November 20, 2017
‘The Punisher’ Spoiler Review: This Show is All Out of Ammo
(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: the second season Netflix’s latest Marvel series, The Punisher.)
Why is The Punisher so hard to get right? First appearing in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, was birthed from the same two-fisted pulp sensibilities that created angry, well-armed lone nuts like Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish and Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry. He was less a human being and more of a walking armory; an emotionally stunted anti-hero brandishing killer phallic symbols, living and dying by his own morally compromised code. There’s plenty of entertainment there, but there’s not a lot of substance.
Yet film adaptations of the character have never quite hit the target. The 1989 film The Punisher, starring Dolph Lundgren as the eponymous gunman has its charms: it’s insanely sleazy, unapologetically violent, and bathed in enough neon to make John Wick blush. Yet no one would call it a “good” film, really. In 2004, Tom Jane gave The Punisher some dignity in a film that transported Frank Castle from the crime-ridden streets of New York to sun-dappled Tampa. The plotline borrowed heavily from Garth Ennis’ acclaimed Welcome Back Frank storyline, yet it never quite functioned properly, despite Jane’s commitment to the role. Lexi Alexander’s stylish, hyper-violent Punisher: War Zone brought the character back to his pulpy roots, and added a supremely hammy villain in the process. Yet it, too, was missing something critical to make it fully functional. All the Punisher films ended up being like well calibrated weapons that are missing their firing pins.
It seemed Frank Castle was doomed to forever be a one-note character until season 2 of Daredevil gave him exciting new life. For the first time in forever, the character was working in live-action, and working well. So what happened? What changed? For starters, Daredevil nailed the casting, hiring Jon Bernthal to play the part. Bernthal, with his busted nose, guttural grunts, and bruiser mentality, seemed to be the first actor to get Frank Castle. Lundgren played him as a bit of a prick, Jane brought a wounded yet ultimately good soul to the part, and War Zone’s Ray Stevenson played the characters as Frankenstein’s Monster with some guns, Bernthal seemed to be the first actor who understood that Frank Castle was none of those things. He wasn’t a hero; he wasn’t an anti-hero. What he was was dangerous. He’s the bad guy, essentially. The bad guy who happens to kill other bad guys, but still a bad guy. Wracked with PTSD and unrepentant about the carnage he causes, Bernthal’s Punisher was kind of terrifying, and that’s exactly what the character needed to be.
The other key ingredient that made Frank Castle work on Daredevil: he was a supporting character. While The Punisher can be entertaining, and he’s had several excellent comic runs (Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX series is a treat), it’s hard to argue that the character is anything more than one-note. And that doesn’t necessarily make for the most compelling lead character. But stick him in a supporting role and you might be onto something.
Which makes giving the character his own spin-off series on Netflix slightly dubious. Having finally found the right way to present Frank Castle as a supporting player, Marvel then went ahead and decided to make him the lead again. So how does The Punisher stack-up? Does the show hit its mark, or is it a misfire? The Punisher spoiler review will tell the tale.
Welcome Back Frank: The Set-Up
By now, the Marvel Netflix universe has established itself as the grungy, low-key, darker cousin to the big budget Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the MCU goes global in attempts to save the entire world, the Netflix shows tend to stick to the same few square blocks in New York City, and deal with more grounded threats. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always good. While the idea of smaller, more intimate settings for Marvel characters is appealing, the Marvel Netflix shows have had their fair share of problems. Only Jessica Jones has seemed to be able to be completely successful, grafting a story of dealing with trauma and abuse onto a superhero narrative.
The Punisher continues this tradition of tackling darker subject matter. Frank Castle begins the series by killing off the few remaining people responsible for the death of his wife and children. Having concluded his business as The Punisher, he burns his skull-adorned Kevlar, grows a big, fake beard and sets about turning his back on the world.
Easier said than done.
Frank takes a job in construction, channeling his never-ending rage into his work as he knocks down walls with a sledgehammer. All he wants is to be left the hell alone, but his stock villain coworkers keep mocking and goading him. This is bad enough, but they make it worse after they rob a poker game and then try to bump off the only coworker who took the time to be nice to Frank. Frank proceeds to murder everyone except the nice guy, and his old people-killing skills seem to be rearing their ugly heads.
