The Punisher wasn't originally part of the plan for Marvel's Defenders side-universe. The violent, grief-stricken vigilante made his Marvel TV debut on Netflix in Daredevil season 2, and was played with such astounding excellence by Jon Bernthal that Marvel listened to the fans and decided to give Frank Castle his own series. And now that it's out, we're very thankful that they did.
Certainly Marvel's previous Netflix offerings have carved out a place for themselves as well. Each individual series is linked to the others by a map of connecting plot points and shared characters, and while each has its own tone and story, each also focuses on a troubled (but non-murderous) vigilante trying to keep innocent people safe. With Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and the recent mini-series, The Defenders, the emphasis is on the saving lives, and killing is considered a step too far.
But The Punisher is different. This is a show that doesn't fit the now-familiar Netflix/Marvel mold, with its love of having one big hallway fight sequence per series, and its color-coded heroes. Frank says it best to Matt Murdock in Daredevil season 2: "I hit them and they stay down." The Punisher is dark, brutal, unflinching and uncompromising in its violence. It's also Marvel's best Netflix series to date.
This is a particularly impressive achievement because, on paper, The Punisher is probably the most difficult series to pull off. Frank Castle has a troubled past; his wife and child were killed, and he's determined to exact revenge, with no interest in showing mercy and no qualms about hurting people who stand in his way (just ask his reluctant partner, Micro, whose first physical encounter with Frank leaves him naked and tied to a chair). Moreover, with gun violence being such a sensitive issue in 2017, The Punisher was stepping into a minefield with a character whose very logo is a collage of guns.
The strong message the show carries is part of what elevates it above other Marvel shows, like Iron Fist, for example, where the overall message is muddled with sloppy writing and too many subplots. Also a welcome change from other Netflix/ Marvel shows, is the pace. Though there is a dip in the middle of the 13 episode run, for the most part it moves at a quick pace, but one that is still easy to follow and invest in.
Although the initial release of The Punisher was delayed due to a mass shooting in Las Vegas, the show is actually very timely and even sensitive in its exploration of the lasting impact of violence. The Punisher doesn't glorify violence. There's an awful lot of it, and its often a hard watch, but isn't that how it should be? Frank Castle, like many of The Punisher's supporting characters, is a veteran, and the show takes great pains to explore how hard it is for people who have experienced combat to return to everyday life after service - not only through the character of Lewis, who suffers from severe PTSD that eventually drives him back to violence, but also through Frank eventual admission that he loved his experiences in the army just as much (if not more than) he loved his family.
The Punisher has plenty of strong supporting characters, and they're a very welcome addition to the show, but ultimately this is Frank Castle's story. He has one mission and one only; to take down those responsible for his family's death, and those who covered it up. Whether Frank will ever know when to step away from being The Punisher and start living is another dilemma; can such a violent anti-hero ever live a life without violence? It doesn't seem likely, but this question makes us want to follow his story to the very end.
Make no mistake: the main reason The Punisher is such a compelling watch, is because of Bernthal's performance. We all knew he was good from Daredevil season 2, in which he was by far the most compelling character on screen. But Bernthal now has the chance to expand upon that, and he rises to the challenge admirably. Frank Castle is a hugely complex character, and Bernthal succeeds in making us love to hate him, and hate to love him. He conveys the contradictions of the character in such a way that we are transfixed by the sudden, violent anger that burns inside of him, but equally as enthralled by his gentleness, which endears him to the audience and evokes that all-important empathy.
While it might seem as though The Punisher is a far-fetched series, it is in fact surprisingly down to earth, thanks in no small part to Bernthal's ability to make us feel for Frank and understand his plight. We've all been wronged at one point or another; we've all felt the cold hard slap of injustice, and we can recognize all too easily that burning, painful anger that makes us lash out. Although Frank lashes out in a way most of us would never dream of, the emotions that get him to that point, are brilliantly played out by Bernthal, and all too real.
As well as a powerful message, The Punisher is also highly entertaining. The sense of drama, suspense, and intensity that showrunner Steve Lightfoot has delivered with this show should serve as a lesson for Marvel to apply to all its Netflix offerings in the future.
The Punisher is now streaming on Netflix. Premiere dates for the new seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist have not yet been announced.