Hit or Miss: 'The Punisher'

Watching The Punisher, seems to be the kind of experience that feels like having a brick strike your face, followed by rubbing alcohol being splashed against your wounds, just to make it sting. That is to say, the series appears aggressive, brutal, and without any real reason to exist. Acting as a part of Netflix’s own street level Marvel universe, this iteration of the character, played by Jon Bernthal, made his debut a few years back, as part of the second season of Daredevil.

Bernthal’s take on the character was, for many, the highlight of an otherwise uneven and overly cramped season of television. So why the eye-rolling over giving the character his own series? The first inkling of hesitation likely comes from the belief that Marvel and Netflix have still yet to crack the code on how to expertly fit one of these characters into a season of television. Thus far, there have been four separate series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist) set-up within the world; all of which decidedly embrace a much darker tone that their big screen counterparts. Marvel even brought all these characters together for an eight-episode event series known as The Defenders back in the summer.

However, despite a varying degree of quality between each individual series, with Jessica Jones probably being the strongest and Iron Fist definitely the worst, they all share a common problem. At roughly 13 episodes each, every one of Marvel’s Netflix series has an issue with pacing. I, for one, can find it difficult to keep interest in a single episode, let alone an entire season (looking at you Daredevil) giving each a kind of dragging or uneven feeling. Even the one season of Jessica Jones runs into a problem of reaching its climax around ten episodes in, only to spin its wheels for the remaining three.

However, my biggest objection to a Punisher TV series is that it seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding on how to best use the character. In the pantheon of Marvel characters, The Punisher is far from the most interesting. The character, Frank Castle, is a former special forces soldier whose family is murdered, sending him on a blood soaked quest to eradicate those responsible, along with virtually any other criminal that happens to cross his path. The character’s brand of shoot first, ask questions later justice makes him an excellent foil for more morally straight heroes such as Spiderman or Daredevil. He’s much more interesting clashing with others who disagree with his murderous form of justice than he is as a lone protagonist.

Then lies the question of whether audiences care that much about a standalone Punisher story in the first place. There have been at least three big-screen iterations of the character throughout the years; the first in 1989, second in 2004, and a third in 2008 but neither of them really took off with a mass audience. Perhaps this is because, on his own, The Punisher is really not that much different than any other generic shoot‘em-up character.

Netflix has also pushed back the release date for the series following the Vegas shooting that killed close to 60 people. The decision was no doubt due the series clearly graphic gun violence. Yet extreme violence is not something unfamiliar to television viewers. Series such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones all have their moments of intense violence but those series also had complex characters with emotional stakes to back up the intensity. If The Punisher is just going to be about one-man’s blood soaked revenge, then I doubt there is much to build a series around. While some might find catharsis in seeing Castle blow his enemies to smithereens, I can’t help but wonder if he is a character that would have worked as a scene stealing supporting player than the center of his own series.