The Buzz: ‘The Punisher’ Buries its Magnetic Star Under Bland Filler
Daredevil’s second season was no stranger to criticism, with its penchant for uneven pacing and cramped storylines, but what it managed to do with The Punisher cannot be praised enough. It excelled where countless other adaptations of the character had failed, playing up his tortured past and monstrous appetite for violence. The Punisher is supposed to be a hero you love to hate, and for the first time, audiences were able to see him in all his repugnant, politically-incorrect glory.
The opening minutes of The Punisher, Netflix’s latest addition to the Marvel Universe, is an extension of this glory. The titular hero, also known as Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), is shown eradicating the last of the men who aided in his family’s murder. He runs two of them over with his car, shoots one of them, and chokes the other is a cramped bathroom stall. The expedience with which these scenes play out are startling, not for their harsh violence, but because they resolve The Punisher’s long-touted revenge arc before we even get to the title credits. Where do we go from here?
The answer, it seems, is less exciting territory. At thirteen episodes, The Punisher is a spinoff that squanders its early momentum through clichéd, unfocused storytelling. Instead of delving further into the character’s psyche, or his perverse relationship with violence-- the very things that make him unique-- The Punisher decides to hide Castle amidst a heap of procedural filler, with enough subplots and secondary characters to make one question who the show is really supposed to be about.
The central conflict revolves around Anvil, a shady military outfit run by Castle’s former ally Billy Russo (Ben Barnes). Russo’s dealings bring him into contact with Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), a one-legged veteran who runs a group-therapy circle, and Louis Walcott (Daniel Webber), an Iraq War vet who’s suffering from PTSD and unsure of where he belongs. The latter is even given an entire subplot to himself, no doubt to counteract any criticisms the show might receive for glorifying violence (in light of the recent shootings that have plagued the country). It’s admirable that showrunner Steve Lightfoot would go of his way to highlight such a character, but Walcott’s story is so broadly painted that it loses most of its visceral potential. He feels like a compilation of PTSD afflictions, rather than a single, genuine case.
To make matters worse, the plight of these characters grow increasingly scattered and unclear as the episodes progress. Each succumb to the archetype that’s most easily applicable, be it Russo the slimy traitor or Walcott the tortured victim. Then there’s Homeland Security officer Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) and her partner Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson), who investigate Anvil and easily comprise the weakest stretches in the series. Madani’s sterile delivery, along with a character arc that seems to comprise solely of defending her female independence and her Persian heritage, feel preachy and misplaced in a story that’s trying to make statements about human nature as a whole.
It is only when the focus falls back on Castle that The Punisher utilizes its evocative, no-nonsense appeal. Having hung up his alter ego at the beginning of the series, Castle struggles to reconcile the damage he inflicted with the empty, mournful existence he sees before him. Bernthal isn’t an incredibly versatile actor, but he is a powerful one, and his strengths-- his prescient body language, his tense vulnerability-- coalesce beautifully with the character once he finally does spring into action. He’s just as captivating when he’s sitting in silence as when he’s using a sledgehammer to crush skulls and kneecaps.
The scenes between Castle and Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a hacker who was also betrayed by the government, are wonderful showcases, allowing both men to air out their frustrations with the bum rap that life has handed them. One notable example shows both men getting drunk and talking, quite tenderly, about their wives. In instances like this, the writers proves themselves capable of fleshing out Castle without sacrificing the pungent anger that made him so compelling to begin with-- a promising sign no doubt, but one that makes their reluctance to do so more often all the more baffling. Perhaps they're saving the good stuff for season two?
In his review of Iron Fist, my colleague Logan Krum chastised Marvel and Netflix for stretching out their episode count with a “stack of bad scripts.” It seems both studios have failed to learn from their mistakes here, leaving The Punisher as a bloated, messy affair that nearly buries its magnetic leading man. Watching Bernthal as Castle is bittersweet, in that his talent serves as a reminder of what the show could have been in more capable hands.
All thirteen episodes of The Punisher are currently streaming on Netflix.