Marvel’s The Punisher First Impressions of Episodes 1-3

“I actually care what happens to you, which makes precisely one of us.”

There were three separate attempts to adapt the Punisher for live-action, including one from Marvel Studios itself, Punisher: War Zone. Marvel found movie success in their big-time heroes, and their more street-level types wound up thriving in television, specifically Netflix.

To that end, instead of a fourth attempt at the Punisher in film as part of the MCU, the character was folded into the Defenders set of shows by being half the plot of season 2 of Daredevil. Jon Bernthal inhabited the role so magnificently that Netflix green-lit a wholly unplanned Punisher series to go along with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders.

Based on the first three episodes, we get a story that, at least so far, is the most connected to the real world of soldiers and violence and governments and politics, and the least related to superpowers and alien invasions.

SPOILERS for the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The series gets off to an odd start, as we see Castle take care of all the people involved in the death of his family, a mission he left for at the end of DD season 2, and then he burns his skull shirt, all before the credits roll. Then Castle is “Paul Castiglione,” a demolition worker on a construction site who talks to nobody, has a thick beard (more than one person accuses him of becoming a hipster) and curly hair, and is barely recognizable as the killing machine we saw in the cold open.

But of course, by the end of the episode, he’s saved the life of the one person who was nice to him, killed the guys who were mean to him (who are criminals so it’s okay? kind of? more on them in a bit), and then the actual plot kicks in at the end of the first episode when David “Micro” Lieberman finds him in his blanket surveillance of the city.

Lieberman is a character that is far too common on screen, the super-hacker (SEE ALSO: Hardison on Leverage, Riley on McGyver, and all those other characters who have unlimited and illegal access to all the surveillance and all the top-of-the-line software!), who can basically perform magic. Sure, it’s a world that has Norse gods and green rage-monsters and Tony Stark, but this series makes an effort to be separate from that. (Even when we see Karen Page in episode 2, there’s absolutely no mention of Daredevil or anyone else from that world. Besides her and her boss Ellison, the only other MCU character in these first three episodes is Clancy Brown’s Schoonover, already established in DD season 2 as Castle’s CO in Afghanistan.)

It is interesting to see the journey Lieberman and Castle go on that leads to their teaming up at the end of episode 3, as they’re not friends, and they don’t trust each other, but they have a common goal, and their skills complement each other. (As Lieberman puts it, every missile needs a guidance system.)

There are a lot of little things that these first three episodes do right. After suffering through the half-assed PTSD in Iron Fist, it’s a relief to have a show do it right. Not just Jon Bernthal’s pained performance as Castle, where you see every emotion etched on his pores, but also in the group sessions that Castle hovers on the periphery of, and all the various ex-military folk’s differing reactions to coming home from combat. This series takes the horrors of war seriously, leading up thematically to the ambush that puts Castle over the edge in the flashback in episode 3.

Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of it feels off. The actual storyline is incredibly predictable and derivative, and one we’ve seen a billion times before. In the original comics, Castle was a Vietnam veteran, and the vet-comes-home-and-can’t-adjust storyline is territory that’s been well trod in the four decades since that war ended. The best chance to give this a special twist is that it is in the MCU, but so far there’s nothing that interesting. It’s just a fairly standard corruption storyline complete with unrealistic faked deaths. (Seriously, why does anyone believe that Lieberman is dead when they didn’t find his body after it fell into the Central Park Reservoir, which is a closed system? If he fell into the Atlantic, I’d buy it, but not an artificial body of water in a constructed park.)

Not to mention the very problematic first episode, which is almost completely standalone. Every beat is eminently predictable, from Castle brushing off the friendship attempt, to his refusing to engage until someone’s life is in danger, to just the general tired sliminess of the construction workers. Also, these are just working stiffs who turn to crime, not because they’re bad guys, but because they have money trouble. Yes, they’re assholes, but are they really assholes who deserve to die? Since “3AM” is all just shifting plot stuff around to get Castle back into the Punisher game, I doubt that the series will address this, as the subsequent twelve episodes seem entirely focused on Castle’s military past.

What the story lacks in originality and interest it makes up for in acting. Bernthal remains superlative in the title role, and he’s very well supported by Jason R. Moore’s rock-steady Curtis, Ben Barnes’s charismatic Russo, Paul Schulze’s sleazy Rawlins, and especially Amber Rose Revah and Jaime Ray Newman as, respectively, Agent Madani (whose investigation into what happened in Kandahar is very obviously going to collide with Castle and Lieberman’s own look into it) and Lieberman’s “widow” Sarah. Newman especially elevates a role that could easily have been a tired cliché and makes Sarah into a smart, clever, tragic presence in her own right.

Still, maybe it’s because I’ve been watching so many superhero films of the late twentieth century that were trying very hard to run away from their comic-book roots, but by eliminating the fantastical elements that one expects by the possessive “Marvel’s” before the title, it also removes what would separate this story from all eight billion other ones of its ilk.

Let’s hope that things pick up as we go along. We’ll have a full review of the entire 13-episode season on Tuesday.

SPOILER ALERT! Please try to keep the comments as spoiler-free of episodes 4-13 as possible.

Keith R.A. DeCandido writes “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” for this site every Friday. He has also written about Star Trek, Stargate, Batman, Wonder Woman, Doctor Who, and the other Marvel Netflix series. In addition, he’s the author of a metric buttload of fiction, most recently the Marvel “Tales of Asgard” trilogy featuring Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three, three Super City Cops eBook novellas about cops in a city filled with superheroes, and tons more. He’s Author Guest of Honor at Atomacon 2017 this weekend in North Charleston, South Carolina; check out his schedule here.

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