Vengeance, violence, and vigilante justice: Marvel/Netflix’s ‘The Punisher’ offers compelling antihero and complex themes

I’ve been looking forward to Marvel/Netflix’s “The Punisher” ever since the character showed up in season two of “Daredevil” (and was actually the highlight of that season for me). However, I was also a bit nervous about how Marvel and Netflix would handle his solo show, based on the fact it’s a series about an angry loner who is surrounded by gun violence. I didn’t want the series to over-glorify the violence or to gloss over some of the more serious issues that come with presenting this type of character.

Thankfully, “The Punisher” is just as complex, nuanced, and thought-provoking as most of the Marvel/Netflix superhero shows. The show is full of flawed but compelling characters and raises awareness about some deeper, real-world issues. The show has actually been out for a while, but my husband and I just finished watching it this weekend (he’s not as much of a binge-watcher as I am). ? “The Punisher” had a lot of interesting themes to chew on, so I wanted put together a review to sort out my thoughts, even though it’s a bit belated. Also, warning: there are some minor spoilers ahead!

Introduced into the Marvel/Netflix universe in “Daredevil” season two, “The Punisher” continues the story of vigilante Frank Castle and his quest for vengeance after his family is murdered. Out of all the Marvel/Netflix heroes we’ve met so far, the Punisher operates the most in the moral gray area between right and wrong. In his mind, prison is not enough for the people who hurt his family; he needs to make them suffer in the most painful way possible for their crimes. As part of his quest, he stumbles on a larger government conspiracy that expands his hit list. The viewers are asked to consider whether Castle’s brand of vigilante justice is morally defensible and whether it will even satisfy him in the end. What will happen when he finally reaches the end of his list of the guilty? How does he move forward, and is there any kind of hope for a normal life for him beyond that point?

“The Punisher” wouldn’t have worked without the perfect actor in the lead role, and based on Jon Bernthal’s initial appearance as the character in “Daredevil,” I was already convinced they’d perfectly cast the part. Bernthal gets to dig even deeper into the character here, capturing Frank Castle’s painful cocktail of anger and grief. Sometimes I was terrified of this character and what he could do, but I also pitied him. Castle deeply loved his family, and without them, he’s a shell of a man who is living only for vengeance. He also hasn’t been able to fully address the scars (both physical and mental) from his time in the military.

It took me a little bit to warm up to some of the supporting characters, but I liked all of them by the end. I especially enjoyed seeing the ways they contrasted with Castle’s character and how they each had a different reaction to Castle’s quest. Castle ends up teaming up with former NSA analyst David Lieberman (a.k.a. “Micro”), and an unlikely friendship develops out of their shared goals. I also liked Castle’s unexpected ally, Department of Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani, who gets pulled into the gray area Castle operates in. The show also brings in “Daredevil” character Karen Page, and it was really interesting to see their relationship. Page wants to help Castle but is afraid of where his history of violence may eventually lead him.

Since Castle is already an antihero, I was interested to see what sort of villain he would be paired with. If I had read the original comics, I might have seen this plot twist coming, but I was really surprised when Castle’s best friend Billy Russo turned out to be the villain. Russo is played by Ben Barnes, who I’m mainly familiar with from the Chronicles of Narnia series (he played Prince Caspian). Barnes is obviously having fun playing a more villainous role. It’s interesting to look back and see how Russo and Castle’s paths diverged, and even though Castle’s moral code has some major issues, he’s still a better man than Russo has become. Based on the show’s ending, I definitely don’t think we’ve seen the last of Russo.

As mentioned earlier, I was initially a little worried that the show might overwhelm us with violence and end up missing an opportunity to dwell on deeper themes. However, this show has plenty of thought-provoking themes for viewers to reflect on. Some of these include military/wartime ethics, surveillance, domestic terrorism, gun violence, and the treatment of veterans. The later, I feel, is an issue that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention, at least here in the U.S. I feel sometimes we send soldiers off to war but don’t do enough to help them re-adjust to civilian life (finding employment, housing, etc.). There also aren’t enough resources to help them deal with the lingering trauma from their experiences. Throughout “The Punisher,” we see how Castle’s PTSD continues to haunt him and influence his actions.

One of the main criticisms I have heard of the show is that it “meanders” and could have been shorter overall. Since my husband and I watched the episodes spaced out over a couple of months, this didn’t bother me as much. However, I do agree it probably could have been tightened (it probably didn’t need the full 13 episodes). There is some filler, and some subplots could have been condensed.

Still, what we do get is quite powerful. When a show or movie continues to linger with me days after I’ve finished watching it, I know it’s something special. I’ve heard that some fans wished there was more action, but I was actually glad the violence was a little restrained overall. “The Punisher” is a show that made me think, and for me it was well worth the watch.

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