Review: Netflix’s ‘The Punisher’ Is Less Punishing Than Expected

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Jon Bernthal as the titular vigilante in “Marvel’s The Punisher.” Credit Jessica Miglio/Netflix

Netflix and Marvel Television are conscientious about making sure the series they make together, good and bad, have distinct personalities. The latest, “Marvel’s The Punisher,” is the slow, quiet one, at least for a significant portion of its first season, which is available to stream on Friday.

This iteration of Frank Castle, one of Marvel’s most brutal heroes, certainly has its moments of graphic, over-the-top violence. But in the early going, at least, they’re more widely spaced than you might expect for a comic-book story about a revenge-obsessed, gun-happy vigilante.

To what extent that’s a prudent choice in light of the seemingly endless succession of mass shootings plaguing the country, and to what extent it’s a result of Netflix bloat — stretching a slender story to fill 13 episodes — is up for debate. The producers didn’t exercise much restraint with the show’s opening titles, a twirling ballet of multiplying automatic weapons. (A “Punisher” panel scheduled for the New York Comic-Con was canceled after the Las Vegas mass shooting.)

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In any case, it fits with a couple of other major choices made by the show’s creator, Steve Lightfoot, whose primary experience as a writer and producer was on another chilly, slow-moving show, “Hannibal.” He’s shifted the focus of the Punisher story away from violent street-level revenge and placed it on post-traumatic stress, one of the great American themes of our day. The very leisurely pace and sparsely populated long shots of the early episodes sometimes recall another PTSD story, “The Walking Dead.”

He’s also skipped over the foundational Punisher story — ex-Marine goes on rampage, wiping out the mobsters, Irish gangsters and bikers he blames for the death of his wife and children — which already formed the backbone of the second season of the Netflix-Marvel “Daredevil.” It’s recapitulated in the first few minutes of “The Punisher,” after which, with some shaky continuity and timeline fuzziness, the show turns into a military conspiracy thriller. In its flashbacks to Castle’s time in Afghanistan, the show feels less akin to other Marvel series than to the fall’s spate of special-ops dramas.

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