The Punisher Is an Ultraviolent Mistake

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Jon Bernthal in The Punisher. Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Netflix

Marvel’s The Punisher, which spotlights a supporting character from season two of Daredevil, is frustrating even by the standards of Marvel’s hit-and-miss Netflix programs. This tale of war veteran Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) working through grief over his family’s murder by killing bad guys is yet another TV adaptation that stretches six episodes’ worth of plot over 13 episodes — a problem that has dogged even mostly excellent dramas like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

Adapted by Steve Lightfoot from Gerry Conway and John Romita Jr.’s original comic, The Punisher picks up plot threads left dangling in Daredevil. The story pairs Frank, who’s presumed dead by authorities, with super-hacker Ben Lieberman, a.k.a. Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who’s also presumed dead but has actually gone into (seemingly permanent) hiding to protect his wife Sarah (Jaime Ray Newman) and their children. Ben and Frank work to expose a conspiracy involving Anvil, a Blackwater-type outfit of “private contractors” who seem to be supplying weapons to all manner of bad dudes. Frank’s main antagonist is his old Special Forces colleague Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), who oversees recruitment and training for the company.

Ben’s schemes bring him into contact with a PTSD group-therapy circle that includes a young Iraq war vet named Louis Walcott (Daniel Webber, who played Lee Harvey Oswald in 11/22/63); an embittered Vietnam vet (The Wire’s Jay Landsman) who thinks the new generation of soldiers complain too much; and a one-legged Afghanistan vet named Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore), who supervises the group and is one of the only people who knows that Frank Castle is alive. There’s a parallel story involving Persian-American Homeland Security officer Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) and her partner Sam Stein (Michael Nathanson), who are investigating Anvil and Micro. The story keeps adding characters and story lines as it goes, in ways that seem increasingly random and disorganized. Some of the subplots and scenes — including Walcott’s gradual Taxi Driver–like estrangement from society, and a scene of an Anvil officer indulging in BDSM with a woman before Frank barges in to taunt and kill him — threaten to transform The Punisher into a Robert Altman–style buffet of character moments, loosely organized around themes of trauma, loneliness, and estrangement.

Paradoxically, it’s in the slowest, most seemingly random or indulgent sequences that the show discovers an authentic, unclassifiably peculiar voice. The Punisher is at its best when it downshifts and makes space for long conversations between war veterans about combat, post-traumatic stress disorder and loneliness, and bonding scenes with Ben and Frank or Frank and Sarah. When it’s not doing stalk-and-kill stuff that’s staged and shot to evoke the Bourne films and first-person shooter video games, it comes up with violent scenes that play against the usual clichés of contemporary action filmmaking and go for something more atmospheric, as when Frank stalks enemies in a smoke-filled room, darting toward them like an eel lunging from a hole in a reef, or when Frank and an adversary get into a long, intimate car chase that never leaves an industrial park and we feel the weight of the vehicles as they speed up, slow down, and change direction. But as potentially fascinating as a half–indie drama, half–vigilante thriller might sound, nobody involved with this thing appears to have the eccentricity or sensitivity required to make it. Even if they possessed those traits and could channel them over 13 episodes, I’m not convinced they could integrate them with the obligatory sequences of Frank barging into warehouses and training facilities and cutting and shooting and tormenting everyone he can get his mitts on.

The cast is mostly strong, Bernthal in particular — even though he gives this character more than it gives him — and once or twice an episode, you encounter finely shaped scenes or memorable images. But the good stuff is surrounded by an imaginatively impoverished wasteland of neo-noir urban hellhole cruddiness, a problem that affects every Marvel Netflix series to some extent. And the series never reconciles its childlike worship of Frank’s flamboyant bloodlust and the troubling, often pathetic nature of the character, a soldier turned murderer whose trauma often feels more like a pretext for ultraviolence than an explanation of why he inflicts it.

Granted, this contradiction (or hypocrisy) is very American, and has plagued stories of revenge throughout film and TV history. Storytellers as generally respected as Clint Eastwood haven’t escaped it, either — not that they wanted to. But this series doesn’t get any closer to untangling the conundrums inherent in vigilante daydreams. Most of the time, the show is a straightforward fantasy that’ll appeal to fans who are less interested in who Frank is than in what he does to human flesh with guns, knives, and assorted household implements. (As my colleague Abraham Riesman has written, many of the character’s superfans are police and members of the military. One told him, “Frank Castle does to bad guys and girls what we sometimes wish we could legally do.”)

Bernthal’s Punisher was the best thing in season two of Daredevil, a sad and scary question mark. Putting him at the center of his own series almost immediately feels like a mistake. Frank is, to put it mildly, not a varied or exciting personality. During the first half of this series, he mostly has two modes, macho loneliness and methodical sadism. He doesn’t show new emotional colorations until fairly deep into the season, after hours of watching him putter and brood and insist that he isn’t going to get involved. As soon as he does get involved, he’s just appealing and vulnerable and sensitive enough that you start to wonder if his personality as written truly fits with the stalking and murdering and torturing he does. The best scene in the entire season is a very long one between Frank and Ben as they get drunk and talk about their wives; it builds toward a crescendo of self-pity, anger, and paranoia, then collapses into an anti-climax that feels painfully real. But then the series has to get back to the silliness of arms deals on dimly lit docks, and sex scenes between characters who would never have been paired up had the show figured out some other way to make them interesting.

Perhaps Frank Castle makes the greatest impact in small doses, or when he’s pushed to the margins of a larger ensemble story, so that the clichéd nature of the character can be swathed in psychological darkness, much as the Punisher himself is swathed in darkness whenever he tracks and murders his foes. I can’t speak to the original ’70s incarnation of the character, a Vietnam veteran who cleaned up the streets in the manner of Death Wish’s avenging angel Paul Kersey. But when I encountered Frank for the first time in the ’80s and ’90s, in bloody graphic novels that took full advantage of the end of mainstream content restrictions, he seemed more monster than man. It was as if somebody had crossed John Rambo with Michael Meyers from the Halloween films, or one of those Clint Eastwood characters who was cool but also horrifying and out of control, his chaotic nature signified by backlighting and silhouettes that turned him into a wraith-like creature, a grim reaper with guns. There was never much to the character beyond that. The more The Punisher tries to humanize and deepen Frank by having him work through his pain — and by juxtaposing his struggles with those of other veterans, none of whom feel central to Frank’s quest — the more unpersuasive this series becomes. It seems to want to be both The Best Years of Our Lives and Death Wish IV: The Crackdown, an ambition that’s not honest.

The Punisher Is an Ultraviolent Mistake