When Frank Castle, aka the Punisher (Jon Bernthal), was introduced during the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil, his presence in crime-ridden Hell’s Kitchen sparked a thoughtful conversation about morality and vigilantism. Known for his rage and lethal take-no-prisoners mentality, the character was a compelling foil for Charlie Cox‘s titular blind superhero. Now at the center of his own Netflix series, Castle remains a captivating character capable of provoking topical debates — particularly about how to help those who are left behind, mental health care, veteran’s affairs and of course, gun control — but the show surrounding him struggles to keep up with Bernthal’s pitch perfect performance, at least in the six episodes screened for critics.
The bulk of the action takes place outside the now familiar, oppressive world of Hell’s Kitchen, which gives the story — centered around a massive CIA conspiracy tied to the deaths of Castle’s family and his military career — room to breathe and the ability to tell new stories outside the world of super-powered individuals. However, that fact this is a story of someone without powers, a defining feature of this streaming franchise, also creates a natural divide that some fans may initially not be able to cross. After all, if the ultimate goal of Marvel Netflix’s Phase 2 is to set up another team up of the Defenders with a slight roster change — as frequently done in the MCU — then where does Frank Castle fit in with three ridiculously strong people, and a blind man who can see?
Viewers who can put aside this fact based on the bullet-riddled bada–ery of Punisher’s previous appearances in the franchise might be upset to find The Punisher is first and foremost a portrait of a man in grief. Castle actually retires his Punisher persona early in the series, after wrapping up what he believes to be the remaining loose ends in the murders of his wife, son and daughter. He then reinvents himself as a construction worker with a new identity, taking out his persistent anger with a sledgehammer from sunup to sundown rather than lodging bullets into people he believes deserve it.
Although Castle refuses to admit he is lonely — to himself or to the people who still care about him, like Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll, reprising her Daredevil role) — he spends his days and nights in isolation, preferring to keep to himself. Essentially, both Frank Castle and the man known as the Punisher are dead at the outset of the series. It isn’t until a video from his time in Afghanistan, sent to him by a former NSA analyst going by the name Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), pulls Castle into an investigation into a conspiracy involving the heroin deal first mentioned in Daredevil that Castle becomes actively involved in his own life again.
It’s an intriguing place for the series to start, but it also forces The Punisher to build from the ground up. One of the successes of Jessica Jones was that it was a Marvel series that didn’t feel like a Marvel series. The same can be said of The Punisher, but it’s not necessarily a compliment — at least not yet. The survivor story at the center of Jessica Jones was engaging and powerful from the start, while The Punisher spends the first half of the season warming up and only just begins to push down on the gas at the end of the sixth episode, which is the turning point for the series.
One explanation for the initially slow-moving story is the multiple threads running parallel to Castle’s personal arc that need to be set up before showrunner Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal) can begin to weave them together into a cohesive narrative. It takes a while before an FBI agent investigating the death of her partner in Afganistan, a private security CEO, a paranoid whistleblower, and veteran who runs a support group all fall into place in Frank Castle’s life. But the fact that the show takes a while to get there shouldn’t deter fans.
That’s because prior to Bernthal’s turn on Daredevil, every onscreen iteration of the Punisher had failed to live up to fans’ expectations. Bernthal’s performance in the role was widely praised, as he gave heft and humanity to the character, especially in the quiet moments where conversations proved to be more exciting than any shootout could ever be. But at the end of the day, he was still just a supporting role in another person’s story, and he was pushed aside for a lackluster narrative involving Elektra (Elodie Yung) and the Hand.
And to be certain, Bernthal is still tremendous in the role, wearing the pain of Castle’s past on his face as he dreams of his family every single night and struggles to move on. At a certain point Castle actually inserts himself into the lives of Micro’s (the aforementioned whistleblower) family. At first he does it as a threat to Lieberman himself, but eventually, after the two become a united duo fighting a common enemy, Castle begins seeking solace in them as some sort of surrogate family. He is determined to reunite a family ripped apart by tragedy since he cannot reunite his own, and it’s an emotionally compelling storyline that reveals a lot about Frank Castle the human, which is an important distinction to make since we’ve already met Frank Castle the Punisher. However, the further removed Frank is from the world also inhabited by people like Matt Murdock — the further he is from being a foil for a character like Daredevil — the harder it is to remember that this is also the Punisher’s story.
This isn’t altogether terribly surprising given the nature of The Punisher, which despite existing within the same world as Netflix’s five other Marvel properties, is narratively and thematically separate. The 13-episode season, debuting Friday Nov. 17, was not originally part of the programming slate that initially made up the interconnected Netflix extension of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while it does all the right things in terms of grounding Castle’s story and taking the plight of veterans seriously, it suffers simply by its outsider nature.
And Frank isn’t only an outsider because of his grounded backstory and experiences, or because he’s not superpowered, or because he’s not definitively tied to New York City the way the other heroes are. Frank Castle is also an outsider because the Punisher as a character is built to be a lone wolf, but The Punisher as a narrative never quite reconciled that intent with the fact that the character now had to fit into an exacting streaming franchise with defined team. Even Jessica Jones will begrudgingly get involved in superhero nonsense, helping people who can’t help themselves and the whole nine yards. But Castle is still at a point in the first six episodes where it takes a village to drag him into his own life, he’s nowhere close to the point where he can think about doing anything more than surviving, let alone helping others. As a mini-series, perhaps this vantage would have worked for instead of against one of Marvel’s best protagonists, but taking the longview, it’s hard to see how Frank Castle could mesh seamlessly into the juggernaut of the Marvel Netflix empire.
Still, despite outsider nature of The Punisher, and despite how slowly its story starts, the series is not without merit. It fleshes out Frank Castle, highlighting his humanity instead of just his rage. As long as the second half of the season is able to balance Frank with the Punisher, there’s very little to be upset about.
Marvel’s The Punisher premieres Friday, Nov. 17 on Netflix.