simply mean it would be associated with the next massacre we’re all upset about instead of the one that just happened.
The thought of that is more wearying than The Punisher itself is, though for the most part the series — created by Hannibal veteran Steve Lightfoot — trends towards the weaker, duller end of the Marvel/Netflix spectrum, possessing most of the common sins of its predecessors, good and bad, and fewer virtues than the good ones have.
That opening montage of mayhem is presented as Frank doing One Last Job — or Several Last Jobs — as he takes out the rest of the mobsters who killed his family, as explained when Bernthal first played the character in Daredevil season two. After that, Lightfoot and company not only slow the story waaaaay down, but essentially start it over from scratch. The things Frank did on Daredevil still happened, and Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page pops up now and again to worry about him and try to talk him off his violent path, but we very slowly find out that everything we thought we knew was wrong, and that the people Frank really needs to get revenge on are part of a secret cabal involving the Marines, the CIA, Homeland Security, and perhaps a private military contractor called Anvil.
Like an anvil, The Punisher is not subtle. Frank reads Moby Dick, so we can understand that he’s a man who has given his whole life over to revenge, and a friend warns him, “The only person you’re punishing is yourself!”
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.
To fill time, and give Bernthal people to talk to when he’s not a one-man killing machine, the writers assign him a sidekick in fugitive intelligence analyst David “Micro” Lieberman (Girls alum Ebon Moss-Bachrach, playing a character usually known in the comics — because he was created in the 1980s — as Microchip), and have him periodically intersect with players in the conspiracy, plus Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) as the requisite law-enforcement agent who will no doubt realize over the season (as Misty Knight did on Luke Cage) that sometimes you have to send a vigilante in to do the things a man or woman with a badge can’t.
At times it almost seems as if the creative team’s heart isn’t in the grim-n-gritty of it all, and we’ll get stretches of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang-style buddy comedy where Micro’s chatty, neurotic ways get on Frank’s nerves, while Micro is stunned by how casually Frank kills people. (“There’s a dead man in a wheelbarrow out there,” he complains at one point; “I didn’t do that,” shrugs Frank.) And just as Jessica Jones became a rape parable, while Luke Cage used its superhero trappings to tackle issues within and without the black community, Punisher tries to carve a niche for itself by dealing with veterans’ issues. Frank admits he was more comfortable fighting in Afghanistan than home with his family, and his disabled buddy Curtis (Jason Moore) runs a support group for fellow veterans dealing with PTSD or other difficulties integrating back into civilian life.
It’s hard to blame Lightfoot and company for casting their attention elsewhere, given how rote the conspiracy plot is. Even when that story brings in actors like Paul Schulze or C. Thomas Howell or Clancy Brown to liven things up for a few scenes, the actual details seem designed to erase themselves from your memory before you’ve even finished learning them. Every other episode or so, there will be a creative bit of action — a fight where Frank has only a sledgehammer while his opponents have guns, or a Bullitt-inspired chase between two muscle cars — but none are thrilling enough to justify all the disposable bits of exposition that come in between them.
The Punisher wasn’t part of Marvel and Netflix’s initial plan, which was simply to do shows featuring each of the four solo heroes before bringing them together in Defenders. Bernthal’s intense brooding won him many fans in the middle of the uneven second season of Daredevil, and prompted the powers that be to call an audible and give him a spinoff. But — as was the case with both Iron Fist and ABC’s disastrous Inhumans — nobody seems to have had anything but the most superficial take on how to write this guy and build an entire show around him.
Despite his enduring popularity among comics fans — whose devotion helped transform him from a one-note ’70s Spider-Man villain into an endlessly resourceful anti-hero — Frank Castle has never lent himself particularly well to the screen. There have been movies made starring Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane, and Ray Stevenson as Frank, which ranged from disappointments to outright flops at the box office, in part because a live-action Frank tends to come across as a more glum, less colorful Batman. Even on the page, he can be monotonous: the best Punisher comic of this century, the Garth Ennis-scripted Punisher Max, tended to treat him as a supporting character in his own book, and/or like Godzilla: there to rain destruction down on the characters developed enough to feel more like real people.
Bernthal’s Punisher isn’t Batman or Godzilla, but he’s not hugely dynamic, either. Lightfoot tries to emphasize the combat veteran part of his origin and nature wherever possible, but this Frank just seems grumpy most of the time, except for the rare instances where we get to see him fully in action. Bernthal moves fluidly and look natural with guns and other props — there’s a reason he keeps being cast as tough guys in projects like this or Baby Driver or The Walking Dead — but the wave of bland supporting characters (which also includes Ben Barnes from Westworld as another ex-Marine) seem as much about Frank being too thin for the vessel in which he’s been placed as about the story being the same.
It’s a conundrum: The Punisher is most effective when its title character is indiscriminately slaughtering his foes, but that’s also when it most consistently evokes the kinds of real-life horrors that pushed the premiere back once, and could have kept pushing it back indefinitely. There may hopefully be a time when Frank’s actions don’t instantly recall horrors from our world, but that version of his story will still need to be told much more compellingly than this.