When is a superhero show not a superhero show? When it’s The Punisher, the gun-toting avenger from Marvel Comics who’s not an Avenger. As the character’s new Netflix series presents him, Frank Castle (a stubbled, terminally mumbly Jon Bernthal) is an ex-Marine whose view of justice has been shaped by his wartime experiences — as well as the brutal murder of his family. When Frank becomes the Punisher, the world divides in two: There are good people, whom he will do his best to protect, and bad people, whom he will do his best to kill. There is no gray area in Frank’s mind. There are also no superpowers in Frank Castle’s arsenal. He is, rather, a superbly trained combatant for whom fighting is both instinctive and definitive: He can’t conceive of an acceptable alternative.
The 13-episode series starts off with a punishing obviousness and gradually becomes more subtle. In the beginning, we watch Frank at his day job, which seems to consist solely of him hitting a concrete wall with a hammer for hours and hours. Sure, it’s one way for him to release rage and sorrow over the tragic deaths of his wife and children, but who’s paying him to beat up one tiny patch of wall every day? In his off-hours, Frank’s reading consists of Melville’s Moby Dick (get it? Frank pursues the killers of his family the way Captain Ahab hunts the Great White Whale) and Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up (get it? Frank always seems on the verge of, well, cracking up). His rare human contact consists primarily of visits to an old service pal, a counselor at a veterans’ support group (Jason R. Moore) who tells our hero, “The only person you’re punishing is yourself.” Bernthal may play the role low-key, but everything around him is in italics of irony.
Frank’s violent investigations into who killed his family comes to the attention of a Homeland Security agent played by Amber Rose Revah. One of Frank’s old Marine superiors, played by Nurse Jackie’s Paul Schulze, is now a villainous CIA official. And a sneaky hacker played by Girls’ Ebon Moss-Bachrach starts keeping tabs on Frank via surveillance cameras. This last character, named Micro, is an odd duck. Like Frank, he feels tragically separated from his family, but in his case, he has voluntarily separated himself from them so that no one can get to him by threatening his wife and kids. Now lonely, he constantly monitors his family’s activities through a camera he had placed in their living room: There are lots of scenes of him staring longingly at a screen while his wife tells their son to pick up his jacket and not to pick on his sister. This guy also becomes Frank’s partner in vengeance; their relationship is characterized by a lot of hostile banter.
The Punisher has been adapted for television by writer Steve Lightfoot, whose biggest previous credit was work on the NBC series Hannibal. The Punisher isn’t nearly as pretentious as Hannibal was, but it’s certainly as deliberately paced. The violence of the show is up-close and brutal. The opening credits feature a swirling mass of high-powered guns that eventually merge to form the skull shape that serves as the Punisher’s signature symbol. Seeing all those semiautomatic weapons offered up as gleaming beauty is rather repulsive in the light of recent mass shootings. (A New York Comic Con panel on the show was canceled after the Las Vegas mass shooting.) Lightfoot and his crew can justify the existence of The Punisher as one long, sympathetic examination of the plight of war veterans, but no one can deny that the show gets whatever energy it has from blood-spattered killing. Violence as cathartic entertainment is a method that’s as old as television or the movies themselves, but it’s also a strategy that seems increasingly untenable. The show would be too dull without its action scenes, but when those arrive, your first instinct may be to cover your eyes.
The Punisher is streaming now on Netflix.
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