Ever since the first MCU appearance of the character in the second season of Daredevil, it would be an understatement to say that the anticipation has been high for the debut of Marvel’s The Punisher. Its social media campaign (which is one of the best that I have ever seen) added to the anticipation. Part of that campaign was a live video that started three minutes prior to the series being posted on Netflix.
But how does the series stack against previous portrayals of the character?
I finished the final episode yesterday evening. The short of it is that I felt the series got quite a bit right and quite a bit wrong.
The long of it can be broken to simple pros and cons.
Out the gate, the actors were phenomenal with the scripts that they were given. It is clear that every actor cast was dedicated to the best performance they could give. Jon Bernthal, in particular, has been cited repeatedly as saying he wanted to honor the military and law enforcement communities with his performance (an interesting article on the subject can be found here).
The show also ventured into reintegration issues that veterans face upon coming home from war. While it wasn’t perfect (more on that later), the character of Curtis Hoyle–a corpsman who lost his leg while serving alongside Frank Castle in Iraq–was a prime example of a functional veteran: while he had his demons, he pushed forward, obtained a decent civilian job upon separation, and leads the charge in veterans outreach in his community.
The first episode’s ending was particularly phenomenal, an example of what The Punisher is supposed to be. I won’t get too spoilery with it, but just know that there is a sledgehammer and a concrete mixer involved.
The violence that was present was appropriate for the character. Punisher is not very sanitary or kid-friendly with his dispatching of criminals. I would definitely say the violence in 2008’s Punisher: War Zone was definitely more in line with the comics than Marvel’s The Punisher, but there is definitely plenty of gore.
I particularly liked the initial contrast between Punisher and Micro. Punisher’s an old school, low-tech tradecraft kind of guy, whereas Micro’s a modern, high-tech guru. Watching their styles work against each other and then blend and complement was fun.
The gun control debate is touched on in the show, and unlike many Hollywood productions which serve as a platform for the Shannon Watts-types of the world to stump, it is a balanced debate. You have reasonable pro-gunners (the host of the radio show where the debate takes place), people in the middle (Karen Page, from Daredevil is a concealed carry permit holder who nonetheless strongly condemns firearm vigilante actions), unreasonable pro-gunners (the far-right veteran/Stolen Valor fraud and the domestic terrorist), and unreasonable anti-gunners (the anti-gun senator who hires private security). Bernthal said that all sides of the debate would be presented, and the writers did exactly that, without taking a side. I appreciated this approach, while others did not.
There were several nods to the comics that I appreciated. The Battle Van made an appearance. Castle’s false identity was “Pete Castiglione,” a nod to the fact that in the comics, Castle was born Francis Castiglione. The loan sharks in Episode 1 were the Gnuccis, who were a notorious crime family in the Garth Ennis series Welcome Back Frank. When Micro first sees Castle, the first words out of his mouth are indeed, “Welcome back, Frank.”
The action was crisp overall, though it was not perfect (as I will touch on in the Cons section). There were definitely on-screen kills that will please die-hard Punisher fans.
Marvel’s The Punisher suffers immensely from deviation from the source material. It is, hands down, the weakest characterization of The Punisher I have ever seen. Both the 2004 film and War Zone were much more on the mark than the series.
In the comics, the personality of Frank Castle died with the Castle family. Castle may be physically still present, but his body is inhabited by The Punisher, who is singularly dedicated to visiting lethal justice upon those who evade the law with impunity. He is literally a dead man walking. While he is prone to bouts of deadpan black humor, he is not an affable man.
The Punisher of the series very rarely resembles his comic counterpart. He’s laughing, joking, and generally being congenial, things that the comic book Punisher is not. Netflix’s take on the character is a radical departure from the comic, and it is for the worse.
Almost everything about the show is a generic military industrial complex conspiracy rather than something we would see in Garth Ennis’s work. In particular, with the exception of one scene, everything is generic and lacking Ennis’s plot eccentricity and flair.
The worst example of this is Rawlins, the CIA operative who ran the illegal operation to smuggle Afghan heroin into the United States. In the comics, Rawlins is very clearly an eccentric sociopath, who at one point shot down a Russian commercial airliner in a false-flag attack.
In the series, Rawlins is a Yalie who doesn’t show signs of being touched in the head until his final scene. He could have easily been replaced by “generic Yalie Agency dweeb” and the storyline would not have changed one iota. This is the most egregious example of wasting perfectly good character potential.
Another item that bothered me was that Castle shot at a US Army soldier while trying to escape the base. That is not something Castle would do. Granted, he aimed at body armor to try and make sure that the wound was non-lethal, but body armor is not a 100% guarantee and the Punisher would know that. Castle would have either intimidated the soldier out of his way or taken him out of commission non-lethally.
This also applies to Castle killing Carson Wolf. In one particular Ennis comic, The Slavers, Castle refuses to kill a dirty cop specifically because he is a cop and he knows his killing the cop will be twisted by his detractors. Yet, Castle has no problem brutally killing the ICE/HSI NYC Special Agent in Charge in the show. That Rawlins didn’t seize upon this and use it to turn the public against Castle in the series seems like a logical misstep.
There was also an instance of storyline discontinuity. Much of Daredevil was spent with Castle declaring a war on the criminal underworld, going so far as to destroy his family house and assemble an arsenal…only to chuck it all once he had killed off the Dogs of Hell, the Kitchen Irish, and a Mexican drug cartel. We already treaded Castle’s struggle and metamorphosis into The Punisher in Daredevil, only to backtrack and retread over that territory in The Punisher. Terrible storyline decision.
The storyline about Lewis Wilson, the disturbed Army veteran who slowly radicalizes to become a domestic terrorist, was extraneous and distracted from the main storyline. It was also an tired example of Hollywood’s take on PTSD, where the one suffering is a ticking time bomb. Granted, Wilson was contrasted with Curtis Hoyle, but at the same time, it is a cliché and overdone trope.
The series is about five episodes too long. If one removed the domestic terrorist storyline, it would probably bring the series length to the right amount. While touching on veterans issues is appreciated, it distracted from the overall feel of the series. When Castle finally crossed paths with Wilson, it almost seemed like a pigeon-holed moment.
Minor gripes include everyone noteworthy being an officer (hint: there are no lieutenants in Force Reconnaissance), Castle being an eight-year Marine that only made O-2, Castle constantly carrying bandito appendix style, and one particular scene where Castle has an M249 SAW with a 200 round drum, fires three bursts from it, then ditches it to grab an MP5 from one of the Anvil contractors.
Marvel’s The Punisher was entertaining to a degree, but it certainly failed to meet my expectations. It was clear that they borrowed from the comics (particularly the Ennis comics), but they clearly did not borrow the best parts. They definitely missed the mark on the character by far and large and they definitely had more episodes than plot, which led to the filler episodes dealing with the domestic terrorist.
It wasn’t the worst bit of television ever, but it is certainly the weakest entry in the MCU to date (even weaker than the critically panned Iron Fist).
Overall? I’d give Marvel’s The Punisher a 6.25/10.
Don’t feel the urge to binge watch all the episodes at once, but also don’t feel the need to avoid it entirely. It’s good TV. It just could have been much better.
(Featured image courtesy of Dread Central)