By Robert Geoghegan
The character of the Punisher was introduced to the Marvel TV universe in 2016, during Daredevil’s second season. The character was seen previously in three live-action films that failed to make him popular with mainstream audiences in 1989, 2004, and 2008, respectively.
What made The Punisher so interesting in Netflix’s Daredevil was his antithetical nature to The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. While both characters had the same goal in mind – to rid Hell’s Kitchen of criminals – they had very different ways of going about it. As played by Jon Bernthal, Daredevil’s Punisher makes his intentions very clear from the start.
Initially, in Daredevil, when gangsters are being murdered all over the city, he’s mistaken for a paramilitary organization with exceptional force, but it turns out that he’s just one man, with a lot of weapons and an extraordinarily deadly aim.
The Punisher opens with Frank Castle finishing of his “mission” from Daredevil. After his beautiful wife and two innocent young children are gunned down in the crossfire of a gang war in Central Park, shortly after he was discharged from serving in a mysterious black ops mission in Afghanistan. Castle was a member of “Operation Cerebrus”, a group one soldier says has a reputation for being “the American Taliban”.
In response, Frank, himself a former decorated Marine, committed himself to a one-man war against all crime in New York City, but in particular, the three gangs involved in that fateful shootout: the Irish, the bikers, and the cartel.
The Punisher was a harbinger of a brutal era in comics, where heroes toting massive machine guns were suddenly the norm and the death’s-head logo emblazoned on his costume became a ubiquitous cultural symbol.
The Punisher which debuted on Netflix on November 17th, opens with Castle finishing his crusade and then burning his regalia. You could almost say the fire represents his rebirth back into Frank Castle, as he leaves that life of the vengeful Punisher behind.
For Netflix, Frank Castle is that harbinger of death once again. He’s the archetypal retributive antihero – one who makes his own rules and follows his own conscience – is a familiar figure in mass culture, appearing in film, television, video games, and comics. This character represents the frustrations of millions of people who feel powerless and who fantasise about striking back at their enemies, be they real or imagined.
As with all of Marvel’s works, The Punisher follows a strict formula. The same style and themes that creep into every Marvel movie can be found within the Marvel television shows. And while this works in terms of building an audience and making money, it’s becoming stale and it’s not innovative anymore.
The thing that has been lacking in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Marvel television shows is the lack of an interesting villain. And that’s what’s missing from The Punisher. What set Daredevil season one apart from subsequent shows was the dynamic that Vincent D’Onofrio brought as the Kingpin. That dynamic and power struggle was lacking when in season two of Daredevil, and is completely missing from The Punisher.
It seemed the show didn’t know who to put in the Punisher’s crosshairs in a meaningful way. Due to Marvel making his motivation retribution for his family’s death, it makes that guilt Castle’s, and the show’s, primary focus. The character has no other motivation. Castle’s past with a secret military organisation is clearly meant to pique the viewer’s intrigue, but it seems forced.
So while Frank Castle’s adventure are a gritty and grisly twist on Marvel’s established formula, it ultimately remains just that: a well tread, formulaic yarn that we’ve seen many times before.