Marvel's The Punisher review: This Netflix show packs a raging punch but should've been shorter
When Jon Bernthal’s Punisher was introduced in Marvel’s Daredevil (Season 2), it was a refreshing take on a relatively underrated character in Marvel comics. It was that raw and rugged portrayal which created all the hype for Marvel’s The Punisher, the upcoming TV show revolving around Bernthal’s character.
Whether the show lives up to its hype is a tricky question.
The good news is that in a nutshell, Marvel’s The Punisher is a meaningful and thought-provoking show, especially when compared to the other shows and movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The best part about The Punisher is that it has a distinct identity of its own. It does not shy away from going into some very dark, violent and sometimes gory territory. This is a much-needed break from the other bombastic Marvel content with forced humour or silly gags which we’ve seen recently, especially on the big screen.
The bad news is that The Punisher has got its pace horribly wrong. The show is unnecessarily slow and takes painfully long to come to its point. But when it does, The Punisher is unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the MCU.
The show follows anti-hero Frank Castle aka The Punisher, who — after exacting revenge against those responsible for the murder of his family — works at a construction site in New York but is still haunted by his past. Castle soon gets involved in a conspiracy based on a controversial military operation in Afghanistan and has to walk down a long, twisted and extremely bloody path to expose the truth behind it.
The most consistent aspect of The Punisher is undoubtedly the brilliance of Bernthal’s performance. Bernthal not only continues to amaze as the tough, angry and disturbed anti-hero whom we loved in Daredevil Season 2 but also adds complex layers to the human and vulnerable side of The Punisher.
The way in which Bernthal has combined the brutish, violent and scary personality of The Punisher with the honourable, resilient, and determined side of Frank Castle is the best part about the show.
Bernthal’s character says a thousand words even when he is stone-faced, due to the actor’s close attention to micro-expressions like the twitch of an eye or lip movement. The Punisher never appears like a mindless brute. The pain and conflict driving him is in perfect sync with his violent tendencies.
Ben Barnes also has a powerful role as Billy Russo, Castle’s former best friend. Russo’s appeal is that his motivations are eerily simple for a complex character. Barnes’ brilliance lies in the fact that he can effortlessly transform from a charming and friendly character to a cunning, ruthless one in an instant.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays The Punisher’s key ally, Micro. While his role could have been written better, Micro’s chemistry with Castle and their unstable friendship are depicted well largely due to Moss-Bachrach. Amber Rose Revah is a strong female presence in the show with her portrayal of the conflicted Homeland Security agent, although her backstory is a bit of a drag. Deborah Ann Woll reprises her role as journalist Karen Page but is not given enough screen time.
Despite a strong performance by most of the cast, though, The Punisher is weighed down by bad structure.
The first episode is powerful and is meant to remind the audience of the brutal philosophy of the ‘eye for an eye’ vengeance which The Punisher believes in. Unfortunately, the excruciatingly slow pace then sets in and apart from a few memorable action sequences and important flashbacks to set context, there is not a lot more happening until the eighth episode of this 13-episode-long season. Character and plot development get sidelined because the show keeps focusing on some social issues over and over again, which should have ideally been portrayed in just a few episodes.
The effect of war and conflict on a soldier is one such issue. The importance of family and the trauma caused by its loss is another. These issues are important and well-depicted in the first few scenes. But the audience does not need to keep watching scenes of sessions of a veterans’ support group over and over again to understand the hardships soldiers have to endure. Similarly, we don’t need to keep watching several scenes of family bonding or a character longing for family bonding repeatedly. Family’s important. War traumatizes. We get it.
Moreover, a few issues, like gun control, are depicted in a naïve way. The show basically tries answering whether there should be stricter or more lenient gun control in the US by asking whether you would rather be unarmed if an armed maniac was after your life, as if that is the only point you need to consider when thinking about the larger picture of gun control in an entire society. The character of Lewis Walcott (played by Daniel Webber) stresses on this issue. And because of the crude handling of this issue and the absence of a solid background for Walcott, the motivations for the actions of this crucial character remain vague and confusing.
Relationships between major characters also take their own sweet time to mature. Almost an entire episode is spent depicting how Castle builds trust with his ally Micro and in another episode, we basically see Castle and Micro getting drunk together while crucial plot developments are taking place around them.
It’s during times like these that the show seems stretched and you wish the episodes were shorter.
But the reason you should still watch The Punisher is what happens from the eighth episode onwards.
It’s in the second half of the show that The Punisher establishes its own brand of excellence.
Not only does the show pick up its pace but it also becomes a lot darker and consequential, with characters having to take nail-bitingly tough decisions which will keep you on the edge of your seat. The show also experiments with its storytelling style, with the tenth episode successfully adopting a non-linear narrative.
It’s also in the second half that the show asks the question which The Punisher has been asking ever since he was introduced in comics: Is there really any justice or is it all a façade for some stone-cold vengeance?
This is when the two opposing sides in the show really clash. For a strong, determined protagonist like The Punisher, there are equally adamant, capable villains and some devastating challenges. And the show leaves no stone unturned to portray how morality gets twisted due to the brutal violence that follows as a result of this clash.
When we say ‘brutal’, we mean that you will never have seen such action and fight sequences anywhere else in the MCU.
It is no surprise that most of the action sequences shown in the first trailer for The Punisher take place in the second half of the show. The show establishes its own visual appeal by replacing the flamboyance of other-worldly superpowers with beautifully choreographed and raw melee or gun combat.
The Punisher is definitely a good show which, in the end, does justice (to some extent) to its legendary source material. It just takes too long to deliver its powerful and raging punch.