King of the Castle
How do you solve a problem like Maria? Or, to put it in a less cryptic way, how do you say that the new Netflix Punisher series is probably the best Punisher adaptation, and arguably the best of the streaming service’s Marvel series, while acknowledging that these are both extremely high bars to limbo under? I’m sure I don’t know, but I’m running out of things to write about. “Have less opinions, guy” is a thing that is regularly said to me by people who are in the habit of calling me “guy” even though my name is Rex*.
The Punisher started life as a Marvel villain, inspired by the dopey ‘men’s adventure’ novels of the ’60s and ’70s like the Executioner, the Revenger, the Penetrator, and Nick Carter: Killmaster. Unfortunately, the editors made the classic mistake of underestimating comics nerd’s simultaneous inability to understand satire and ability to derive pleasure from the behavior of murderous sociopaths, and the Punisher became one of their most popular characters. He was transformed, through some curious moral sleight of hand, into an anti-hero, and then a full-blown hero, and has emerged as one of the company’s most enduring costumed ding-a-lings. (In a fun coincidence, he has also become an icon of sorts for actual, real-world cops and soldiers, who have adopted him as a mascot for their own abusive violence. This happened because there is no God and humanity is consumed by toxic inner rot. Comics are bad, kids, do not read them!)
Most adaptations of the Punisher outside of comics have been pretty ridiculous (I have a soft spot for Dolph Lundgren’s 1989 turn as Frank Castle, because experience has taught me that comic book movies were better when they didn’t pretend to be any good), but that began to change in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil. Based loosely on a 1980s arc of the Daredevil comic by a pre-self-parodic Frank Miller, it was by far the most captivating and least boring stretch of the show’s two seasons to date, so naturally it was rewarded with a spinoff of its own. The Punisher has a lot of flaws, and it’s hard to call it a truly good show, but again, the bar has been set hilariously low (reminder: Iron Fist was something that happened), so we have to judge these things in context. Having burned through the entire series in one sitting, a technique designed by Silicon Valley robo-men to suffocate the critical facilities of the human brain, I feel prepared to make a definitive statement about it.
Let’s start with Jon Bernthal, the meathead who plays Frank Castle. Bernthal is a dud of an actor, but let’s face facts, folks: the Punisher doesn’t require the talents of a Welles or an Olivier. He needs to be a bulky stud who can maintain a grim expression while shooting people in the face, which Bernthal — who you may remember as a character on The Walking Dead whose death you prayed would come quickly and painfully — is able to do in a perfectly acceptable way the 752 times the script calls for it. Bernthal and his scriptwriters may be attempting to add some ‘depth’ to the Punisher, but nobody wants that. Look at what he had to say about it in a pre-filming interview:
On how Castle resonates with him, Bernthal said, “He ain’t got a fucking cape. He ain’t got any superpowers. He’s a fucking tortured, angry father and husband who’s living in this unbelievable world of darkness and loss and torment.”
Ha ha! Oh, Jon, you absolute peach. Clearly this is a man who must never be trusted with a character that comes anywhere near having two dimensions. He’s just fine playing Frank Castle.
Where the show fails is where most of the Marvel Netflix shows fail: primarily, it’s far too long. This isn’t as painful as it is with other shows; Jessica Jones, the only real competition with The Punisher for the title of best of a bad lot, is at least five episodes too long as opposed to The Punisher‘s three, while Daredevil was about a season and a half too long and Iron Fist should have gone back in time and retroactively canceled itself. But it still drags like hell in places, repeats itself, and sags in the middle more than I do after an enchilada plate. Its cinematography and design is nothing special, pretty standard explosions-in-a-warehouse stuff, and it’s as ethically suspect as any other Punisher story. (Note the moment where a fresh-from-Daredevil Karen Page, engagingly played by Deborah Ann Woll, defends Castle by saying he “only kills murderers and drug dealers”, as if those two exist on the same moral plane.) The flashbacks are almost comically repetitive, to the point where you start to see them coming and they almost feel like a running gag, and Amber Rose Revah’s character adds nothing and brings in a go-nowhere subplot.
Where it succeeds isn’t really that surprising; it’s more that it does the things well that it ought to do well, and praising it for that seems like handing out a participation ribbon. But remember: low bar, low bar. So while the Afghan War subplot and some meandering stories about veteran’s trauma and mercenary private armies don’t really cohere into a compelling point, at least the show is trying to have some subtext, which is more than most Marvel Cinematic Universe material. The character of Micro is much improved in the person of Girls ass-eater Ebon Moss-Bachrach; that’s not hard to do, since the comics version is flat as a pancake, but his through-line was by far the most interesting aspect of the series. Where it really shines, though, is in the action sequences; if you’re going to have a show about a gun-toting death merchant, it ought to at least be full of good fight scenes, and The Punisher has at least one every episode. It’s particularly impressive (or is it? it’s so hard to tell anymore, readers) in light of the fact that most of the other Marvel shows have had so much trouble with action scenes, which is pretty frustrating give that they are all based on goddamn superhero comic books.
I realize I have leaned very heavily on the concept of moderated expectations, but don’t blame me; blame the people responsible for these shows. Here’s the highest praise I can bestow on The Punisher: it didn’t have me constantly looking to see how many episodes I have still to get through. Put that in your pull quotes.
*: Not true.