The Original American Anti-Hero: A Review of Netflix’s The Punisher
Chris Pegg takes a dive into Marvel's latest Netflix series
Have you ever watched a movie or television show that lived by its casting? A production that once you’d finished watching it, there was no way any other actor or actress could have nailed the role like that one particular person did? Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, and I believe you can now safely add Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle (aka the Punisher) to that list. Bernthal made his first foray into Castle’s shoes in the opening episodes of Netflix’s Daredevil season 2 as a veteran of the conflicts in the Middle East traumatized by the violent deaths of his wife and two children in a gangland shooting in New York’s Central Park. After surviving a bullet to the head, Castle sets out to find and punish those responsible for his family’s deaths, one body at a time. The interplay between the ideologies of Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Bernthal’s Frank Castle represent a high point for the series, with Daredevil’s strong Catholic faith and belief in second chances clashing with Castle’s self-appointed role as judge, jury, and executioner.
Presumed dead by the media and believing his task complete with the destruction of the three gangs responsible for the deadly violence that day, Castle hangs up his arsenal and the Punisher mantle and assumes the identity of Pete Castiglione (a homage to Castle’s original last name before he anglicized it), monosyllabic construction worker extraordinaire. However, his “retirement” does not last long as he is contacted by the enigmatic former NSA agent Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) who tempts him with information about his family’s deaths and the belief that they share a common identity and enemy as the presumed dead “ghosts” of New York. After a rough first meeting between the two, thanks in no small part to the detective work of Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), Frank and Micro form an uneasy alliance to target the masterminds behind the plot that killed Castle’s family and forced Micro to fake his own death in order to keep his wife and children safe.
While the series pulls off the Punisher hallmark of extreme and bloody violence perpetrated by whatever firearm, sharp object, or explosive device is closest, it also stands a cut above other series with similar premises by blending the violence with moments of quiet reflection and humanization for Castle. His interactions with Micro, Karen Page, and his old military buddy Curtis Hoyle (Jason R. Moore) serve as human grounding elements juxtaposed to Castle’s single-minded devotion to the destruction of those responsible for what happened to him and his family. The series also shines in its portrayal of PTSD in returning veterans of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East as well as exploring the effect of frequent gun violence, a subject that has become all the more poignant by the mass shootings that have rocked the US over the past few years. Indeed, The Punisher was allegedly supposed to premiere in early October at New York Comic Con, but the premiere was pushed back in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting which killed 58 people and left well over 500 injured.
The series explores the role of PTSD through a kind of roundtable support group run by Frank’s friend Curtis where those who served come to speak about their experiences overseas and their struggles with readjusting to the civilian rhythm, or simply stay and listen to the words of their fellow veterans. There is a further delving into the more violent and tragic aspects of untreated mental illness in vets which I will leave to viewers to imbibe to avoid overt spoilers. Lastly, the Punisher as a character has always been synonymous with guns and gun violence and the Netflix series does not shy away from broaching the subject. However, it does seem to invert the traditional stereotypes associated with the pro 2nd amendment and pro-gun control camps.
Karen Page plays the role of the reasonable and upstanding gun-owning New Yorker going up against Stan Ori (Rick Holmes), a New York senator making a name on a gun control platform. Ori struggles with the internal conflict of needing private armed security for his campaign whilerunning on a gun control platform and the butcher’s arithmetic that must be done in weighing safer streets against the pragmatic need for security. The series itself does not seem to take sides in the debate though it does eerily reflect the
real-life pattern of politicians calling for stricter gun legislation in the wake of a mass tragedy with much publicity and drum beating but little substance in the incredibly polarized nature of the current American political climate.
The 13-episode series does suffer from slower moments with certain interpersonal moments dragged beyond what could be considered reasonable. Further, while this might just be a symptom of the lower budgets plaguing the television industry, for being a Punisher series, Castle’s trademark ultraviolence tended to feel noticeably absent in certain episodes. While humanizing Castle’s character as the former family man turned tragic gun-toting anti-hero adds depth and creates a multi-dimensional character, showrunners cannot lose sight of the fact that this is still the Punisher that they are dealing with, a character who comic writers have time and again emphasized is not the heroic type. He is rather a man with a pathological need to punish those he considers guilty with his particular brand of “Old Testament” justice.
The series could have no doubt benefited from being an episode or two shorter with some of the series’ frequent flashbacks and more “domestic” scenes cut out in favour of a tighter flow and faster pace. Overall,
this is a fantastic addition to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe and especially to the Netflix line up which has been suffering as of late with the rather lukewarm reception of the Defenders and Luke Cage, compounded by the generally negative reviews levied at Iron Fist. I would definitely recommend a watch and I look forward to the next chapter in Frank Castle’s story, hopefully featuring another stellar crossover with other famous faces of the Marvel universe.
Christopher Pegg is a 1L Staff Writer.