6 Thoughts on the First Season of The Punisher
I continue to be amazed that we live in a world where the Punisher gets a TV show. How can we be so lucky? And in the same year that Iron Fist and The Defenders also had TV shows! Thankfully, I think The Punisher is better than both of those shows…but not by much. I liked The Punisher well enough, but in the end, I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t better. This is a good character with some great stories, but this 13-episode show barely scratched the surface of potential.
TV Rating: 6/10 – Pretty Good
Out of all the Netflix shows, I would rank The Punisher somewhere below the first half of Luke Cage and then above the second half of Luke Cage. It’s good, solid entertainment, but it doesn’t really leave an impact or push itself as far and as powerfully as it could. And it’s even worse that the showrunners had three failed Punisher movie adaptations that showed them how not to make a Punisher show.
The Punisher has never been one of my favorite characters, but I like him well enough. And I regard writer Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX storyline as one of my Top 5 favorite comic book runs of all time. So I’m no stranger to wanting the best for this character. Let’s just hope he gets some future seasons to try again.
Join me after the jump for my review of The Punisher on Netflix! Expect FULL SPOILERS for the whole first season! And I’d love to hear your thoughts on the show in the comments!
6. It’s good
I liked The Punisher TV show well enough. It’s got solid action, an OK story and John Bernthal is pretty amazing in the lead role. There are some problems, which I’ll get to later on down this list, but overall, I liked The Punisher. I was entertained through most of the episodes and don’t regret watching the whole thing — though I think it’s a fine example for the argument that these Marvel shows shouldn’t be 13 episodes. There was nothing in The Punisher that needed to be stretched out over 13 episodes. This show definitely could have stood to be more episodic, with some smaller stories or arcs over the course of the season.
There was also maybe a bit too much gore for my tastes at some points, but I don’t really mind that. I especially enjoyed the friendship between Frank and Micro. I think that was the best part of the show, alongside the action. I also enjoyed all the scenes between Frank and Micro’s family. Those were some great, fun scenes that really added some humanity to the series. I think The Punisher, as a show, had a lot to say about the plight of veterans in today’s world. So the show had something to actually say, with a pretty compelling character, and a lot of energy. That makes for fine, acceptable television.
But there’s one big, glaring problem with The Punisher on Netflix…
5. It’s not the Punisher
Simply put, this TV show was not really about the Punisher. This was a show about a military vet seeking revenge against the superior officers that wronged him. And that’s not the Punisher. Revenge stories, especially where the military is involved, are a dime a dozen in fiction. And he’s not called “The Revenger” for a reason. They got this fact wrong in most of the movie adaptations as well. Hollywood needs to stop changing the Punisher’s origin story to say that he and his family were specifically targeted by the bad guys. I realize that makes his mission more personal and therefore more dramatic, but that defeats the whole purpose of the character and what makes him unique.
The Punisher is a man whose family was killed by pure unfortunate happenstance, caught in the unintentional crossfire of a gangland shooting. With nothing left to live for, the Punisher falls back on his extensive training to wage war against all criminals, big and small. Yes, at some point he likely gets revenge against the specific crooks that accidentally gunned down his family. But the real Punisher stories are the ones where he is out there punishing criminals for being criminals.
The Punisher is the scary bedtime story that gangsters tell their kids.
It’s a key aspect of the character that his war against crime is not personal. He’s not on a quest. There is no endpoint for him. There is no happy ending or absolution. There is just the mission. His cold, ruthless execution of that mission is a key aspect of the character. And the fact that he’s carrying that mission out against the scum of the Earth is why he’s such a popular wish-fulfillment character. We identify with the Punisher because we wish we could just stop crime so permanently.
There aren’t very many of us out for revenge against the military superiors who wronged us.
4. The villains sucked!
Speaking of those military superiors, they sucked as villains. The William Rawlins in the show didn’t have even a fraction of the charisma or assholishness of the comic book Rawlins, and since they used the name, they probably don’t intend on using the comic book Rawlins anytime soon — even though he’s a pretty amazing antagonist. Rawlins in the show is just a somewhat polite political figure through most episodes, hanging out in the background. When he finally does get to go a little crazy and actually get face-to-fists with the Punisher, he’s taken out pretty quickly. The actor just had no presence, and a scarred eye isn’t enough to make him memorable.
Billy Russo, likewise, is a black hole of charisma and menace. He was just your generic, Hollywood handsome dude who did a fine enough job with the role, but he didn’t make it anything special. He wasn’t scary. He wasn’t angry or vile or violent or any interesting adjectives. He was just a dude who Frank wanted to get revenge against. At the start of the show, I thought he was a solid ally character, but once it was revealed that he was evil the whole time, he became instantly boring. It’s even worse that he was apparently evil the whole time instead of turning on Frank at some later date, that means he was always just a lying bad guy as opposed to someone who, perhaps, had his morals altered later. He was never really Frank’s friend, so his betrayal isn’t as powerful as it could have been.
