After it’s rapturous early days with the gritty first two seasons of Daredevil and the hardboiled debut of Jessica Jones, Marvel’s Netflix product seems to have hit a rough patch lately in the eyes of fans and critics. While Luke Cage was praised for its unabashed immersion into the African-African experience, the back-half of its introductory season faltered with pacing and plotting issues. Subsequently, an inadequate lead and an incompetent showrunner led Iron Fist to dismal reviews. This year’s team-up spectacle, The Defenders, while satisfactory, did little to redeem Marvel’s street-level streaming heroes.
Enter Frank Castle.
Jon Bernthal’s turn as the righteous and murderous anti-hero was the consensus highlight of Daredevil’s second season, forever rebranding him from “Shane on The Walking Dead” to “the badass who plays The Punisher” in the pop-culture consciousness. His popularity proved to be so overwhelming that Jeph Loeb and the Marvel TV bosses decided to spin him off into his own show. A risky proposition no doubt, considering the character’s many failed big screen adaptations. But hey, if they could rehab Matt Murdock from Ben Affleck’s lacklustre portrayal, they surely could do the same with this guy.
And that they did. The Punisher delivers the kind of brutal, bloody and bone-breaking violence that is at once thrilling and uncomfortable. Even within this grimmer corner of the MCU, The Punisher is shocking in its darkness. But this isn’t a revelry in violence so much as a sombre exploration of the psyche behind it, and the consequences that come of it. Amidst his anguished grunts, Bernthal’s powerful performance somehow manages to infuse humanity, nobility and vulnerability into this frightening, monstrous killing machine. You don’t have to agree with his methods, but you can understand how harrowing his sense of loss is, how severe his drive is, and how his self-imposed moral code keeps him in check.
The series itself opens with The Punisher finishing his last bits of business leftover from Daredevil season two, completing his quest to wipe out the remaining gangsters involved in the senseless killing of his wife and children. Upon completion, Frank Castle takes up an alias as Pete Castiglione (a nice wink to his given name in the comics) to work as construction worker. He settles for a quiet and solitary life, content to quell his rage by tearing down walls instead of human beings. But as these things often go, Frank is once again dragged into the muck when an NSA hacker/whistleblower codenamed Micro reveals to him that the motives behind his family’s murder go beyond organized crime.
Frank learns of a conspiracy that stretches all the way back to his military tour in Afghanistan, where he was part of an unseemly black ops mission gone awry. In case you can’t already tell, Frank’s big on the whole revenge thing, so his wrath compels him to hunt down the shadowy government figures in the CIA and the military that orchestrated his greatest trauma. The Punisher’s return also draws the attention of Dinah Madani – an incorruptible Homeland Security agent with her own vendetta to pursue.
The plot to The Punisher is complex, with enough twists and turns to keep viewers intrigued for its 13-hour duration. But in truth, the story isn’t as important as the themes that the story leads to. The show’s journey addresses some very horrific yet topical things along the way, such as PTSD and America’s sorry treatment of war veterans (“All I know is that we risked our lives and terrible things – and it meant nothing when we got home.”), alongside hot-button issues like gun violence, the blurry line between vengeance and justice, institutional hubris and the destructiveness of white male anger.
Those who’ve seen all of Marvel’s Netflix shows know that they tend to detour midway with uninspired subplots. But with The Punisher, even its deviation made for compelling television, taking some much needed time to force the audience to consider the hypocrisy of Frank’s vigilantism when he confronts another tortured war veteran with similar goals. The Punisher can sometimes be glorified as an Occam’s razor for justice, but the thing is, punishment isn’t always the same as justice. For a show about a man who views the world in black and white absolutes, The Punisher’s real meat lies in the grey areas.