Marvel’s The Punisher is a compelling TV show and one of the comic book giants best TV adaptations because it might as well not be a Punisher adaption at all.
***Spoilers for The Punisher series ahead.***
The Punisher TV series has no right to work as well as it does. The character it’s based on had gone through a number of evolutions over the years but they’ve very rarely delved any deeper than a highly trained military man determined on revenge and only kills bad guys. He has always been the blood soaked anti hero that would cross the lines that no other Marvel protagonist would but the depth to Frank Castle always felt missing, part formed or immature.
But not with Jon Bernthal’s Punisher.
Netflix, Marvel, the raft of directors and writers and the cast delivered something special with Marvel’s The Punisher. They’ve given Frank Castle a personality beyond being a revenge driven killing machine. Sure, the same motivation is there – he’s still on the hunt for the ghosts from his past that cut down his family – but there’s much more to this Frank Castle. He’s haunted by the deaths of his family but blames himself as much as he blames the men responsible. He’s a man in constant pain, obviously suffering from a severe case of PTSD, not just from his time at war but because of the death of his family. Still, he pushes through that to do what he thinks is right in his own warped mentality, although that’s still wrong but the right side of wrong.
It’s that moral distinction that has always distinguished The Punisher from the villains he has killed. Here, his problems stem from a time when he was trained and conditioned into being a living weapon. “I point, you shoot”, Agent Orange/William Rawlins says repeatedly. “You are just a tool” he tells both Castle and Russo. Castle did what any “good” soldier does. He did what he was told. The morality of it, the right vs. wrong of it, was questioned after the fact and it’s here where The Punisher distinguishes himself from the villains. When he gets to point his own moral compass, as damaged and as malfunctioning as that compass is, it points to his own brand of justice, his own version of “right”.
It’s this deep personality – the morality, the calculation, the blind bravery/self sacrifice – that makes this version of Punisher stand out among the other versions of the Punisher. It’s a Punisher that tries to say something, however problematic, about Veterans and the lack of support they get post discharge, about gun violence and gun laws and the definition of “justice”. The Marvel Cinematic Universe might be a fictional version of our own, where gods and monsters battle it out in the streets of New York, but of all the content Marvel has put out in the past decade, The Punisher contains the most real world social commentary.
It’s here where I think The Punisher succeeds because it’s barely a Punisher adaption at all. The characters might have the same name and similar origins but it’s far more than directionless rage and OTT violence (of which there is still plenty) that so often dominated the comic books. It’s a story of a Vet that inadvertently got involved in some shady business in Afghanistan that followed him home and shattered his world. It’s the story of this haunted veterans quest for justice against people in and above the law and he’s attempting to deliver it in the only way he knows how. It’s the emotional journey of an Homeland agent fighting to uncover the truth behind the death of 2 of her partners. It’s the man punished by crooked law enforcement for trying to do the right thing and then has to go into hiding for a year to protect his family. It’s the family slowly falling apart after the supposed death of their father/husband and how they deal with the introduction of the kindly “Pete”. It’s the young veteran who doesn’t get the support he needs for a severe case of PTSD, loses the line between right and wrong and becomes the villain he once fought against on the battlefield. It’s the man who’s attempting to help struggling Veterans while struggling every day himself. Rename Frank Castle, Micro etc, take out the iconic skull logo from his jacket, take away Karen Page, take away the battle van and the other subtle nods to the comic books and you’ve got a crime/war drama that’s as satisfying as anything else on TV right now. The Punisher feels unique in the world of Marvel’s superheroes because it’s a very human, emotionally driven revenge trip that constantly reminds you of what Frank is fighting for. It’s not to save the world and it’s not for the greater good. It’s the selfish fight for the memory of his family and to fight the demons that haunt his dreams, to fight the PTSD and to do it on his own terms.
On its own terms, away from the Avengers, the Defenders and the other super hero antics of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, as a human crime drama, it’s a success.