About halfway through the show, I got spoiled that he was going to be Jigsaw. I didn’t know that going in and actually kind of hoped the show wouldn’t just fall back on using Jigsaw. But then I heard that was the character and confirmed it by looking Jigsaw up online and seeing that his real name was Bill Russo. At that point, after all the comments being made about how handsome he was, it just became a matter of time before something happened to scar his face. Punisher wasn’t even out to kill him anymore, as far as I was concerned. That final fight on the merry-go-round was just a waiting game until we finally got to the point of scarring his face. That was it. You knew the ending before it even happened because of predictable character expectations.
Neither Rawlins or pre-Jigsaw had any sort of menace or threat beyond the generic. They had no charisma or screen presence. And the Punisher didn’t even kill one of them!
3. The veteran angle is a good one, but could have used more of it
The Punisher is a great character to explore the plight of veterans in the U.S. He’s been used in that role in regards to Vietnam to great results, and I think he can be used the same way for veterans of the War on Terror. Curtis and his support group were a great addition to the cast and Curtis’ storyline was one of the better storylines over the course of the season. Likewise, the slow descent into crazy for Lewis Wilson is a solid story. The system has failed him now that he’s back in the states. He’s feeling worthless for a lot of interesting and legitimate reasons. Obviously, going crazy and killing people is not the answer, but there’s no denying that it happens sometimes. And Lewis made for a fine foil for Frank Castle and his own struggles as a post-war veteran.
I liked the veteran angle, but I would have liked more of it at the heart of the show. Like, the entire show should have been a treatise on the treatment of veterans in this War on Terror country. Talk about the suicide rates of veterans. Talk about the crap they have to deal with through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Frank Castle becoming the Punisher is the extreme reaction of veterans returning to the real world, and I think that can be used to great effect to tell a deeper, sometimes troubling, sometimes uplifting story. The Punisher is broken and can’t be fixed, but that can be used to inspire those veterans who can still be saved, or can be put against those veterans who can’t be saved, like Lewis.
2. Could have used a metric ton more punishing
One of the problems with The Punisher not actually being about the Punisher, as he exists in the comics, is that we don’t actually get a lot of punishing. Frank Castle kills a lot of people in the show, but most of them are in self defense. He kills the soldiers that come after him in the woods or come after him in Micro’s lair. He beats up the cops who try to arrest him. But he doesn’t kill Russo and he doesn’t kill Lewis. How many times does Frank Castle actually go out and willfully murder people? That’s the point of the character!
Granted, that makes him look bad, but that’s the point of his anti-hero status! The Punisher punishes criminals by killing them. They are bad guys doing bad things, and he is the self-declared punishment. Sometimes they might be trying to kill him, but more often than not, the Punisher is the one to shoot first and the only one shooting at all.
For context, this woman ran a vicious sex slavery ring
The only scene that even comes close to this is when Punisher and Micro steal the Battle Van. Punisher kills some criminals who are doing some criminal things. It’s great! But otherwise, he doesn’t go around punishing people. Heck, he lets Turk live! What’s up with that? I know Turk is a fun character to have throughout the Marvel shows, but how great would it have been if his role comes to an end because he gets in the Punisher’s crosshairs?
Instead, the whole first season is just one long, drawn out quest for revenge. No punishing criminals. Heck, the seasons ends with Frank Castle NOT being the Punisher. Who the hell came up with that idea?
1. Just film Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX
I’ve said it before and I’ll continue to say it every time somebody makes a Punisher adaptation: just film Garth Ennis’ Punisher MAX. Over the course of 60 some issues, Ennis delivers the most perfect Punisher story that anybody could ever possibly need or ask for. It’s a tight storyline, with lots of interesting characters and stories, with some pretty strong themes about the costs and horrors of war, and probably the greatest interpretation of the Punisher ever seen. It’s perfect. And yeah, perhaps I’m biased, but go read it yourself and tell me I’m wrong.
The Punisher showrunners have clearly read the MAX series because they named one of their villains William Rawlins, who was a major antagonist in Ennis’ story. Why they felt the need to change the character so completely is beyond me.
Hopefully the show will get some future seasons, and the showrunners will wise up and use the perfect blueprint already available to them.
What did you think of The Punisher on Netflix? Did you like it? Did you hate it? Did you tolerate it? What do you think could have been done better? Let me know in the comments!