Since we can never hope to understand why were here, if there’s anything to understand. The individual should choose a goal and pursue it wholeheartedly, despite certainty of death and the meaningless of the action.
No offense to Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane or Ray Stevenson but their performances as Frank Castle have officially been exorcised from memory. Jon Bernthal has done what many thought wasn’t possible, a full-blown Punisher lobotomy.
Since his first appearance in 1974 fans have wanted to see Frank Castle explored on-screen in the same way he was fleshed out in the comic books. Each time an announcement was made, fingers were crossed and each time they were left wanting. With three films to date, each one provided a different version of The Punisher that the respective storytellers felt encompassed the character better than the last.
But fans didn’t buy it, in fact, when the third incarnation hit theatres in 2008 they didn’t even show up. Perhaps it was the wrong year for vigilantism as The Dark Knight was released that summer and rolled over everybody becoming one of the great movies of all time or perhaps it still wasn’t right.
After that things were quiet publicly but behind the scenes the battle van’s wheels were in motion. Maybe it was the true test of a Punisher fan having to wade through all the failed attempts before Jon Bernthal arrived on the scene or perhaps it was just timing. Perhaps it was the success of the MCU and the Netflix launch of Daredevil that created the environment where a character like Frank Castle could flourish. Either way, Bernthal’s debut as the Punisher in Season 2 of Daredevil landed like a nuclear bomb.
In this new series, Bernthal’s take on Frank Castle is raw and instinctive and seems to understand correctly that the language the Punisher uses is violence and that it is a response to a pre-existing condition. The circumstances under which the Punisher is born comes from the ashes of extreme trauma and if you only knew that about Frank Castle that would be enough. He’s the ultimate psychologically damaged anti-hero. In an interview with Moviefone, Bernthal says of the character…
It’s an interesting predicament. To put the Punisher as the central character is interesting, I think that my big struggle with him is that one of my biggest kind of things that I’m always fighting for on set is, I always want to preserve the essence of Frank, and have the right and be bold enough to really turn my back on the audience, and not do things to win the audience’s favor, but rather stay true to the character and the essence of who he is.
What this show has done is not shy away from rehashing the history of Frank Castle and his evolution into the Punisher. It deconstructs the character in a way that hasn’t been done before and that is one of the advantages of a serial show as opposed to the shorter film format. The show runners are able to find nuance in a character not historically known for that and again top marks to Bernthal for allowing the camera to get up close and personal. When intertwined with memories of his family and operations in Afghanistan these non-sequential bits make for really good TV.
Bernthal wasn’t an unknown when he showed up as Frank Castle, in fact he’d starred in over 50 movies and TV shows prior. With titles that include Fury, The Walking Dead and Sicario, Bernthal had gained notoriety for playing tough no-nonsense characters. And what was most impressive was his relentless PR campaign for The Punisher which included much-lauded appearances at Comic Cons where he seemed to say all the right things causing a fan frenzy most times. Speaking with Den of Geek he says…
…because I do have some familiarity with the comic book audience from Walking Dead, I know how much Frank Castle means to so many people and it’s a responsibility that I take enormously… it’s huge for me and I know how much the character resonates with members of law enforcement, members of the military and it was something that I really, really wanted.
Steve Lightfoot is the show runner and wrote most of the seasons episodes. He is no stranger to the dark side of human behavior after having worked on past shows Narcos and Hannibal. It appears as though he was the right choice to lead this series as it is much an exploration of the human psyche as it is a reflection of a more violent society. They delve into that feeling of helplessness and sorrow and how that affects human behavior, the old adage of when push comes to shove. Lightfoot spoke about this in an interview with SFX Magazine…
In this show we’ve had to give him dilemmas of his own. With any show, even if it’s about superheroes or whatever, you have to find things that normal people will identify with, that are everyman qualities. I’ve never been a Special Forces guy who kills 50 people, but I do know what it’s like to grieve. At heart, you’ve got a very tough guy who isn’t necessarily great at showing is feelings, having at some point to deal with the loss of his family. And that’s something everyone can identify with. We can empathize with that, if not the actions it leads to.
And with darkness comes light, so to offset the inner anguish and rage that bubbles beneath the surface of Castle, they’ve inserted an old friend in the form of Micro. Micro, refers to Microchip, Frank’s technical support and armory guru originating in the original run of Punisher comics in the 1980s. Micro’s real name is Dave Lieberman and in this iteration is a former NSA analyst who while trying to do the right thing, loses everything in the process.
Lieberman is the Yin to Castle’s Yang, who like Castle, lost everything as well but whose decisions and actions were a little more righteous. This is not to say Lieberman’s war is a holy one, rather to comment on the methodology each one employs as their strategy. A previous attempt at bringing this character to life in Punisher War Zone failed to capture what truly makes them not only entertaining to watch, but ultimately a successful partnership as well.
Micro isn’t the only nod to the Punisher comics that this show gives us. There’s the infamous battle van first seen in comics in 1975, a Ford in this case, and a couple of classic villains such as Billy Russo aka Jigsaw and William Rawlins CIA Agent turned bad guy. These aren’t overt and even obvious to the casual or non-fan but they are deliberate and help connect that world to this one. Much like the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy and even the previous MCU Netflix shows, there’s a healthy respect given to the source material while grounding the show in a familiar reality.
It’s very clear all involved took to this task with the respect and attention it deserves, after all we’re talking about one of the great comic book properties of all time. Speaking with Michael Nathansan who plays Homeland Security Officer Sam Stein (superbly), he reinforced that position that all involved were aware how special it was…
Being able to create a new character in one of the most iconic book franchises of all time is amazing, it’s a dream come true. I definitely know actors who are not interested in the engagement aspect (with fans) but not this cast, we are beyond how grateful that you get to work and be in something so cool that means so much. You get to work with great people, great directors and great writers and just to know Jon Bernthal and have him know you. People could recognize me as Sam Stein the rest of my life and I could be thrilled.
Of course we have no idea if all of this will lead to more seasons of the Punisher or not. I can’t imagine Netflix not wanting more but with Disney starting their own streaming service soon maybe the second season will appear under a different umbrella, or maybe not at all. Either way the show and its cast and crew have earned the right to continue the story of Frank Castle, should they choose, a small reward for finally giving us Punisher fans something to brag about.
Till next time…