Before Frank has a chance to drift into the background again, he’s found-out by the mysterious Micro, aka David Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Like Frank, Micro is believed to be dead. Also like Frank, he has a score to settle. Micro was an NSA analyst who faked his death, and soon he and Frank are working together to blow the lid off of a big government conspiracy involving military contractors and heroin smugglers. When Frank and Micro aren’t investigating, they’re spying on Micro’s wife and kids. Micro has inserted a hidden camera in his family home, and he keeps watch over them. It’s creepy, and the show doesn’t delve into how creepy it is nearly enough. Oh, and since the show apparently thinks Frank needs to make every battle personal, it turns out the murder of his family is involved in all of this as well.
Elsewhere, Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) is trying to get to the bottom of a video tape showing masked U.S. military soldiers executing a prisoner. She thinks Frank Castle is involved somehow, but she’s not sure of the connection yet. Madani soon becomes romantically involved with Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), who used to be Frank’s best buddy in the Special Forces. Billy runs a Blackwater-like government contract agency, and even though the series keeps trying again and again to paint him as a nice guy, it’s painfully obvious he’s going to turn out to be evil. (Which he does).
Other characters include Curtis (Jason R. Moore), another old war buddy of Frank’s, and one of the few people who knows Frank is still alive. Curtis runs a support group for veterans, and in that group is Lewis (Daniel Webber), a young vet clearly suffering from PTSD. Lewis eventually goes off the deep-end and becomes a right wing extremist, staging bombings and terrorist acts that he considers to be patriotic. He eventually blows himself up, because the show runs out of ideas.
Oh, and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) is here too! She doesn’t have a whole lot to do, save for a few scenes where it seems like she and Frank are finally going to hook up and then don’t. Beyond that, it’s nice to see the character again.
Lock and Load: What Works
Without Jon Bernthal, The Punisher would be almost unbearable. Bernthal continues to be the best thing that ever happened to Frank Castle, and he has enough raw charisma to carry the show on his slumped shoulders. Once again, Bernthal understands that deep down, Frank Castle isn’t a hero – he’s a dangerous, angry man who thrives when he’s killing people. At one point, Frank gives a speech about how he always had two families – his wife and kids at home, and his Special Forces family. He also reveals how there were times when he’d be hanging out with his kids and realize he’d rather be somewhere around the world getting shot at instead. This is a very smart interpretation of the character – someone addicted to death. And Bernthal plays that perfectly. Whenever Frank is overwhelmed, Bernthal resorts to a rage-filled scream over dialogue, and it really sells the uncontrollable anger flowing through Frank. It’s a truly great performance overall – I just wish it were in a better show.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach, as Micro, is very good as well, and he’s practically the co-lead. A better name for this series would’ve been The Punisher And His Pal Micro, as Micro ends up having more of an arc than Frank does. The character is a bit of a weirdo, and Moss-Bachrach gets that, playing him as twitchy and aloof. Amber Rose Revah is also very good as the determined Dinah Madani, although she gets stuck chasing shadows for most of the runtime and doesn’t get to shine until the final few episodes.
The Punisher is always a controversial subject, and here, in 2017, where deadly mass shootings have terrifyingly become the norm, that controversy is impossible to shirk. The show was originally planned for an earlier release date, but the mass shooting in Las Vegas delayed it for a few weeks. With all that in mind, I was very curious about how the show would handle its controversial subject matter.
To The Punisher’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from rushing head-on into this. A large chunk of the storyline is devoted to characters who addicted to guns, and gunfire, and death. It would’ve been very easy for the series to glorify all the mayhem, but it doesn’t. The action sequences in the show aren’t cool, or stylish, or fun. They’re brutal, and nasty. People die here, and they die violently. This is going to be rough watching for anyone who has understandably grown sick of non-stop carnage, but at least The Punisher is smart enough to present it in an un-glorified manner.
Out Of Ammo: What Doesn’t Work
Hey, here’s a question: are the people who make Marvel’s Netflix shows unaware of the practice of color grading, also known as color correcting? Color grading can make or break the visual feel of your show or film, but the folks who handle Marvel’s Netflix shows apparently aren’t fans of it. This has never been more apparent than on The Punisher, which is one of the most visually unappealing shows I’ve ever seen.
