The Punisher arrives with hopes of finally turning the violent, mentally unhinged vigilante into a popular mainstream character in a way three previous film adaptations failed to accomplish. Is the fourth time the charm, or is this another guns-and-guts approach that fails to satisfy audiences?
Marvel Studios has racked up an impress ten-year run of 17 films that have amassed more than $13 billion in global box office, $5+ billion of that from domestic receipts. Every single Marvel Studios film release has garnered a “fresh” score at Rotten Tomatoes, and only one — the first Thor movie back in 2011 — got an audience Cinema score lower than an A-. Marvel’s television division has enjoyed several big successes as well, while also earning a few mixed or negative reactions for a few releases. But it’s the Marvel-Netflix partnership that’s truly shined so far.
Between Daredevil’s two seasons, Jessica Jones’ and Luke Cage’s first seasons, and The Defenders all providing plenty of high-end TV superhero entertainment, Netflix is ushering in the new age of the Marvel universe narrative. Iron Fist is the only Marvel show thus far on Netflix to meet negative critical reaction, although I felt it was a flawed but still decently entertaining B-level production. Viewership has been healthy for the programs, even for Iron Fist, and Netflix continues to use popular, high-quality original programming to attract new subscribers.
The big question looming in the future is, will Marvel Studios pull their future superhero shows from the Netflix partnership once Disney’s standalone streaming service arrives? There are good arguments for and against such a movie, but for now the Marvel-Netflix team-up continues to deliver shows the fans love and reaches a wide mainstream audience.
The Punisher continues that trend, and will help wash away some of the bad taste some viewers might have experienced with Iron Fist. If the biggest problems in Iron Fist were a failure to adequately develop Danny Rand’s personality in a compelling, complex, and satisfying way, and a lack of deeper social resonance that the rest of the Marvel-Netflix slate consistently provided, The Punisher dives deep into the damaged psyche and personal struggles of its characters (especially protagonist Frank Castle) while offering multiple nuanced important narratives about serious social problems.
Jon Bernthal delivers a compelling, pained performance of a man who suffers severe PTSD not only from his time at war but also from the brutal slaying of his family. And his background as a soldier includes a surprisingly morally stained role in brutal secret government programs, during which he crossed the line many times and participated in terrible crimes (albeit somewhat unwittingly at times, but the show doesn’t flinch from demonstrating his ultimate culpability even as he seeks to ferret out those responsible for misusing their power and manipulating him and his fellow troops).
As Punisher’s arc plays out, it becomes apparent that somewhere deep within the recesses of his mind lurks a darker nature thriving on the violence and chaos of crises and warfare. The show increasingly hints however much his PTSD and loss of his family were the final stressors that cracked his sanity, he was already on a disturbing path from which there was little chance of return. Most telling is the implication he’s allowing his trauma and loss to serve as an excuse to engage alternately in self-imposed isolation and hair-trigger violent outbursts and a personal war. Maybe no amount of vengeance and bloodshed will ever be enough, and maybe he’s feeding some monster that’s lurked inside him long before he ever set foot in a war zone.
The supporting cast is all pretty superb here, with a long list of important standouts including Deborah Ann Woll, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Daniel Webber. Woll’s role as Karen Page has evolved nicely through the two seasons of Daredevil, The Defenders, and now The Punisher. She imbues Page with a really strong sense of a person caught in this world of outrageous people and events, as she tries to navigate it and participate in it despite sometimes feeling overwhelmed and outraged. Moss-Bachrach’s Micro is a crucial character to the Punisher mythos and the actor gets it pitch-perfect as a man pulled in so many competing directions, with seemingly no good options, and a terrific love-hate relationship with Punisher.
Webber truly shines in an arc that’s filled with intentional contradictions and unexpected turns speaking to the reality of large numbers of military veterans unable to readjust to civilian life and largely forgotten by the government that sent them to war and the society that idealizes soldiers as a concept yet acts largely unwilling to confront the terrible emotional and physical damage soldiers endure.
Those themes about war and its costs aren’t merely on the surface, nor are they treated in a simplistic manner to serve one or another perspective about war. Instead, the very concept of war and moral boundaries are called into question, while at the same time it challenges the common claim that the fog of war makes morality a dubious proposition contrary to the sheer drive to survive and protect your fellow soldiers. It’s all thrown into the mix, with characters asserting and investing in their own perspective — and treated seriously rather than as strawmen or punching bags for the other side.
The show ultimately forces us to recognize it’s possible for all and none of these things to be true, or partially true, or entirely untrue at one time or another, sometimes simultaneously depending on the moment and the people involved. But this isn’t used as a way to avoid any hard determinations that some things are right and some things are wrong, either. After all, this is The Punisher, and that means there are people who need punishing. It’s a testament to the show’s strengths that it gets us to invest so much in the characters, their lives, and their perspectives that we are invited to agree with their actions as they slowly move within those gray areas between absolute right and wrong, but then the show pits two competing views against one another and our investment in each character throws us off balance, unsure how to fully feel about one or the other view and outcome.
But lest you think it’s all social debate and brooding character drama, rest assured there’s plenty of action and plotting to make for an enjoyable thriller series with dashes of espionage, humor, and heist elements. Fans of the Punisher will see him as fully realized as we could hope for, with writing and acting worthy of the best Garth Ennis comic book storylines and characterization. Indeed, the show takes degrees of inspiration from various Punisher comic stories, including Steven Grant’s Return to Big Nothing and Ennis’ Welcome Back, Frank and Born.
As good as the story and action and supporting cast are, it all comes back to Bernthal. Casting the right performer as the Punisher was the real key to making it all work, and Bernthal has perhaps found the character he was born to play. When at times this or that particular episode or plot thread feels weaker or slower than the rest of the show (some of the early episodes’ depiction of the Department of Homeland Security investigation focused on Amber Rose Revah’s and Michael Nathanson’s characters starts out repetitive and adrift, until outside events push them to moments of decisiveness and action and the plot points start to converge much better), it is Bernthal’s performance that elevates the proceedings and gets things back on track.
This is definitely the most graphically violent of the Marvel-Netflix shows to date, with many depictions of people’s heads literally being blown off on camera, a bodycount that measures blood by the gallon, and scenes of brutal torture. There’s also enough profanity, sex, and nudity to make this a definite “mature audiences” only affair, so it’s certainly not for younger viewers.
I’ve seen concerns voiced about the gun violence, and some complaints that shows like The Punisher glorify vigilantism and guns. I’d strongly argue that The Punisher makes vigilantism and guns look scary, severely disturbing, and decidedly unglamorous. Yes, Punisher is the protagonist and in the end we want him to survive and want the bad guys to lose, but the show pays real attention to letting us see the horror of war and why it wrecks the lives of civilians and soldiers alike, how the violence leaves psychological scars on everyone associated with it, and how even the supposed hero’s actions can repulse us and mirror the deeds of the very people he opposes. Again, the themes about war and its costs are intricately tied up in the entire show’s narrative, including the action and warfare and use of guns.
The Punisher at long last gets the character right, overcoming the shallow conception of him as a gun toting vigilante of the 1980s action hero sort and instead providing a nuanced, emotionally powerful look at the costs of war on our society, the ways it destroys lives and crushes dreams, and how it inevitably invites corruption and abuse of power that can turn even the most well-intentioned among us into unintentional agents of wrongdoing and suffering.