In 2017, imagine where the most newsworthy topics might intersect. Government conspiracy. Mass shootings. Soldiers coming back from war. Immigrants and their role in growing American businesses and inspiring future immigrants. Trust. Tying all of these narratives together was the challenging task of Steve Lightfoot, who signed on with Netflix to create the modern version of Marvel’s vigilante, The Punisher.
The Punisher is the fifth title in Marvel’s investment in Netflix. This universe began with Daredevil, and continued with Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. The four titular characters came together in 2017 in The Defenders. Despite not joining the ensemble cast, Frank Castle (aka The Punisher) appeared in season 2 of Daredevil. That part-time appearance drove fans to clamor for more of Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead, Fury) in his absolute ownership of his role as Castle.
The Tough Task of Writing The Punisher
The Punisher is among the most experimental series in modern TV history. It dares to include characters from every extreme of the political spectrum. It dares further to include characters who are broken, confused, adamant, inspired, excited, or even clinging to ideals. It’s not just a war divided by those who served vs those who they protect. The writing is nuanced, emotional, and daring.
One of the early themes explored in the show is patriotism. Frank has come home to New York. He has a war to fight, but it’s personal, not for his country. Viewers are introduced to several “patriots.” They include Curtis (Jason R. Moore), Lewis Wilson (Daniel Webber), and O’ Connor (Delany Williams). Each man screams patriotism from rooftops with differing intent. Curtis advocates for all veterans. Lewis can’t shake the voices of the demons who he heard on the battlefield. O’Connor feeds those demons for his own reasons.
The series is responsible and on target in its narrative. For instance, gun lovers and veterans are not the same groups. Of course, there is an overlap. There should be. But, membership in one group doesn’t guarantee membership in the other. On the other end of the spectrum, the show tackles the inflammatory theme of integration. FBI Agent Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah) is a talented, rising star within Homeland Security. She is the project of immigrant parents; a celebrity and a doctor. She becomes a key player who can alter American foreign relations. She is among the most important characters in The Punisher, and she deserves to be.
Frank and Micro
Castle may be the protagonist, but it’s his counterpart, Micro, who drives the informational and emotional sub-plots. Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is a social invalid where Frank is in social isolation. Micro is written as a new take on NSA analyst Edward Snowden. He is a technological genius who goes into hiding, at first to save his own life, and then to save his family. He finds evidence of illegal activities being conducted by the military. He sends that evidence to a source, and he is hunted for his involvement. This raises another of the show’s core themes – Honor.
Casting Micro as a contractor and not a soldier is an important, if subtle, choice. Soldiers I’ve worked with have called out this as a huge differentiator between Snowden and former Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning. Snowden was a hire, just someone on a contract. Manning swore an oath of service to God and country. A contractor sharing confidential intelligence doesn’t break that oath. A soldier sharing that intel does.
Bernthal’s dialogue as the Punisher provides plenty of examples of his feelings of honor. When he has to infiltrate an army base, he makes the difficult choice not to kill anyone guarding it. They’re just kids doing their jobs and don’t deserve to die. He makes this choice even though it makes the mission infinitely harder. In a later episode, he talks about how his girlfriend, Marie, found out she was pregnant with their first child. Despite only dating for three months, he asked her that day to marry him. These small pieces of dialogue help to create the juxtaposition between Castle and the corrupt enemies he hunts.
The Show’s Brutality
The Punisher is not the first Marvel Netflix property to be considered dark and gritty. Much of Daredevil‘s first season and pieces of The Defenders are so dark the action is hard to follow. It’s not simply the lighting that fits the show’s theme, it’s the outright brutality. Daredevil, despite being blind, uses a parkour style of fighting that is just as flashy as it is forceful. Charlie Cox and his stunt double Chris Brewster are as likely to throw flips as they are kicks. Frank Castle just steamrolls over opponents. Bernthal and his stunt double, Eric Linden, use core strength, arm bars and stomp kicks to disable enemies. The sheer physicality of the role is one more reason that Bernthal makes the perfect Frank Castle.
Early in Daredevil season 2, fans were introduced to Bernthal’s version of Castle. Cox and Bernthal played off of one another perfectly. Cox’s Matt Murdock holds on to Catholic beliefs and refuses to kill. Castle replies, “I do the one thing that you can’t. You hit ’em, and they get back up. I hit ’em, and they stay down.” Viewers see Castle’s violence, but through the lens of Murdock. The Punisher fully unleashes Castle and shows just how far he’s willing to go for vengeance. This leads to some uncomfortable moments, punctuated by the tense score from Tyler Bates. The combination is effective, and when Frank gets his vengeance, extremely satisfying.
Fans of the comics will enjoy this series, especially its tie-ins to the well-respected “Welcome Back, Frank” story arc. After several previous attempts at bringing Frank Castle to film, he lands solidly on Netflix with this show. Bernthal has repeated in interviews his respect for this role, and for the many men and women who hold the Punisher in high regard. His dedication to portraying Castle is evident in every scene. Here’s to Season 2 and the next evolution in the journey of The Punisher.