There is the big picture and the little picture. There is the small screen and the big screen. There is adaptation, and variation, and there is having had your say and then continuing to talk. There is leaving the party while everyone’s still having fun, and there’s… not doing that. I’ve been saying from day whatever that it’s important to evaluate the merits of an adaptation from the perspective of someone who isn’t familiar with the source material. You can talk about Iron Chef America without comparing it to, or having seen, the Japanese original (stay tuned, in fact!) and you can look at a portrait of someone you don’t know and evaluate the merits of the portrait without having to say how much it looks like its subject. You with me here?
That’s why I deliberately do not read Marvel comics before reviewing TV adaptations. Sure, I think it matters, at one level, whether an adaptation is a good adaptation, but it also has to stand on its own.
Netflix’s new Marvel’s The Punisher does in fact stand on its own. And heck, comparing it to some of the other Marvel properties, it’s good (sorry, Iron Fist). At a small-picture scale, there’s solid acting (not mind-bending, but solid), and good production value. It gets a few things right, more on which in a sec. And the concept? How do I put this?
There’d still be questions about the concept even if it hadn’t been done, by Stan Lee, so damn many times that I’m starting to wonder if the guy needs to see a professional for his monomania. Guardians. Defenders. Avengers. Dudes with Vendettas. Enhanced Persons with Axes to Grind. Super-Disgruntled Vigilantes. I mean, how many more ways can you say the same sentence and why do you need to do it for thirteen freaking episodes when we all got it 8 series ago?
Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), who was introduced as a peripheral character in Daredevil (where he was definitely one of the highlights), is not a mutant, a demigod, a science experiment gone haywire, or a playboy billionaire tech magnate with Daddy Issues. He’s an extra-special Special Forces vet running from his past. (In the print version he’s a Vietnam vet; for the show they’ve updated him to Afghanistan. A dirty war’s a dirty war.) Shadowy villains killed his family to get to him and he moves through New York City like a ghost, taking out bad guys, of whom there are plenty. An ambitious first-generation child of Persian immigrants (Amber Rose Revah) is on his tail, and so is a Homeland Security intel worker (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who has also been forced under the radar by Shadowy Forces. Castle is haunted and dysphoric and lethal. In certain circles he’s known as The Punisher. You know. Because he wastes folks who are “dirty.” Bernthal brings a certain barely-contained rage and totally uncontained torment thing to the role and he does a great job with what he’s being asked to work with. My argument is not with him.
Here’s the thing. The MCU has whelped a relatively cogent adaptation here, but they have at this point redefined beating a dead horse. This dead horse has been beaten so thoroughly and so relentlessly and so copiously, that, to quote a buddy of mine, it’s been done “into the ground, through the Earth’s molten core and all the way through to the other side of the planet where it popped up in outer Mongolia, probably startling a band of itinerant yak-herders.”
Here’s what you’re going to get:
1. Nastiness galore. This is for sure the most adults-only program in the bloated and ever-expanding portfolio of Marvel “Pain Is My Superpower” programming. This is bloody, gunfire-rife, graphically violent and really pretty disgusting, and I say that as someone who has a high threshold. There’s even sex! Absurd sex involving someone 24 hours out from an almost lethal car crash and a load of broken ribs, even. In fact, there is so much gun violence that the release date got pushed back in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting. Make of that what you will.
2. A booster shot in case your Marvel Antihero antibodies are flagging. The good guys are bad, and the world made them bad. So they are taking it out on the corrupt, the greedy, the power-hungry, the liars and cheaters and gangsters and bad cops.
3. Execution. And I don’t mean Executing Stan’s Vision, I mean people getting their heads blown off at close range or their necks snapped or their carotid arteries slashed. If your blood lust is deeply unsatisfied while Game of Thrones is on hiatus, there is plenty for you here.
What you don’t get is the cross-pollination with other Marvel shows. Technically, as I mentioned, Frank Castle puts in an appearance in Daredevil, and Doborah Ann Woll does reprise her role as Karen Page. But the intersecting orbits of the various Marvel worlds is conspicuously absent here. For some, the standalone-ness might be a plus. But if those intersections are what you find fun about the MCU, you’re going to be irked here. I could have used a scene where Benedict Cumberbatch levitates into a meeting, personally. It could have been funny.
So… it’s not the worst of Netflix’s Marvel escapades. But you know what, the bar was pretty low. The generally muddled, ponderous and totally surprise-free script does offer viewers a hamfisted but not-inaccurate vision of what it is like to inhabit the mind of someone with acute PTSD. They do a good job with the flashbacks and the hypervigilance and the monomania and paranoia and hopelessness. That’s not botched, though it also isn’t new territory.
My question is really just this: At some point, don’t you have to have something new to say? These characters become more and more interchangeable. While the actors in The Punisher are totally competent, Marvel’s big-screen endeavors are largely successful because they’re self-effacing and humorous (this show is neither) and because of the superhuman charisma of people like Cumberbatch, Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey, Jr. They are so compulsively watchable they can get away with just about anything. The clutch of lesser-character vehicles Netflix has been turning out just don’t have that to lean on. So the gaping inadequacies of the scripts and the threadbare stories and the screamingly ubiquitous repetitive tropes are… well, it’s hard to imagine them holding many people’s attention for long.
We didn’t need this show. Um, at least, I sure didn’t. I’m really just more confused than anything at this point. About why they keep making them. They’re all but interchangeable and few of them are worth the time it takes to watch them. At some point don’t you have to, you know, get a new idea?
Marvel’s The Punisher premieres Friday, Nov. 17 on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.