When we look back at 2017 in regards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we will remember that it was a tough year for their television branch. “The Defenders” was quasi-fun, but too short for its own good and mostly boring. “The Inhumans” was completely terrible on nearly every conceivable level. And “Iron Fist,” honestly, I never finished it. We still have “The Runaways” coming to Hulu and season five of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” on the way, but I can’t in good faith say I am excited for those. I feel deflated as far as Marvel television goes, a feeling I never thought I’d have.
I thought “The Punisher” would be the savings grace for the year. After all, Jon Bernthal made a huge statement as the character in season two of “Daredevil.” It was never Netflix-Marvel’s plan to make a “Punisher” show, but after how popular the character was on “Daredevil,” he was given a spin-off. I liked the idea of a Punisher television show. I love myself a good revenge story, and a Marvel version would be something I would never protest to. I will also let you in on a little secret. I like watching justice be served. Even as a kid, I couldn’t stand watching people get away with stuff, either in a fictional world and even real life. I was a big tattle tail and I would do anything to make sure people who did something bad had their day. It’s always nice watching someone really kick ass, which is why revenge flicks are some of my favorite flicks.
Sadly, The Punisher has had a tough track record on live-action popular culture. I have a soft spot for Thomas Jane’s turn with the character and I think the 2004 movie is criminally underrated. I thought the Dolph Lundgren and Ray Stevenson versions were criminally dumb. So, it’s mostly been a tough road, but I had high hopes for Jon Bernthal’s turn as the character would be a new beginning in a new direction. He was so good in “Daredevil.”
After I finished the first episode of Netflix’s “The Punisher” I was totally on board. I raved about it on social media, saying that’s the Punisher alright. The series begins with The Punisher (Bernthal) chasing some bikers on a big truck, killing them. He kills a cartel leader in Mexico with a sniper rifle all the way in El Paso, TX. He kills a guy in the bathroom by choking him with his own neck-tie. He then burns his skull armor and blends into society as a construction worker. He keeps to himself, mostly ridiculed by a group of assholes. The new worker tries to befriend anyone he can, and falls in line with the assholes. Turns out the assholes are trying to rob a mob card game and they are more than just assholes, they are thieves. The bring in the new guy to their crew, and take him on the mob robbery. The robbery goes wrong, and it’s the new guys fault, so they plan to kill him. The Punisher steps in and kills the assholes, saves the new guy then takes out the mob guys before they can reach the new guy. It’s a fantastic episode, really sets a tone that works for The Punisher. I was hungry for more after that episode.
I wish I was as enthusiastic about the other twelve episodes. Sadly, the whole series slows way down after that explosive episode. There is action here and there, but not nearly on a scale that you would expect from a Punisher series. The Punisher isn’t a superhero, he doesn’t wear a cape, he has no superpowers. He is a hand-to-hand combat, explosives and weapons expert. He’s a militaristic, comic book version of Paul Kersey. If this show focused on The Punisher going around New York City, killing drug dealers and murderers and mobsters and the corrupt, this would have been something. This show would have worked in spades had they just kept things simple.
Alas, things are not kept simple. In fact, it gets so bogged down in a useless, needless plot and at times, The Punisher’s supporting cast gets more screen time than The Punisher himself does. But none of his supporting cast is really that interesting. The show also completely retcons everything we learned in “Daredevil” season two. It wasn’t mobsters who were responsible for The Punisher’s family dying. They were, but they weren’t. We see The Punisher before he became a vigilante, his alter-ego Frank Castle. Frank Castle and his close friend Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) were lieutenants in the United States Marines. They are brought into a special team by CIA officer William Rawlins (Paul Schulze). Rawlins promises making the world a better place. But Castle finds out that they may be killing innocence and that Rawlins tactics are questionable. Rawlins nearly gets Castle, Russo and his men killed on a mission Castle advised against. All of this and more makes Castle the enemy, and it was Rawlins who targeted Frank’s family.
The show is more of a government conspiracy than anything else. Frank catches wind that Rawlins and Russo are still alive and doing some shady shit with each other. And their conspiracy also got a computer’s guy named David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) on their trail. Lieberman was shot by corrupt cops on Rawlins payroll, but he didn’t die, and he’s been in hiding ever since. Lieberman and Castle will join forces and go after Rawlins and Russo.
I don’t mind the different origin of The Punisher and the government conspiracy storyline would have been cool, but it’s so painfully dull that it’s mind numbing. There is so much devotion to Russo banging Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) a Homeland Security agent hot on the trail of Rawlins. There is so much devotion to Castle and Lieberman sitting around talking about morality. There is so much devotion to a sub-plot involving a soldier with PTSD, that leads him to become a terrorist-of-sorts. There is so much devotion Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) and his support group for troops, all making the same political messages repeatedly. There is also a ridiculous sub-plot revolving around Castle meeting Lieberman’s family, and doing stuff for them, while Lieberman watches from his computer because he bugged his own house to watch his family while he was underground. It’s a weird, weird sub-plot.
The show tries to make some points on gun violence in America, soldiers coming home with PTSD, and soldiers being forgotten by our government and the system once they got home. All worthy points to make, all ideas that would make an intriguing television show. But “The Punisher” never explores these points in any significant way, that it feels like wasted time. One of the biggest problems with “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist” and even the eight episodes of “The Defenders” is that they have a story that would be told in three to five episodes. But they get stretched to eight to thirteen episodes. With “The Punisher,” it feels like they have enough story for a two-and-a-half-hour movie, but it got stretched across thirteen hours of television show. The last two episodes feels like a finale stretched across two hours. Pacing has been hard to pin down with these Netflix-Marvel shows. It was an annoyance with the other shows though, here it’s a distraction.
It’s too bad because Jon Bernthal is acting his ass off here, trying to make it all count. I wasn’t a big fan of Ben Barnes in the “Chronicles of Narnia” movies. But that was a long time ago, and he’s clearly matured as a performer. He does good work as Russo, and he’s one evil bastard in this. The entire cast does good work, and it’s tough to see so much good work on a show that is mostly boring.
When I sit down to watch a show called “The Punisher,” I don’t want to meander in a sub-plot about a kid with bad PTSD, especially when the pay-off is so rotten like it is here. I don’t want Frank Castle sitting around talking morality episode after episode. I don’t want to see the sexual encounters of the main villain. I don’t want a finale cut into two episodes. I want to see The Punisher blowing scum away. That’s what his character is supposed to do. That’s the core of the character, getting vengeance on those who killed his family, then making sure no evil-doers do something similar to other innocent people. This should have been non-stop action from beginning to end, instead we get a somewhat political conspiracy thriller that has no idea what the fuck it’s about and that’s just sad all around.