I’m not saying The Punisher needed to look like a beautiful work of art, but holy shit is this show ugly. Awash in dull gray landmarks and skies the color of curdled cream, The Punisher is void of any style or visual panache. It’s like watching an assembly cut of rehearsal footage, and being forced to sit through it for a whopping 13 episodes is tantamount to torture.
Speaking of that 13-episode length: STOP DOING THAT, MARVEL. There is no reason to keep stretching these shows to 13 hours total. It never works out. Even the superior Jessica Jones began to drag after a while. The Punisher is the worst offender yet: there’s simply not enough story here to pad that runtime, and to get there, the show resorts to interminable scenes of characters sitting in rooms, and talking, and talking, and going over stuff we’ve already established, and talking some more. There are long stretches where Frank and Micro sit in a bunker and bicker, and it’s the exact opposite of entertaining.
A perfect example of how the show keeps stretching to kill time: in the final episode, after it has been established that his old buddy Billy Russo is really a bad guy, Frank has Billy in his crosshairs with a sniper rifle. Rather than kill Billy once and for all and be done with it, Frank waits, and Billy suggests they meet up later, at a different location, and Frank can try to kill him then. And Frank agrees. Which means we have to wait another half-hour before the same exact scenario presents itself again. It’s maddening – there’s no excuse for something like this beyond an excuse to kill time.
More evidence that the show doesn’t have enough material to fill its runtime: it takes forever to establish that Billy is the show’s main bad guy. Before we get to that, we’re treated to a running plot line about PTSD-sufferer Lewis, who becomes a right wing terrorist hell bent on bringing down the “liberal media” and its enablers. There’s a really tight, interesting story in this scenario: having Frank’s enemy in the show be another vigilante murderer, and having the show deal with the contrasts between the methods of these two characters. Frank thinks what he’s doing is noble and right while Lewis is a nutjob, but when you get down to it, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two men. That could’ve made for an interesting story! Instead, it’s an afterthought. The Lewis stuff never gets off the ground, and just when it’s starting to heat up, the character blows himself up, and Frank goes back to dealing with Billy Russo.
Which is a damn shame, because Billy Russo is a drab villain. His speciality seems to be whining a lot – even though he’s partially responsible for the death of Frank’s family, he acts genuinely hurt and angry that Frank has been keeping secrets from him. He’s pissed off that Frank faked his death and doesn’t understand why Frank has it in for him. Is he supposed to be deranged, or just stupid? It doesn’t matter, because the show never gives us a reason to care. It spends several episodes trying to establish that Billy is a nice guy, but we see through that instantly. It’s a complete waste of a character over all, and a smarter show would’ve dropped Billy entirely and instead focused on Frank dealing with Lewis, the right wing vigilante.
One and Done
Netflix and Marvel will of course make their own decision, but I implore them: please, no more seasons of The Punisher. Let this be a one and done thing, and move on. The Punisher proves once and for all that the character simply can not carry his own story. While I’d love to see Bernthal play the character again, he should be playing him in a supporting role. If Frank Castle wants to show up on Daredevil or Jessica Jones, by all means, go for it. But the character just can’t survive on his own.
The Marvel Netflix shows have almost all been somewhat disappointing in their own right (save for Jessica Jones), but they’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel with The Punisher. The show isn’t as dire as Iron Fist, simply because Bernthal is so charismatic an actor (while Iron Fist’s Finn Jones is not) that he makes it mostly bearable. But when the season comes to a close, you’re left with an overwhelming feeling of disappointment. It’s a pity, because Bernthal really is excellent in the part.
You’ve likely finished The Punisher if you’re reading this, but if you haven’t yet, I urge you: quit now.
I promise you, no matter how big a fan you are of Marvel properties, there’s nothing this show can really offer you. You can get what it’s trying to sell elsewhere, in much higher quality. Hell, go back and re-watch Daredevil season 2. That alone has a far superior Punisher story than this series. Or go pick up one of Ennis’ Punisher MAX books. Anything would be more rewarding than sitting through 13-hours of this dreary, joyless slog.