With the debut of Marvel's The Punisher on Netflix last week, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now has it's darkest and goriest installment. Following the family-friendly films, the Marvel-Netflix universe created a space for creatives to explore the grittier corners of the comics. Daredevil arrived with surprising brutality and Jessica Jones wasn't afraid to focus on the heavy weight of trauma. It was season 2 of Daredevil, however, that really proved what Marvel could do on Netflix when Jon Bernthal's Frank Castle arrived, leaving a wake of blood, bullets, and bodies behind him.
While the other Marvel Netflix shows aren't exactly tame, The Punisher dials up the gore and violence to a new level. On the movie side, Marvel Studios has a reputation for keeping things lighter and avoiding anything as edgy as Frank Castle. So much so that when word broke that Disney was interested in purchasing 20th Century Fox, Deadpool fans worried the character would be sugar-coated upon joining the Mouse House. The thinking was that Deadpool's R-Rated raunch and bloodshed would be made to fit more in line with the broader tone of the MCU films, but now The Punisher is here and it definitely doesn't feel at home in this world.
The Marvel Studios reputation need not apply when it comes to Marvel-Netflix shows, which clearly prove that Disney's ownership doesn't stop the comic company from indulging in the darker aspects of its source material. With The Punisher taking that ethos to new levels of violent and grounded storytelling, does Frank Castle truly fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
On the surface, the Netflix universe is said to exist in the same world where The Avengers took place and every other major MCU event has occurred. Despite the relatively linear nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's had a notoriously hard time getting its major events to fit together. Even more aggravating for fans is the fact that the films refuse to even pay lip service to all the heavy lifting and worldbuilding that's been done on TV. When it comes to the MCU's non-film properties and how they fit into continuity, the results looks like an incredibly loose attempt to claim that "it's all connected," but that might only be a one-way street.
Lucasfilm has done a fantastic job of unifying their films, TV shows, comics, and novels since Disney bought the company and the new canon was established. The MCU, on the other hand, has had trouble just making its movies part of a coherent timeline. Adding in how the massive events on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have never affected the films (even the massive crossover with Captain America: The Winter Soldier played out mostly on the small screen) and characters in Hell's Kitchen call an alien invasion simply "The Incident," and the claims of connectivity feel flat.
The Punisher may technically exist in the MCU, but there's only a handful of events that would lead anyone to believe that. There's, of course, Frank Castle's narrative from Daredevil season 2 that ties things into the MCU, no matter how loosely that show is connected to the films. There's also characters like Turk and Detective Mahoney who make the jump from that show. The biggest connection of all is the Dogs of Hell biker gang, who are crucial to Frank Castle's origin in his TV adaptation and first debuted on Agents of SHIELD (interestingly in a Thor 'tie-in').
Even so, The Punisher feels far and away like its own beast. While the other Netflix shows in the nominal universe have been marked by their realism, The Punisher is easily Marvel's most grounded show. There's no magic ninjas or talk of a green monster or even a discussion that this is a world where aliens attacked the United States of America not long ago. Not only does the show's true-to-life tone make its place in the MCU questionable, but it causes the lack of references to larger events in the universe to seem perplexing.
Much of The Punisher's story revolves around a covert CIA black ops group who sanction illegal activities under the guise of protecting the U.S.A.. Along with the heavy involvement of Homeland Security, it's even stranger that the regular threats to the country and world from villains and heroes alike aren't discussed. There's also no talk of or reference to SHIELD, itself a massive peacekeeping force in the world. Unlike the films, Agents of SHIELD has referenced the events of the Netflix shows a number of times. Yet the global storyline of The Punisher doesn't so much as namecheck the organization.
Until the release of Marvel Studios' definitive timeline, we may never know how exactly everything connects. The first season of Daredevil, released in 2014, is said to have occurred one year after 'The Incident.' The rest of the Netflix shows have seemed to have happened within months of each preceding set of events, leaving a big question mark as to their exact placement. And, of course, there's no guarantee that Marvel's official timeline even includes the TV shows considering how separate things have been.
It's hard to figure out where The Punisher exists in the MCU, but it's also becoming increasingly apparent that the shared universe isn't necessary for Marvel's street-level shows to survive. The Punisher lives and dies by its own merits, forging a world closer to our reality than anything the MCU has done so far.