Going into The Punisher, it was perhaps easy to expect it to fail.
The Marvel Netflix shows had, at that point, a pretty much even hit-to-miss ratio; while Daredevil and Jessica Jones succeeded, Iron Fist and The Defenders had faltered, with Luke Cage somewhere in the middle. As a trend, though, the pattern was hardly inspiring, with each subsequent instalment (generally speaking) displaying more faults than the last.
Frank Castle is a difficult character to get right, arguably even more so of late – it’s easy to understand why the series was pushed back in light of the Los Angeles shooting, saturated with gun violence as it is. Given the wider cultural context this series exists in, an uncomplicated embrace of the character could only be a fundamentally flawed one. That’s something that star Jon Bernthal acknowledged when he took on the role, commenting “If I’ve created a guy who lionizes [violence], I’ve failed miserably. I don’t want you to look at him and say, ‘This guy’s clearly a hero.’ That’s never how I’ve looked at him, and that’s never been the purpose.” Nonetheless, though, there were still a lot of ways for everything to go wrong.
And so it would have been easy for the series to fail, to land squarely in the same pattern as its predecessors; that it didn’t is a welcome surprise.
As an exploration of the Punisher’s morality, the series is admittedly somewhat lacking. The villains of the piece reflect the same ideology as Frank; both the larger military-industrial machine willing to commit war crimes and an individual lone gunman who believes the end justifies the means, the antagonists of this series are Frank’s equal and opposite. And yet while the series deliberates, it’s unwilling to truly grapple with the question of what separates them – ultimately, the only thing that makes one a hero and the other a villain is who the series is named after.
Despite this, though, The Punisher is able to find a degree of depth elsewhere. Encouragingly, it avoids fetishizing violence particularly, wallowing not in a hail of bullets and gunfire but taking the time to indulge in slower, character-focused scenes. Jon Bernthal’s performance is key to this, anchoring the material as he elevates it; often the more compelling aspects of the series are the moments when Bernthal is allowed to move beyond the militaristic posturing and show a certain vulnerability to his character. Largely speaking the other characters do well too, with Eben Moss-Bachrach’s computer hacker Micro forming an interesting foil to Frank in particular.
It’s plagued by similar problems to the other Marvel series, admittedly; much as its willingness to deliberate is a strength of the series, it is overlong, and suffers accordingly. There’s times when the series drags, shifting from measured and considerate to plodding and laborious. In turn it loses focus; one can’t help but feel the series would gain a certain precision if it were a few episodes shorter. At the same time, the unwillingness – or perhaps refusal – to confront the more uncomfortable complexities of the lead character blunts the impact that the series has, or maybe more accurately could have had.
Ultimately, The Punisher was good – perhaps surprisingly so, all things considered. In a sense, The Punisher feels like it is – or maybe should be – the end of a certain style of superhero programme. Surely, at this stage, it’s the culmination of the straightforward take, as marked by the gulf between what the show was and what it could have been.
The Punisher was good, if not great – but it could have been. And the fact that it could have been should mark a turning point, where more is demanded from such shows going forward.
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