Marvel’s most sadistic vigilante has been an ongoing source of screen fascination, yielding movies of the uneven-to-bad variety. Although a Netflix series might look like more hospitable turf, “The Punisher” only marginally improves on that legacy, yielding a grim, plodding story that tends to confuse body count with achievement.
Previously introduced in “Daredevil,” Jon Bernthal’s skeleton-adorned killing machine, Frank Castle, is back, in a drama built on his status as a former military man, a history that comes back to haunt him. He also continues to grieve for his wife, whose murder the viewer has to keep reliving — in gauzy Technicolor dreams — along with him.
As the series opens, everyone thinks our tortured antihero has died, except for a former NSA analyst (“Girls'” Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a maestro of computers and surveillance who enlists Frank in a larger cause. The plot involves a mystery surrounding what really happened during Castle’s service abroad, a situation that involves his former buddy Billy Russo (Ben Barnes) and a Homeland Security agent (Amber Rose Revah) who fields the case.
The action, when it happens, proves especially grisly. The parties postponed a “Punisher” premiere at New York Comic-Con after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, which feels like a limp acknowledgment of the show’s over-the-top violence while simultaneously trying to establish distance from it.
Along the way, Castle endures nearly as much punishment as he dishes out (although “The Punishee” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it), and the gore factor rises to bordering-on-gratuitous heights during the closing flurry of episodes.
Until then, though, “The Punisher” drifts along at an uneven, at-times sluggish pace, which has been an issue with the lesser lights (“Iron Fist” comes to mind) in the Marvel-Netflix collaboration. While Castle possesses special skills aplenty, the subplots prove tired, and for stretches the biggest danger seems to be that — its taciturn leading man notwithstanding — that the show is going to talk somebody to death.
The Punisher was introduced in the comics as a foe of Spider-Man, somebody whose ruthlessness and vigilantism put him in conflict with more traditional heroes. In a way, he actually worked better in that capacity, as opposed to occupying center stage, given that he’s so clenched and sullen as to make Batman look like the life of the party.
As noted, even Marvel’s best street-level Netflix dramas tend to be dark and a tad talky in their noir-ish approach, reveling in the storytelling latitude provided by premium TV and the expectation that die-hard fans will binge-view them.
Marvel has demonstrated an enviable ability to wring value out of second-tier heroes — a testament to the company’s expansion beyond Avengers-level mainstays in its interlocking universe, especially in movies.
Still, TV misfires like the recent “The Inhumans” suggest even the comic-book kingpin isn’t invulnerable. Because despite all that bloodshed, this latest incarnation of the Punisher too often comes away firing blanks.
“Marvel’s The Punisher” premieres Nov. 17 on Netflix.