Netflix's 'Punisher' isn't about the Punisher, in a good way

Netflix's latest Marvel series glosses over the violent vigilante's murderous tendencies with a compelling conspiracy thriller.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Jessica Miglio/Netflix

It seems previous Netflix shows starring Marvel comic book characters weren't punishment enough. The streaming service returns to the Marvel universe on Friday 17 November with "The Punisher", the latest series with a decidedly ambiguous antihero at its core.

We met the Punisher in Netflix's earlier series "Daredevil", which had fans clamouring to see more of the violent vigilante. But "The Punisher" TV show isn't really about the Punisher -- it's about Frank Castle.

Frank Castle is the former Marine who adopted the guise of the Punisher when his family was murdered. In his comic book roots, he fast-tracks the death penalty for those who make a mockery of the law, employing his military experience and twisted imagination to blow away criminals left, right and centre. And indeed, the Netflix show opens with the Punisher treating gangsters and bikers to a blend of extreme violence and raunchy blues-rock music.

But the fun doesn't last long. Having wiped out the men who killed his family, Castle burns his skull-painted body armour, grows a mighty beard of sorrow, and gives up his vigilante ways. So instead of meting out his twisted version of justice to deserving criminals, the show becomes a political conspiracy drama as Castle's involvement with a shady CIA operation comes back to haunt him.

As Castle, Jon Bernthal builds on his debut in "Daredevil" by bringing a surprising vulnerability to the black-clad antihero. It's compelling to watch how one man can transform in any moment from being wounded and sympathetic to implacably violent. A curtain comes down over the bull-like Castle's eyes and horrendous brutality inevitably follows.


Jon Bernthal combines vulnerability and violence in his version of the Punisher.

Nicole Rivelli /Netflix

Only that's kinda the problem with the Punisher -- he's a bad guy. He straight-up murders people. The last time we saw him he was in opposition to the superhero Daredevil, so there was light and shade, even if that earlier show probed exactly where the line is between right and wrong. Here, Castle is squarely the hero, and the show bends over backward to make him seem decent and likable by making him the victim of a conspiracy.

But shuffling the murderous Punisher persona to one side doesn't change the fact of who he is. That's why, incidentally, it's so worrying when you see the Punisher's skull logo adopted by real armed forces and police.

While it glosses over the horrific implications of the Punisher's one-man war on crime, the series does take aim at different targets with almost palpable rage. Castle and his fellow veterans are manipulated, betrayed and abandoned by their leaders, committing terrible acts in tawdry foreign wars. They're burdened by their sins when they return home. In its portrayal of isolated veterans, embittered white men and conflicted whistleblowers finding answers in sometimes the wrong places, the show depicts a battle for the soul of America.

Along the way, the show doesn't flinch from showing the viciousness -- and the cost -- of Castle's trademark savagery. Instead of the stylish action in "Daredevil" or the demented black humour often found in the Punisher comic, the violence in the TV series is stripped down and bloody. For example, one fight that begins as a balletic John Wick-esque rampage breaks down into a brutally intimate hand-to-hand struggle that shakes you with the force of every blow. Another gunfight is filmed like a first-person shooter video game, as an indictment of men in suits who control wars from their laptops.


Amber Rose Revah and Michael Nathanson take on the Punisher.

Nicole Rivelli/Netflix

As interesting as the show's political intrigue is, it's not the most original thing in the world. The story of footsoldiers betrayed by morally bankrupt intelligence officers comes straight out of "The Losers" and "The A-Team". Meanwhile, the flashbacks to Castle's backstory cover a lot of ground already dealt with during his appearance in "Daredevil". And even individual scenes feel repetitive.  Three of the first four episodes feature someone tied to a chair and tortured. And there are only so many times I want to see Frank having the same dream about his wife.

The supporting players keep things ticking along, particularly Amber Rose Revah as strong-willed Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani, newly returned from Afghanistan with an unsolved murder on her mind.  Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays tech geek Micro, who's also lost his family in a different way.

I have to admit I'm increasingly struggling with Netflix's Marvel shows, which seem so in love with their tormented characters' slow-burning struggles they forget to move the story along. "The Punisher" suffers from the same problems as the other shows. Some of its 13-hour run time is a real slog. But it's also a tough, grown-up drama with some timely concerns at its core.

It's a punishing experience. But in a good way.

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