Sledgehammer fights, machine gun massacres, bodies disposed of in cement mixers. “Marvel’s the Punisher” has it all in this New York City-based drama where sorta good meets super evil.
The Netflix series, released in its entirety Friday, takes violence, torture and vengeance to skyscraper-dwarfing heights — no easy task given that it follows five other loosely connected brawl-heavy, bullet-riddled series that the streaming service developed in conjunction with the comic-book franchise.
The elevated levels of violence in “The Punisher” are not entirely surprising. The main character, Frank Castle (a.k.a. the Punisher), is renown for it, even in the Marvel universe. He’s a brooding lone wolf armed with automatic weapons and plenty of rage.
Netflix last month opted to cancel the show’s New York Comic Con debut and push back its release date because it felt it was “inappropriate” so soon after the Las Vegas mass shooting at a country music festival.
Delaying the show’s arrival was the right thing to do. But what about now? It’s unlikely there was ever going to be an opportune time for “The Punisher” to be released after the Oct. 1 tragedy given that there’s been at least 35 mass shootings since then, according to recent reports.
But judging by the first few episodes, it’s clear that raw nerves may not be the biggest barrier between “The Punisher” and its intended audience of Marvel fans and Netflix-binging insomniacs. The show’s greatest hurdle may be the worn nerves of TV audiences who have learned how and when to shield themselves from the on-screen violence – fictional or real.
Preserving one’s sanity requires strategic bouts of dulling the senses. For “The Punisher” to make any sort of lasting impact after its association with one of the worst mass shootings in American history, it would have to be a masterpiece. And it’s not.
It’s unfortunate because the show is well-written and Jon Bernthal (“The Walking Dead”) is fantastic as Castle, the Afghanistan war veteran turned vigilante. His family was murdered, and he’s presumed dead. He’s avenged their murders by killing everyone involved (or at least that’s what he thinks), but while barely eking by as a low-level laborer with PTSD and a hole in his heart bigger than the sledgehammer he carries, he trips upon another injustice involving depraved CIA operatives and other dangerous players.
Castle’s saving grace is that somewhere under all that muscle mass and overgrown facial hair is a good man with good intentions. He’s another avenging antihero from the Marvel-Netflix collaboration whose foibles feed his strengths, and whose campaign for justice in the face of government corruption speaks to the frustrations of the 99%.
But the story itself isn’t dynamic enough to punch through all the cultural baggage this show is unfairly (or as some believe, justifiably) saddled with. It doesn’t help that the burly character’s superpower isn’t a superpower at all. It’s old-fashioned rage, coupled with special ops training. That combination comes in handy on his pay-back missions and quests to get to the bottom of a government coverup with implications that stretch back to his time in Kandahar, but it’s not as helpful when competing with his predecessors.
His peers from those other series have made the bar impossibly high for this solitary hero. No matter how those fight scenes are choreographed – and the fight scenes are spun well here – guns and fists are simply not as dramatic as featherweight Jessica Jones hurling a car at her enemies, or ex-con Luke Cage bending a thug’s gun into a pretzel.
Displays of molten anger are so commonplace on and off screen – cable dramas, Roy Moore rallies, every third comment on your Facebook feed – that no matter how hard “The Punisher” swings, it still has a difficult time connecting with rage alone.
In fact, a more compelling antihero today might be the rare individual who doesn’t snap and slay. She instead takes a level-headed approach, saving the world – or at least the next superhero series — with her resourcefulness and intellect.
“The Punisher,” which also stars Ebon Moss-Bachrach as hacker David Lieberman/Micro, Ben Barnes as CIA man Billy Russo, Deborah Ann Woll as journalist Karen Page, and Amber Rose Revah as agent Dinah Madani, is the wrong show at the wrong time. That’s a dilemma even the toughest of heroes can’t fight their way out of.
‘Marvel’s The Punisher’
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)