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‘The Punisher’ Season 1 Review: Marvel’s Least Superhero-y Show Ever Fails to Find a Spark

Too many episodes keep this very grounded drama from being as compelling as it could be.

Marvel's The Punisher

Jessica Miglio/Netflix

The culture surrounding the launch of “The Punisher” has been an incredibly complicated one, as the Marvel spinoff is theoretically about a character who, in this realm of superheroes, has only one superpower: being very good with guns, knives, and however else you might choose to kill people. It’s so ingrained in the identity of the brand that the show’s premiere was delayed for over a month, following the violence in Las Vegas in October. It’s hard to root for a fictional sniper, after all, after a real-life one has orchestrated this level of awfulness.

But while it made sense to push “The Punisher’s” premiere date, there was a misstep on the part of Netflix and Marvel. “The Punisher” should have premiered on Veterans Day. The series, while technically existing in the worlds of “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” and the rest of the Marvel universe, is far less violent than you might expect, and instead is far more invested in its characters and their lives, especially the experiences of former soldiers returning from war.

This leads to a far more soulful 13 episodes than anticipated, as Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) seeks some semblance of peace following the death of his family. It’s also, unfortunately, not quite the romp you might hope for from a Marvel series, even one featuring a character as grounded as Frank, and lacks any real dynamism as a result.

Much of this season is focused on not just Frank’s return to civilian life, but his fellow soldiers struggling to find their place in the world, which is intriguing material, but suffers from being drawn out to the degree required when your TV show is set for 13 episodes a season. This is a common complaint about the Netflix/Marvel series, but feels especially true here: “Punisher” could have been a fantastic six-episode season. The extra seven feel excessive.

Marvel's The Punisher

This is largely because the show rarely finds much freshness in the new characters it introduces. David (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a presumed-dead hacker living underground, essentially serves as a second lead in the show, as his family becomes a major part of the drama, and this thread proves enjoyable as Frank gets more integrated. And Dinah (Amber Rose Revah), the FBI agent seeking answers about Frank and his activities, stands out as a character who could carry her own show.

But they’re not enough to create a dynamic narrative world, even when Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) makes her too-brief appearances. Karen and Frank’s interactions are definitely the high points of the season, but end up being limited. Meanwhile, Dinah’s investigation into Frank’s activities are intriguing, but far too drawn out. There’s also a distinct lack of a true “big bad,” for lack of a better term, beyond Ben Barnes as the seemingly genial Billy Russo, which drags down the show’s momentum.

Watching “The Punisher” isn’t unpleasant. Bernthal is a compelling lead, and the supporting cast — including Revah, Moss-Bachrach, and Jaime Ray Newman — is a good enough reason to tune in. Plus, there’s an everyman Springsteen-esque quality to the course of events that washes over you nicely.

Marvel's The Punisher

But while the show’s commitment to character-focused storytelling is admirable, it does remain trapped in the political climate into which it launches. By far the most awkward element is the fact that the media, in the world of “The Punisher,” calls Frank Castle a terrorist. In our current society, that’s a word which any white male who commits a great deal of violence seems to dodge, for some reason. Frank racks up quite the body count over the course of the season, but calling him a terrorist in this fictional context makes no sense given the fact that in the real world, that would never happen.

And also, in our current society, it’s hard to keep invested in the narrative, one that lacks enough complications to warrant 13 episodes. Honestly, the worst aspect of “The Punisher” is that there’s not too much to say about it. It’s competently made, decently written, but never pushes any boundaries or challenges any big ideas.

For a show which seemed, given the timing of its launch, to be so controversial, its most controversial element is its lack of controversy. Frank Castle does some bad things, but nothing as bad as what happens in America on a regular basis. As a narrative about veterans trying to find their place in the world, “The Punisher” has something to say. But it could have been so much shorter, and its placement in the Marvel universe feels tangential at best.

Grade: B

“The Punisher” Season 1 premieres November 17 exclusively on Netflix.

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