When it comes to the gulf between a comic book character’s mainstream visibility and the quality of their adaptations into more accessible media, there’s hardly a hero, especially in the Marvel universe, more merchandised yet misunderstood than The Punisher. It’s not that the concept of The Punisher is hard to understand or “get”, it’s just that, like a lot of B-level Marvel personalities, he often works better as a smaller piece within a larger world than as the focus of an entire storyline, and when things do focus on Frank things tend to get dark, disturbing and bloody, as in the majority of writer Garth Ennis’ relentlessly bleak, character redefining and rightfully lauded late 90’s/early 00’s comics run with the character.
That nihilism has been a major missing element of the character’s two recent forays onto the big screen. The 2004 Thomas Jane starrer tried to shoehorn the character into the PG-13 framework of contemporary mega-hits like Singer’s X-Men and Raimi’s Spider-Man, and on the other side of the coin, 2008’s War Zone slathered on the R-rated freak show violence that was the trademark of then-Hollywood-darling-of-the-moment Frank Miller’s 300 and Sin City to the point of absolute meaninglessness, all while the usually excellent Dominic West (The Wire, The Affair) and serviceable Doug Hutchison (The Green Mile, Lost) hammed it up as series villains Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim to a degree that would embarrass Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze. The less said about the near forgotten 1989 version the better, though that film may be considered by some to be the most reverent and respectful of the Punisher adaptations simply by virtue of its pedigree as a no nonsense, low budget R-rated revenge thriller with little connection to the actual comics of the time aside from the main character’s name and logo slapped on the VHS box. Hey, less to adapt is less to mess up, right?
Which brings us to the present. Netflix’s Daredevil debuted last spring and completely blew away audiences, redefining what superheroes-on-TV could be capable of, elevating the writing, acting, effects, pacing, plotting, and most importantly, respect for the source material, right to the level of Marvel’s can’t miss streak of box office successes, of which DD was gloriously, if tangentially, part of the same “shared universe”. Jessica Jones hit the streaming service a few months later and proved that Daredevil’s myriad of triumphs were no fluke, and that the Netflix and Marvel alliance could produce an even more compelling series based on an even more obscure character, all while folding in believable, real world takes on off the wall comics concepts like the Purple Man and Hellcat, not to mention introducing audiences to a thoughtfully adapted and perfectly cast Mike Colter as Marvel’s indestructible “Power Man”, Luke Cage.
After audiences got their first taste of Daredevil’s perfectly executed street level milieu the question on everyone’s lips was which urban, gritty Marvel heroes would be next to share this “shared universe” Netflix and Marvel were building. Most interviews with cast and crew would inevitably lead to talk of “The Punisher”, and in June of 2015 it was officially announced that The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal would don the skull and portray the legendary vigilante in Daredevil’s highly anticipated second season.
Viewers don’t have to wait long to see Bernthal’s Frank in action, as he and the returning Charlie Cox’s titular hero clash with both fists and ideologies regarding how best to combat the organized crime power vacuum created by Matt Murdock’s takedown of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’onofrio) at the end of season one. The Punisher’s solution is, of course, a final one, asserting that best way to cut down the city’s criminal underworld and find those responsible for the deaths of his wife and two children, is to brutally murder every last one of them, which of course doesn’t sit well with the (mostly) law abiding Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’s Catholic guilt. But as the layers peel back on the police conspiracy that birthed the bloodthirsty vigilante, Murdock may realize that justice isn’t always black and white, and sometimes the most tragic victims are the truly good that have to perform monstrous deeds to protect the innocent from society’s real demons.
Along the way Matt’s life is further complicated by the reappearance of Elektra (Elodie Yung), Matt’s college girlfriend who seeks his aid both by day and night , widening the rift between himself, Foggy (Elden Henson) and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll), against The Hand, a nefarious clan of supernatural ninjas with ties to the Yakuza that Matt thought he had previously destroyed on his warpath to Fisk. Elektra here gets her onscreen due in Yung’s capable hands, finally the mysterious and deadly assassin of Frank Miller’s immortal 80’s Daredevil run. Which is to say nothing of Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, who is tortured, conflicted and vulnerable but also driven, convinced and unstoppable in his one man crusade for the senseless truth behind the destruction of his family, no matter how man “shitbags” he has to snuff out to get it. Bernthal’s sorrow and barely contained rage are a revelation for the character, especially after so many past missteps, and really elevate what could be a boring and one note representation of the comic hero onscreen into an iconic meditation on loss and redemption that fans will be begging to see more of in the coming years.
Returning characters from season one also continue the excellent work displayed there, with Cox nearly as battered both physically and spiritually as The Punisher himself, and Henson and Woll continuing to believably cope with the unbelievable situation of a close friend secretly risking their life every night as a noble but dangerous crime fighter. The interplay between Matt, Foggy and Karen proves to be the real heart of the series, and the chief representation of the duality pulling Murdock apart inside. A burgeoning romance with Karen, friendship with Foggy and the continued neighborhood heroism of their plucky law office is what Matt wants, what he wishes could satisfy his yearning for justice, but his dark trespasses alongside Elektra into the city’s true heart of evil represent who he really is, the bloodthirsty vengeance he really craves, even with the extreme example of The Punisher’s grim loss of control right in front of him. As Frank himself says to the Devil upon their first meeting: “You’re one bad day away from being me”.
Several other pivotal figures return as well, the most satisfying of which I won’t spoil here, and there are many easter eggs and tie-ins to both the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe and Netflix’s own small corner of it that are incredibly rewarding for eagle eyed viewers that have voraciously devoured Daredevil and Jessica Jones and are eagerly anticipating whatever comes next.
So Netflix has done it again, in addition to following up the stellar first season of Daredevil with 13 episodes that may be even better, continuing to add to their burgeoning shared universe, they’ve now given Marvel nerds the world over a film Punisher to make them even prouder of the skull shirts in their closet. With Luke Cage set to debut in September, Game of Thrones’ Finn Jones cast as Iron Fist and a solo Punisher series for Bernthal having officially been announced, Netflix’s “Defender-verse” doesn’t look to be slowing down in quantity or (most importantly) quality any time soon.