The Punisher has never been my favorite Marvel character. In a world with Daredevils, Wolverines, Spidermans, and others, the ex-military vigilante Punisher was never going to rise to the top of the list. But in Netflix’s small-screen world of Marvel, Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle is a gritty inclusion that makes sense in a world at war with itself and everyone else.
We know from his inclusion in the second season of Daredevil, that Castle’s family was murdered as retribution for his actions against various evil forms. While he’s not blessed with strange powers genetically or by accident, Castle’s refusal to back down from a fight pairs well with his ability to use his particular set of skills to wreak vengeance in an old fashioned, Deuteronomy sort of way against those who killed his family. And now, in his own spinoff season, Castle AKA Punisher rises up to battle a conspiracy that goes well beyond the death of his wife and children.
In the series, the audience soon realizes (potentially before Castle does) that the military unit he served abroad was not sanctioned to do what it did – namely, to traffic in illicit drugs. Castle is the sort of blunt instrument that James Bond was intended by Ian Fleming, back before he became all smooth and suave. He’s not the thinker; he’s the instrument of destruction, the angel of death, the violent haymaker that delivers the kill strike.
Enter Micro. Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays David Lieberman as the armorer and technological savvy behind he Punisher’s war against crime in New York City. While Castle originally distrusts Micro, their commonality – that the forces in the government want to separate them from their bodies over a Middle Eastern operation that wasn’t just black ops but crooked ops – joins them together in a way that provides the human backdrop for the show. Micro is the common sense, the humor, the brains behind the situation, even if he’s mentally and emotionally not as strong as Castle.
Without the humanity of these characters, it would be a straight-up bloodbath.
As ‘heroes’ go, Punisher is more vengeance than heroic. While his best friend, Billy Russo (Westworld’s Ben Barnes) is living large as a private militia owner, and another squad member, Jason R. Moore’s Curtis Hoyle is balancing his war wounds by leading a recovery group for stateside soldiers who are no longer serving, Castle is the face of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in the Marvel universe. He suffers from flashbacks from the time he spent serving abroad, and from the death of his family; the war may have different locations, but the pain is alive and well in Castle’s soul.
This is the thing that rises above the sprawling violence and splashy bloodspots. While the show has been (fairly) dinged for showing violence as heroic in light of the ongoing tragedies in Texas, Las Vegas, etc., it shows the anger, violence, and bloodshed as a result of a) the corruption of the broken orders provided by those who were supposed to direct the soldiers, b) the PTSD from the horrific things that the soldiers saw while they survived, legitimately or otherwise, and c) the way that a person’s soul is torn apart by the things they been expected to see and do in the name of freedom and democracy. This show clearly shows the cost of bloodshed, both in the loss of life and in the moral stain that blurs the reality of these men and women.
This is especially in the case of Daniel Webber as Lewis Wilson, a recently-returned vet who struggles mightily with ‘re-entry’ into civilian life, who comes to confront a fellow member of the support group who lies about his previous service record. This raises questions about what it means to serve, to be patriotic, to sacrifice oneself, and how we as middle America respond to that. In the case of Wilson’s father, he responds (maybe) as best we can, which ends up being a case of enabling behavior bordering on covering up his son’s potentially dangerous behavior/inclinations.
These aren’t the Marvel characters we expect when we go to feel good about life at The Avengers or when we want to see the morality of a blind man come to grips with his Catholicism in Daredevil or when we examine the inclusion/exclusion of each type of person in the universe through the Xmen franchise. These are real people we’re being asked to consider through the lens of a trained killer who wears a skull and carries a gun. But they’re real, and part of our reality.
One of the scariest elements of the series is the ‘normalized’ way that the real villains appear. There’s the nearly ignorable William Rawlins/Agent Orange (Paul Schulze) and Major Ray Schoonover (Clancy Brown), both of whom hide behind their orders and their expectations, their ability to badger men and women who’ve been conditioned to obey orders. What’s even scarier than the bloodshed than comes on suddenly and relentlessly is the coldhearted corruption of these decisions and orders, all for greed in the name of patriotism.
I’ve read the pieces that claim The Punisher glamorizes violence, or spits in the face of the U.S.’ current social experience of mass murder. I think that criticism is absolutely wrong: The Punisher points to the ways that our obsession with violence (and guns) has led us to some dangerous head spaces, and asks us to consider what the longterm impact is on our society as a whole.