I’ve never been much of a Punisher fan. The character was too one-note, even from talented writers. The best Punisher storylines often have colorful villains meeting interesting ends, but the title character himself is often lacking.
But then in season two of the Marvel/Netflix series Daredevil, actor Jon Bernthal did something I didn’t think would happen: he made me like the Punisher. Bernthal took an often rote character and gave him multiple dimensions.
So, now Bernthal’s Frank Castle has graduated to his own series. How did it go?
Remarkably well. The Netflix material is easily the most mature-themed work in the entire MCU, and The Punisher is easily the least kid-friendly series yet. Dealing with the effects of violence on the psyches of those who both commit it and have it committed against them, The Punisher isn’t one big, exploitative series of gun battles and explosions. To be sure, there are some very intense and violent scenes, but this is a Frank Castle who may actually be more interested in preventing violence than performing it. This is a Frank Castle who will let a man he know committed a crime live, something numerous past Punisher portrayals would not have done at all. This Castle works to save lives more than take them, and he’s more interested in eliminating very specific people as opposed to all criminals everywhere.
The series is strongly anchored by Bernthal, who brings a good deal of physicality to the role. Castle isn’t a man for words. He’s a man who shows how he feels through his body language, and his physical presence creates a sense that this is a man with a mission, someone who can and will bull his way through any barrier on his path to vengeance. He’s matched by David “Micro” Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a computer hacker and former NSA agent who faked his own death to protect his family. The two men seem specifically designed to clash with each other as the more direct Castle has to deal with the neurotic Micro, and while it might be wrong to characterize their relationship as a friendship by the time the 13 episodes have run their course, the two do have some kind of bond.
As it is, The Punisher might be the first of the Netflix Marvel shows that both timed itself out right over 13 episodes and didn’t suck (Iron Fist got the first one right). This is a show that takes its time, as Frank and Micro are working to bring down, not a criminal gang as might be expected, but a government conspiracy involving the CIA and a dark time from Frank’s own past. Wars may end, but the Punisher both as a character and a TV show ask what happens when a war ends for the man forced to fight it. Nine out of ten sledgehammers to a wall.