With the year-round buzz surrounding Marvel’s widely acclaimed (and massively profitable) movie universe, it’s easy to forget that the studio has also been churning out a ton of TV shows. There are 13 live-action Marvel series that are currently airing or will air by the end of 2018; six of them—Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, The Defenders, and the most recent addition, The Punisher—are Netflix Originals.
The Punisher, which dropped its 13-episode first season on Friday, is perhaps Netflix’s most unexpected Marvel series. For starters, until last year there weren’t even plans to make The Punisher, but after Frank Castle—and more specifically, the excellent, committed actor who played him, Jon Bernthal—stole the second season of Daredevil, the streaming service and studio called an audible. But that’s not the only reason The Punisher feels surprising: Castle also isn’t, let’s say, a typical hero—if you can even call him one. Traumatized by the death of his family, he becomes an avatar for vengeance with a skull-shaped logo and a penchant for murdering criminals using an absurd arsenal of semi-automatic weapons. To put it another way: If a kid dresses up as Batman or Superman for Halloween, it’s adorable; if a kid shows up at your door dressed as the Punisher, you should be concerned.
Despite his pointed differences from Daredevil or Iron Fist, however, The Punisher feels very much like a Netflix-Marvel series. These shows share a lot of DNA, both good and bad, so that even the best of the bunch (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage) are burdened with strikingly similar drawbacks. It’s almost as if Netflix and Marvel have a checklist they’re trying to check off, plot or character nuances be damned. What’s on that checklist, you ask? Let’s go through the whole thing and discuss whether The Punisher ticks each of those boxes.
A Stunning Opening Title Sequence
Since the bloody, hypnotic title sequence of Daredevil—Netflix’s maiden Marvel series—these shows have been introduced with highly artistic opening credits that both mirror and announce each show’s respective style. Jessica Jones’s sequence fits the show’s noir vibes; Luke Cage’s credits are a tribute to Harlem and hip-hop; Iron Fist’s doesn’t express anything and isn’t very good, which is true to the show.
Does The Punisher have this? Yes. In fact, it might be the most literal interpretation of a Marvel character’s persona yet. The title sequence closes with an array of semi-automatic weapons coming together to form the Punisher’s signature skull logo. It’s extremely on brand—striking, memorable, and somewhat problematic.
A Superhero’s Reluctance to Wear an Actual Superhero Costume
Netflix likes to emphasize that these are “real” heroes living in New York. As such, they hardly ever wear costumes. Daredevil (Charlie Cox) is the sole exception, and even then, it took until the very end of the first season for Matt Murdock to don the outfit—most of the season he just put a scarf over his face and beat the shit out of people.
Does The Punisher have this? The show opens with Frank Castle burning his Punisher getup after killing off every person responsible for murdering his family. (Spoiler alert, though: He still needs to kill more guys!) He eventually puts on the body armor with the skull spray-painted on it again, but for much of the season, he’s just a menacing figure who went a little overboard with the Hanes catalog.
Claire Temple, a.k.a. the Nick Fury of Television
In place of Samuel L. Jackson in an eyepatch, the Netflix shows have Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Originally a working nurse, her association with the Defenders have turned her into, essentially, an unemployed woman who mends the heroes’ wounds whenever they get beat up. I’m not entirely sure Claire’s happy about what’s transpired—I also don’t know how she can afford to live in a large one-bedroom apartment—but Claire is the glue that holds this team together.
Does The Punisher have this? Actually, no. Instead of Claire, Frank Castle’s connection to the larger Marvel universe is Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), Daredevil’s friend and love interest, Castle’s former defense attorney, and current investigative journalist (I know, it’s really confusing). Their bond mostly feels like an excuse to tie The Punisher in for another superhero team up, à la The Defenders, though they might also hook up, which is strange—more on that later.
Vague References to The Avengers and Its Heroes
The Netflix shows really like talking about “The Incident” that happened in New York. [*whispers* That’s when the Avengers stopped that alien invasion in New York in the film The Avengers.] It’s not exactly subtle—the only way it could be more blatant is if someone from the Netflix shows shouted, “Remember that thing that happened in The Avengers? Me too!”
Does The Punisher have this? No, and honestly it’s better that way. It’d be weird if a vigilante with a buttload of guns made passing references to a Norse God, a giant green monster, or Chris Pratt in space.
Borderline Confusion Over Whether the Avengers Actually Exist in This Universe
Ask someone at Marvel whether the TV and movie universes are the same universes, and you’ll get very confusing answers. The only thing that seems agreed upon is that these heroes will never intersect. Meanwhile, in the shows, you’re left wondering why there’s so much talk about “The Incident” if the superhero team that caused it may not technically exist.
Does The Punisher have this? The Punisher makes things more confusing. There’s a whole government conspiracy Castle is dealing with that leads back to his days in the military, and it comes off like a reboot of the time Hydra infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Which raises the question: Why is the government so repeatedly corrupt and unable to learn from its mistakes?!
And speaking of Castle serving in the military, we got a ton of flashbacks from his time as a soldier, but there’s never any mention of the resurrected World War II soldier who … also became a war criminal; or the billionaire with a high-tech suit who wiped out most of fictional Al-Qaeda, the type of mission Frank’s team presumably would’ve been tasked with. Also, couldn’t they have just enlisted the help of War Machine? You could legitimately ask yourself questions like these for the full runtime of The Punisher’s first season.
