Redbrick TV critic Emily Chapman explains why The Punisher is no superhero flick, as Marvel delves deep into the darkness and pain that is Frank Castle
With all that’s been going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe recently, I had high expectations for the most recent addition to the collection; an unapologetically brutal, tormented anti-hero on a quest for personal retribution – The Punisher. I’m very glad to report that I was not disappointed.
The end of season 2 of Daredevil left Frank Castle as a wanted vigilante, in The Punisher, we re-meet him on a more personal level, through a beautifully crafted montage of Castle playing guitar with his daughter, in desperate contrast with him playing alone after the murder of his family. Creator Steve Lightfoot excellently sets the tragic context of The Punisher’s story – offering enough back-story for new viewers to be able to understand his motives, but allowing the true tragedy to gradually be revealed as the narrative comes together.
Jon Bernthal’s steely gaze and strong-set jaw make him ideal for this conflicted and tormented character, whilst being able to perfectly convey Castle’s cheeky and playful side (which we see more of as the series progresses) – it is this brilliant performance (alongside the brotherly dynamic with Ben Barnes’ character, the beautiful-yet-deadly Billy Russo) that results in the heartbreak we feel towards the end of the series, as Castle realises the betrayal that has befallen him. Russo, however, proves to be a worthy match for Castle’s brutal fighting style – with his badass, Assassin’s Creed-esque hidden blade, he does a lot of damage over 13 episodes. But what struck me was my inability to dislike him – I cannot un-see him as the loveable ‘Uncle Billy’: a valued member of the Castle family; an image torn to shreds when we learn of the part he played in their murder.
The perfect amount of exposition in the early episodes is what makes The Punisher so accessible to those unacquainted with the MCU, but with enough Easter eggs to excite those of us watching right off the back of this year’s Defenders series. Castle’s relationship with Karen Page, a ballsy journalist with a penchant for getting herself into dangerous situations, does not descend into the needlessly romantic; Lightfoot and co. successfully depict a deep-rooted friendship and mutual concern without undermining Castle’s mourning of his family – there is no attempt to replace his wife with Karen, she exists both in connection with and very much separate from Castle.
The successful depiction of female characters extends to the homeland security agent, Dinah Madani. Whilst initially undermined by her male superiors, we see her come into her own, playing an integral role in the eventual (bloody, brutal but much-deserved) justice served to the elusively-named ‘Agent Orange’.
What I found most interesting about this series is the seriousness with which it treats ex-marines: through the development of Castle’s self-loathing and regret of his actions, as well as the heart-breaking story of Lewis Walcott, The Punisher explores the effects of war on mental health – Walcott becomes an unfortunate example of this; as we see him relating to the reluctance of two birds to leave their cage – as a man lies dead at his feet. Marvel, surprisingly, do not glorify this violence with which Castle and the other characters are consumed; as they are also consumed with guilt and fear – and a yearning for the battlefield, now feeling as if that is the only place they truly belong and deserve to be. It’s true what Castle’s friend Curtis says to him early on in the story: “The only person you’re punishing is yourself”.
Because fundamentally, that is what Frank Castle is; a tormented survivor of war, so consumed with anger at himself and those from whom he took orders that he knows no other way to live than to fight, to protect those that he has left (namely his ‘sidekick’ David and his family) – at any cost; he is no way a superhero, and nor is he depicted as one.
Unlike his MCU fellows like Daredevil and Luke Cage (who are prepared to only seriously injure those they fight), Castle viciously and unapologetically takes down anyone in his way; be it with guns, knives or his bare hands, we rarely see him without blood on his face and a manic look in his eye. This is the main, desperate point that this show conveys; there is no such thing as justice, merely revenge.
A heart-wrenching interweaving of multiple personal tragedies to paint an (albeit, bloody and somewhat exaggerated) picture of corruption and power, The Punisher can stand alone, separate to the events of the MCU as a whole, to tell a story of a man whose life was ruined by the actions of others (and himself), and how he deals with this reality. Call it what you like; a modernised western-style epic, an overtly violent revenge tragedy or an attempt by Marvel to increase their monopoly on the big and small screens; it made me laugh, it drew me in, and it broke my heart. The Punisher is a timeless tale of retribution and revenge, reminding us of our duty to ourselves and to others. Just don’t call it another superhero flick.
The Punisher season 1 is available to watch on Netflix