Well, Marvel has finally done it: They’ve gotten me on board with The Punisher.
I’ve never been a big Punisher fan. I’ve always been more a follower of the “cape and tights” hero genre. Punisher always felt a little too one-dimensional for me, though there are people who find more of a level of “romanticized heroism” with his style of dispensing justice.
The Punisher series succeeds because it throws all of that on its head, and makes you think of the cost of leading such a life.
Frank Castle was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe by way of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 2. Played by Jon Berenthal, Castle was played less as a one-man armament, and more of a haunted soul tortured by memory of loss he can never escape.
When Netflix announced a series based on The Punisher, I was willing to take a look to see where they could not only take him, but how far they could take it.
Set after the events of Daredevil, Castle has settled more of his personal vendetta to the point that he feels he can retire from his personal war. Taking on the name of Pete Castiglione, he lives a quiet and unassuming life as a construction worker, confiding only in his friend Curtis. Between a fellow co-worker getting wrapped up in a crime deal that goes wrong, and the arrival of David Lieberman (“Micro”), played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Castle finds that he can only hide in plain sight for so long.
It turns out that Frank’s tenure in the military led him to perform some more unsavory acts, and the people who initiated those orders are still alive and corrupt. Frank not only has to resolve this newly uncovered chapter of his personal war, but contend with the repercussions of a society that has thought “The Punisher” to be dead.
For people looking for a Frank Castle that takes care of all of his problems and bad guys with guns blazing, you’ll get that here. Oh boy, will you ever get that. For a non-metahuman, Frank’s endurance and seeming resistance to pain goes above and beyond the normal person, and he dispatches his enemies his brutal vengeance. It’s incredibly gory, and surprising to think that ultimately, this is a “Disney” production.
There is a cost to these actions, however. Frank Castle is a soldier that has been programmed by a system that has abandoned and forgotten him once his adherence to “duty” had been fulfilled. In “War” mode, Frank does little more than scream and dispatch enemies with maximum, ruthless precision like the tool he was created to be, fearsome and powerful.
And yet, when those moments pass and he has nothing to fight anymore, you can feel the loneliness and emptiness within him. A raw and vulnerable solitary pain in that he is alone in this world with fear of connecting to someone again, lest he lose them as well. Karen Page and Lieberman find connection with him, and try to remind him that he is not alone in this world, because all he can see when he closes his eyes is his family taken away from him. Again. And again. And again. He’s not a “badass with a gun”. He’s a lost soul.
Benerthal’s performance as the Punisher is powerful and sympathetic. He nears inhuman levels as an instrument, but in moments of reaching out to Lieberman’s family, and even a few humorous asides with Lieberman himself, he shows far more depth to Castle’s character and life before he became a killing machine. Castle is very protective of those that can get close to him, bound by a sense of honor of protecting and sparing the uncorrupted. He’s tired. He wants the bad guys to pay for their crimes, but his weariness is so deep that if there’s nothing left for him to fight, there’s a shaken fear of not knowing if there’s anything left for him, of him, past that.
This “lost” theme is not reserved for just Frank Castle. Each character in this story has their own tale of personal loss, breaking points, or a quest for justice. Among them is Lewis Wilson (played by Daniel Webber). His character starts out as sympathetic, but ends as a cautionary tale of what happens when that “system” breaks something and doesn’t try to fix what it has damaged. Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) is another case of waging a personal war for justice at great cost, but one that is still bound by morality.
There is of course the charming Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), who is one of Castle’s former squad buddies and head of ANVIL. Long-time Punisher fans know that Russo has a destiny to fulfill within Castle’s world, and at the end, Castle most certainly helps him fulfill it.
Of all of the Netflix MCU “adult” shows, this is one of the darkest and most violent. Befitting for the titular character, with connections to the real-world probably far more close to home than it ever intended to be at the time of its release. Berenthal’s Punisher was one of the more compelling sub-plots in Daredevil‘s second season, and given a standalone series, he carries it well. I never thought I could feel empathy for the tragedy of the Punisher’s life, but this series expands the emotional toll of the character’s loss while staying very true to the ultra-violence of the series’ namesake. The Punisher portrayed here bears depth.
The Punisher is a series that is both parts action and horror. The real selling point of this series is Jon Berenthal’s layered and emotional performance. This is one of the most effective examples that I’ve seen of using violence to make a clear case for anti-violence. While the character of Frank Castle is well deserving of an end to his war, Season 2, has already been approved, so the war will rage on….