A Quirky Sidekick
A classic Netflix staple. Daredevil even has two quirky sidekicks, Karen Page and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), the latter of whom spent most of Season 2 nagging Matt for fighting crime (a thing that really upset Samuel L. Jackson). Jessica Jones has bestie Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), a radio host and former child star. Iron Fist had Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). And though Luke Cage didn’t really have a sidekick in Season 1, next season he’ll get Iron Fist, who, let’s be honest, is better served as a sidekick than the star of his own show.
Does The Punisher have this? Castle makes a reluctant friend and sidekick in Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who’s based on a character in the comics named Microchip. Theirs is a typical bromance: Castle doesn’t trust Micro at first, and ties him to a chair naked and does a light bit of torture on him. Both are presumed dead and were betrayed by the government they served—that brings them closer. They heat up microwave dinners and talk about how they miss their families, which is the closest The Punisher gets to being warm and fuzzy. Micro is a strange sidekick—he also looks like an Urban Outfitters model that accidentally got spun around in a dryer, or like Desi if Girls had gone one season longer—but he’s a sidekick nonetheless.
A Super Lonely Hero
These heroes are “outsiders” who really love to emphasize how they want, or are meant to be, alone. Behold as they traipse around Manhattan in their black leather, aggressively swilling liquor and wallowing in their sadness.
Does The Punisher have this? In spades, yes. There’s the whole murdered family dynamic—which, unfortunately, isn’t handled with any restraint whatsoever. In an amazing moment in The Punisher, Castle tells Karen that he’s not lonely, and then Karen responds with, basically, the Marvel-Netflix TV universe’s ethos: “We are all lonely. I sometimes think that that is all that life is. We’re just fighting not to be alone.”
Jesus, guys, we get it! Please look at Fiona the Hippo and smile, if only for a second.
A Sexually Active Superhero
Marvel movies are fun—but also sexless. They have to sell toys. Netflix, however, will let you know their heroes get laid. Big time.
Daredevil had flings with Karen, Claire, and Elektra (Elodie Yung); Jessica Jones memorably languished in Jones and Luke Cage’s super-sex; even Iron Fist got laid, and that guy took a vow of chastity!
Does The Punisher have this? In the first six episodes, he doesn’t, but there is some promising sexual chemistry with two characters. His budding romance with Karen seems charming (and certainly has some online ’shippers), but you have to remember he was introduced to her in Daredevil as a terrorist butchering people in New York City.
Elsewhere, Castle sparks a bond with Micro’s wife, Sarah (Jaime Ray Newman), who doesn’t know Castle’s real identity. Presumably, he’s engaging with Sarah to fill the void left by the loss of his family, but Sarah clearly also has the hots for him. It’s all very weird and uncomfortable, especially because Micro has hidden cameras all over his home, so he’s watching his wife flirt with his only friend—also, Castle knows he’s watching! WHAT?!
Does The Punisher have this?
No, for real, this is a recurring thing in these shows. The Hand is an international organization of immortal beings that control global commerce—in effect, they are the Illuminati with an endless supply of ninja henchman—and serve as the antagonists in Daredevil Season 2, Iron Fist, and The Defenders. Poor Sigourney Weaver was roped into playing their leader.
I think they’re all dead after The Defenders, but you can’t count out Illuminati ninjas.
Does The Punisher have this? Thankfully, it does not. The main villain in The Punisher is an “amorphous government conspiracy,” which may not be an improvement.
Overly Long Seasons
Every Marvel series, without failure, tends to pack six or seven hours worth of story into 13 episodes. It’s bizarre, if only because Netflix doesn’t seem to be forcing them to abide by a 13-episode rule—many Netflix Originals, like Ozark and Stranger Things, have much shorter seasons. And yet multiple times a year, a new season of a Marvel show drops with an inexplicably daunting number of episodes, as if Marvel is subjecting itself to Twin Peaks Season 2 treatment. What’s even more ridiculous is that The Defenders seemed to fix this problem by only being eight episodes long, but then they forgot to put the right amount of plot into those episodes.
Does The Punisher have this? Unfortunately, the series is really, really slow. They spend an entire episode on Castle interrogating Micro, who everyone knows he’ll team up with, and another 50-plus-minute installment sets up how Castle will get a huge selection of guns for future showdowns, as if people are tuning in to understand the logistics of ammunition allocation. All of this could’ve been handled at a brisk pace; instead, The Punisher is 13 episodes long and becomes something I never expected: boring.
A Guy Named Turk Getting Beat Up
Probably the weirdest piece of connective tissue in the Marvel-Netflix television universe is a small-time criminal named Turk Barrett (Rob Morgan), who has the unfortunate luck of getting his ass handed to him by a superhero in Daredevil, Luke Cage, and The Defenders. It’s gotten to the point that I feel bad for him. He really needs to leave town and start a new life that doesn’t involve a super-powered human punching him in the face.
Does The Punisher have this? Yeah, it does—Castle knocks him unconscious after trying to steal his guns. (He didn’t even have any, by the way). Look, Turk, do you want me to Venmo you money for a bus ticket?
As you can see, The Punisher, despite being an anomaly on paper, is a very traditional Netflix-Marvel production. If you liked the other shows, you’ll like The Punisher. However, if you didn’t, or if you’re getting tired of the same narrative beats, don’t expect Frank Castle to change anything.