Marvel’s The Punisher review: Would there ever have been a 'right' time for this series?
Even without the gun violence connotations, this new Netflix series starring Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle sometimes misses the mark
In an episode of Netflix animation BoJack Horseman that aired earlier this year, some of the show's Hollywood bigwigs found themselves with a problem: the frequency of real-life mass shootings in America, which keep interfering with the release of their new gun-happy action film Ms Taken.
“This is so sad,” the movie’s fictional star Courtney Portnoy (Sharon Horgan) says after the latest attack. “You always hear about mass shootings affecting other people’s movie openings, but you never think they’re gonna affect YOUR movie opening.”
She hastily adds: “Of course my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.”
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It was a dark joke that became a grim reality for Marvel’s latest Netflix superhero series The Punisher earlier this year, when the show's New York Comic Con launch was postponed due to the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas on 1st October.
In watching the series, which follows a gun-toting vigilante (Jon Bernthal) as he metes out bloody justice on those who’ve wronged him, it’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable at the level to which the series fetishises guns and the men who wield them– the opening credits for the series, for example, are completely comprised of whirling gun parts.
Is it really any different from the exploitative, made-up Ms Taken, glibly featuring gun violence without a wider discussion of its consequences?
Well, yes and no. The Punisher as a series does engage with the consequences of violence, following a number of traumatised ex-soldiers (aside from Bernthal’s lead Frank Castle/The Punisher) as they try to reintegrate into society, and further exploring the fallout of the murder of Frank’s wife and kids (previously explored in Marvel’s Daredevil, where Frank first appeared as an antagonist and later ally in the second season).
However, it also has as its central character a figure who, from his first appearance in a Spider-Man comic in 1974, has been a violent, gun-loving antihero who (slightly unsettlingly) has become an icon to police officers and army servicemen around the world – a starting point that would be uncomfortable at any time, but feels especially awkward now.
“Frank’s a complicated character and a complex character, and I think violence is a key part of who he is,” series creator Steve Lightfoot suggests when I bring up the gun violence issue.
“I think you can’t tell his story without it being there, but I also think we don’t condone his actions. He’s a difficult character, and I think we invited the audience at times to disagree with him and lose him, and all I hope is that we’ve created a character who’s empathetic enough that people always understand and identify with him, even if they don’t necessarily agree.”
Star Bernthal added, “Look, I think one of the tragedies is that, probably when Steve wrote the show it was probably on the heels of some other mass shooting.
“Gun violence in America has just become part of the fabric. And I think oftentimes in art, the best thing that it can do is spark debate, make people ask the question. And I think that’s far more important than trying to answer the question for people. Then you’re just preaching.”
Individual viewers may have to decide for themselves the extent to which The Punisher is glorifying gun violence versus just creating an action storyline no different from your average Jason Bourne movie – man investigates mystery, shoots bad guys, broods. But that's not the end of The Punisher's problems as a series.
For example, for quite a while at least, this series is just a bit dull. After an interesting first episode where Frank tries (and fails) to leave his quest of vengeance behind, he finds himself pulled back in by a hacker called Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). For a long time after this the series just spins its wheels, forcing the audience to watch Frank and Micro bicker irritatingly in an underground bunker as they get no closer to tracking down the CIA agent who committed atrocities with Frank’s unit in Afghanistan.
This is a familiar problem in Netflix’s superhero series, which have had a habit of losing momentum at some point. However, this time it’s not in the back half of the series after plenty of action has already taken place; it’s for most of the first half of the series, making early episodes a grim slog that could put off first-time watchers.
These episodes also include the pointed line, “The only person you’re punishing, is yourself,” which may follow me for the rest of my life.
It’s not a terminal decline, though. Things pick up considerably whenever Ben Barnes’ slick-suited former soldier Billy Russo appears on screen; when he becomes more heavily involved in Frank’s mission about halfway through the series, the pace and excitement pick up considerably. A tense scene where Frank and another old army buddy take on a trained unit of soldiers in an empty woodland with nothing but a hunting bow and a handgun is a particular highlight, and also features some technological aspects of modern warfare often forgotten in these sorts of dramas.
Meanwhile, Jon Bernthal remains appealing as the no-nonsense Castle, though the material he’s given here is a little more sympathetic – and thus, somehow, less interesting – than he was working with in Daredevil.
It’s just a shame that the series’ central plot thread – Frank and Micro’s investigation into military drug-smuggling and murders – ends up being so tedious, from the vaguely-defined reasons for their involvement to the clichéd Feds on their tail, led by Amber Rose Revah’s Agent Madani as a kind of budget Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.
The Punisher’s not a bad show by any means – it’s certainly better than Iron Fist, and has an advantage over The Defenders in that it features absolutely no interchangeable ninjas – but its gruelling first few episodes might end up putting viewers off, even if they have managed to work their way past the uncomfortable gun violence connotations.
The Punisher streams on Netflix from Friday 17th November