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‘The Punisher’ and ‘Runaways’ mark Marvel’s latest uneven TV efforts

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The teens of Runaways discover a horrifying secret.
Photo: Hulu / Courtesy

Two stars

Marvel's The Punisher Season 1 available November 17 on Netflix.

Three stars

Marvel's Runaways Tuesdays, Hulu. Premieres November 21.

Although they theoretically all take place within the same world, Marvel’s TV shows have struggled to make the same impact as the company’s theatrical films. Two new Marvel TV series debut this week, with very different tones and premises, and so far neither one captures the excitement and creativity of the best Marvel movies (or comic books). But while Runaways displays enough distinctiveness and charm to make it somewhat promising, The Punisher runs out of steam after just a few episodes.

The Punisher is part of the interconnected corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that includes fellow Netflix shows Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders, but it pretty much stands on its own. The title character, military veteran Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal, reprising his role from the second season of Daredevil), is a non-superpowered vigilante in a world of superheroes, who derives power from his single-minded determination to eradicate criminals—and a seemingly endless supply of heavy ordinance.

The Punisher Photo: Netflix / Courtesy

Rather than moving Frank forward from his Daredevil appearances, in which he tracked down and murdered the criminals responsible for killing his family, The Punisher backtracks, adding a government conspiracy angle and new shadowy figures to Frank’s origin. It’s a slow, monotonous story without a clear antagonist, and Frank is a grim, one-note character who works better as a supporting player than a lead. Amber Rose Revah brings some liveliness as a potentially sympathetic Homeland Security agent, but she barely interacts with Frank in the first six episodes.

Runaways, from Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, has a much lighter tone, although it’s still pretty slow and heavy compared to the creators’ other work (and to the comic book source material). Set among the ultra-rich of LA, the sunny, stylish show serves as a contrast to other Marvel series, and its large ensemble of teen and adult characters allows for a variety of subplots. The original comic books are about a group of teens taking down their parents after discovering that the adults are part of a secret evil organization, but Schwartz and Savage take a more measured approach, giving the adults more complex motivations.

Sometimes the sheer number of characters gets a bit unwieldy, and the interpersonal drama is less thrilling than the prospect of colorful superhero action (which goes mostly unfulfilled in the first four episodes). But the teen characters are likable and grounded, and worth watching even when they aren’t tapping into their superpowers. The adults, too, are more nuanced than typical supervillains, although they may eventually have to be left behind. Just as The Punisher features a disappointing lack of punishment, no one actually runs away in the early episodes of Runaways, but at least the show seems like it’s going somewhere.

Tags: Film, Television
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